Monday, March 20, 2006

Another essay inspired by the sun

As I wrote earlier, my vacation in Florida, which ended yesterday, with my return to 30 degree weather and building a wood fire, allowed me some time to write for the pure enjoyment of writing. This time away from the hustle-bustle of life allowed me to work on some ideas, such as this one that takes the form of an essay about baseball and my current view of the national pastime.

Why Baseball No Longer Captivates Me

Baseball at one time was America’s game—its national pastime. Whether that is still the case, is a matter for debate. In my opinion, it no longer is and hasn’t been for some time. Still, baseball has the capacity to capture the imagination of Americans, even if it is merely as a nostalgic nod to a prior time, a period which seemed rosier and simpler than today.

Back before steroid scandals and tell-all books, bent on destroying the mystique of its heroes, baseball players and athletes in general were held in higher esteem. Rather than measuring the arc of one’s popularity by face time on ESPN, or some other media device, designed to falsely trumpet inferior stats and ability, having your visage featured on the cover of a Wheaties box was a pretty good yardstick of whether you’d arrived, or not.

The pastoral pace of baseball makes it a game that seems out-of-sync with our five-second segues and sound bite culture that assaults our senses and robs us of our introspection. Because of this, baseball’s timelessness and wealth of history work against it. The grand ole’ game, rudderless in the hands of its current crop of droll white men, lists from side-to-side, an anachronism, stubbornly struggling to stay afloat.

When I wrote my book last year, on town team baseball, my goal was to capture the game that I grew up with, as well as trying to place it in the context of a particular time. While When Towns Had Teams squarely resides in Maine, within a particular patch of time, based on my own personal reference point, I attempted to infer something about baseball and by extension, society. Even though my focus was on a major American sport, I think certain inferences carry over into other areas as well—music, literature, to name but two—with the intimation being, however subtle that sports and other aspects of culture, occupied a more noble and even important place, prior to becoming just another entertainment product to market and sell, in these hyper-capitalist times.

Whatever arguments are posited against television (and there are many to latch onto), one of the most basic is the way that television has changed our perceptions of sports, of which baseball is but one. When baseball was first televised, the period was the 1950s and unlike baseball, this medium was in its infancy. Programmers were hungry to get their hands on any opportunity to fill time slots. Baseball, with its leisurely pace and place in America’s national consciousness, was a perfect partner for the idiot box. As marketing grew more sophisticated and advertisers began to recognize the goldmine that television represented, advertising became more ubiquitous. However, in baseball’s earliest days of being televised, advertising wasn’t as important. Since baseball and beer had been partners for years, with the cry of “cold beer” being as central to baseball as “play ball,” beer companies gladly jumped onboard and lent their names, as well as advertising dollars towards making this venture a success.

It might be hard for anyone younger than 40 to remember the grainy telecasts of major league baseball, viewed on an old black and white television, but that’s what baseball broadcasting consisted of during the 1950s, 1960s and even into the 1970s, as broadcasts were relatively unsophisticated affairs. When NBC began televising the game of the week, with Curt Gowdy, television executives had come to recognize the opportunity for financial exploitation, represented by the national game.

As free agency took over the game in the 1980s, baseball players went from being matinee idols and role models, to petulant entertainers, well-publicized, but more importantly, well-compensated. No longer did a major league player, particularly of the journeyman type, have to stock supermarket shelves, or sell sporting goods in the off-season to feed his family. The modern player was more likely to be attired in an Armani suit, driving a Mercedes, than he was to be milking cows on the family farm. With the influence of money, a certain partition was erected between fans and the players, the sporting equivalent of the walls that wealthy residents with beachfront properties erect, to keep out the hoi polloi.

The argument could certainly be made that baseball owners were never known for their scruples and largesse toward the players who made it possible for them to profit from owning a team. For every owner, like the fun-loving and lovable-loser, Bill Veeck, who cultivated fun and kept baseball in its proper place—as a game to appreciated, rather than an investment strategy or something to round out a financial portfolio, there were always the Charles Comiskeys, tight-fisted and prone to push their players to resort to finding other means to benefit from their baseball talents. Today, we have George Steinbrenner, an egotistical, pompous windbag, whom sports fans tolerate merely because of his inflated bankroll. The current commissioner of baseball, Bud Selig, is merely a figurehead, put in place by powerful owners, who continue to run roughshod over the game, extracting profit at the expense of the game’s purity.

For the pure at heart, baseball now is merely over-hyped and overpriced. Gone are the days when a working-class father could take his sons (and daughters) to a ballgame without taking out a small home improvement loan. With tickets out of range for many, not to mention the parking, programs and the inflated price of the clichéd hot dog, most American families are lucky to get to a game at a major league ballpark. Apparently, the steep price of tickets hasn’t harmed attendance, as major league baseball continues to see these figures increase every year. However, young boys (and young girls) no longer grow up, keeping score in their bedrooms, with the game on the radio. Baseball is no longer the central focus of their endless summers of youth. There are many more reasons for this than merely inflated ticket prices. Still, baseball has become unmoored and adrift as a cultural reference point, in the 21st century.

Maybe that’s why for me and others like me, who allowed baseball to occupy a sacred place in our lives, our interest in the sport is at its lowest ebb. Other than my current interest in following my son’s college baseball team, my need to immerse myself in baseball each summer has dissipated. I don’t care to religiously scan box scores, as I once did, or watch the Red Sox on television. If this makes me cranky and cynical, then so be it. The present day masters of the game don’t care whether I squirrel away my time with their team, or not. Their too busy wooing corporate carpet-baggers and other well-heeled, types, to care about us regular fans that grew up loving this special game.

Maybe that’s why minor league baseball has become so popular. With affordable ticket prices, players who are approachable and an emphasis on the younger fan, this brand of baseball has become attractive for many families.

I’ll stick to baseball in the most local package that I can find. Semi-pro, or town team, if I can find it, I like my baseball with as little corporate packaging as possible. Hearing the crack of a wood bat, under the lights of a warm July night, is what I remember drawing me in and keeping me interested in the game for over 30 years.


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