Sunday, January 17, 2010

On The End of Baseball As Metaphor

This is not a post about Mark McGwire and steroids, because, like most of you, I don't really care enough to debate the ethical quandaries of steroid use anymore. This is a post about baseball itself, because all the anger and self-righteousness and backlash to the self-righteousness seems to skim over the real issue here, which is that baseball, having been mismanaged for the past two decades by a gang of dimwitted used car salesmen, has now succeeded in bulldozing its mythology for an entire generation.

This is the meaning of Mark McGwire, and others like him: He demystified a game whose popularity is based in a largely sentimental connection with an "America" that no longer exists. So now all that work Ken Burns put in, all those hours Doris Kearns Goodwin and George Will spent rhapsodizing about Three-Finger Brown and the American character and how the '51 Series is a metaphor for the Korean War, mean absolutely nothing anymore. Without that sentimental connection, the game itself is a diminished product. Baseball, through labor disputes and strikes and the increasingly disenchanting war between the Tri-Lambda moneyball geeks and tobacco-spitting traditionalists,* has essentially degenerated into a regional sport, and if you don't believe me, take a peep at the television ratings: A World Series between the Yankees and the Phillies, two of the media markets that still arouse strong interest, drew a 11.7, which was the highest number since 2004, but barely half of the 1990 numbers.

And I know that there are people who still draw that emotional connection with baseball--on rare occasions, during one of those interminably dramatic playoff games, when Fox deems it wise to cut to the face of every child in Yankee Stadium, I still feel it, too--and there always will be. But there will never be as many as there once were, and they will never be able to argue that baseball captures the Zeitgeist or serves as a metaphor for the American character. Football is America's pastime now--I'd argue that the greatest rivalry of the 00's, eclipsing even the emotional exceptionalism of Red Sox-Yankees, was between a pair of NFL quarterbacks--and anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional. And who can say that in two decades, a generation of kids won't feel more of a connection with soccer than they do with baseball?

The story here is not just about Mark McGwire, or the slow unfurling of the steroid era. The story here is that the only people still gullible enough to buy into the mysticism and folklore of baseball might be Bob Costas and the justices of the Supreme Court.

*As a casual fan, I have no interest in analyzing VORP, or even understanding what it means. Following baseball in the Internet age is like collecting comic books.


Jim McDevitt said...

It pains me to say it, but I agree with you that football is now America's pastime, but that has been the case for decades, I think. That said, I disagree with you that baseball has lost its mythology. It's been altered, sure, but I think the game today is still a beautiful thing. The steroid revelations aren't really revelations at this point. We all knew, or at least suspected, that these sluggers were juicing. The truth is just a formality.

What it doesn't do, at least for me, is diminish the beauty of today's game of baseball. Today's players are better than ever, and the testing tells us they're clean. And the game itself is as great as ever, boasting a level of artistry and strategy that no other sport can match.

docweasel said...

Post mining, I know, but I was googling to find out if anyone else thought Doris Kearns Goodwin was totally useless appearing in Ken Burns' "Baseball" and he only put her in there so there would periodically be a woman, however po-faced, in the thing. I was also a bit put off by the preponderance of lefties and the entire lefty slant of the thing. I get tired of hearing about all the society=baseball crap. I'd much rather have heard more inside baseball stories and a bit about the strategy and skills of the game instead of 500 comments lamenting the absence of however many minority managers would be deemed "just". An entire episode dedicated to Jackie Robinson also seemed like overkill. We get it, minorities contributed greatly to baseball, as did non-minorities, don't club us over the head with it again and again and again: Clemente, Flood, Robinson, Aaron, etc etc etc and all their tribulations. It's condescending.

Anyway, re: above, the real reason baseball is dying: it's too slow. It was well-suited to radio in it's day, it's much too slow for TV and it's not episodic as is football, suited for commercials and talking in between plays etc. Baseball is suited for taking a nap by, something I remember my grandfather, a regular if not rabid Cincinnati Reds fan doing of an afternoon. I have taken my son to several games when he was/is 5-6 years old, and first, it's hard to tell what's going on exactly, there's precious little action and if you blink you miss it, so a 5 year old can miss it easily. And he doesn't really care much. The guy hit it! Woohoo! Maybe one person on the field then moves to field the ball, and one catches it, then 10 more minutes of inactivity. No one likes to say it, but baseball is boring, and it's a game of the early 20th century, before auto racing, before passing dominated football, soccer and other exciting sports where something actually happens. When the last of the Boomer generation's fans die off, I think baseball will pretty much die off as a major sport as well. It will still stick around, but no one will care. Good riddance, the Burns' documentary with all the smug, self-satisfied baseball aficionados really put me off the sport for good. You shouldn't have to pound a sports' history so much to try to make something of it. Baseball's history is bigger than the sport itself, now, as it's best days are long, long behind it. History is all they have left. That and stats and fantasy leagues.