December 18, 2018

Baseball in a Starring Role

October 31, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

There is more than a small amount of pride in being an ardent baseball fan these days. The World Series was not only a success, but it garnered wide enthusiasm for the Cardinals from fans across the country who were rooting for the team over the long seven-game contest. It is that very ability of fans to find common ground with so many teams in baseball–not just their home town club–that is returning in a way not seen in decades.

The many external dramas that have plagued the sport for the last fifty years–drugs, labor strife, and greed–have diminished it and that has meant fewer fans watching for the love of the sport itself. Yet increasing attendance figures for the game overall and excellent ratings for the post season indicate that the game is reaching new audiences. It has found an eminence not seen since the late 1050’s and early 1960’s when most would agree the Golden Age of the game was on the wane.

The great players of the Dodgers and Yankees once seemed so much larger than life. It wasn’t just DiMaggio, Mantle and Jackie Robinson. There was Carl Furrilo, Duke Snyder, and Roy Campanella–such graceful sluggers–who walked across history’s stage with equal aplomb.  It was so easy for a young kid to sit glued to the television and watch their every move, to pour over the box scores and examine the games in a whole new way.

Those box score fans grew up to be Bill James fans which is a segue to another indication of baseball’s resurgence: the huge box office success of “Moneyball.” Some would say that the movie’s main character was Brad Pitt–he was a big draw. But the main character in “Moneyball is baseball and the game is playing itself, no stunt doubles needed.

Both the movie and the book are flawed as the critics have been quick to assert. David Maranniss is correct in saying that the best thing about the 2002 Oakland A’s was not the accomplishments of Billy Beane, but rather those of Miguel Tejada, the AL MVP, and Barry Zito, the AL Cy Young winners, as well as all the other fine talent drafted and developed the old-fashioned way.

But the changes that Beane set in motion that year, so ably narrated by Michael Lewis, have taken on a life of their own and made the game richer in the doing. And that is what is different about baseball. It is the nuance of the game that feeds the abundant analysis of Bill James and belies the claim of the uninitiated that the game is “boring.”

Yes, it takes a longer attention span than death-pit simulations available from football or computer games. But we should be proud to see the complexity of baseball finding new audiences. To see so many Americans mesmerized by the inherent intellectual contest within the contest that Moneyball touts can only bode well for the sport. And it is reason why the real star of the movie is the game itself.

Tom Boswell said it extremely well this morning when he said in the Washington Post, “The Romance Is Back.” Boswell was largely documenting the appeal of the just completed victory by the Cardinals, but he also was quick to point out that the Series has been enhanced by the earlier start times for the games and the compacted schedule for the playoffs overall.  Baseball, like no other sport, has been finding ways to appeal to fans and listening to their concerns.

The lack of partisan discord between players and owners offers opportunities for wider emulation as well. The principals have learned that the game is the sum of its parts: players, owners, media and fans. They all matter and the commissioner and those who run the game have been more cognizant of that fact in recent years.

My own personal sense of pride is enhanced by what is going on here in Washington, DC. The remove of the game from the nation’s capital, both in 1960 and in 1971, was a harbingers of a wider malaise within the sport. The unfettered greed that moved teams about like chess pieces ignored the fans and soon the players themselves were shifting about in ways that left fans wondering what was really the point.

Watching the growth of enthusiasm for the game in Washington is heartening and certainly an antidote to earlier alienation. New fans have been given a chance to develop that hometown loyalty and a very localized pride in the game. Watching it take root and grow with kids here should be a required course for the Commissioner and the myopic, self-interested owners when the issue of growing the game into new markets arises in coming years.

Which brings us round to the many things that remain to be done to restore the game more fully. Attending a major league game in person is fast becoming a luxury of the 1 percent. Women remain too much at arm’s length from the game. Those are only two of the imperfections and striving to fix all of them  should not be ignored. The off-season is a great time to ruminate on those concerns as well as the coming season.

But more than anything it is a time when you appreciate the old maxim, “you don’t miss the water t’il your well runs dry.” The off-season is long, though it provides a well-deserved rest. Yet here in Washington the yearning for next season is more ardent than at the end of any October in memory.

Once it was just a few old timers wearing scruffy Senators hats to Camden yards. Now there is pride in the local team that can be seen in movie goers wearing their Nationals gear to see “Moneyball.” More than that local thing, one can take pride in the game overall as all those beaming faces emerge from theaters where the movie continues to show weeks after it debuted.

Taken together–the movies and the wonderful reality of the past month–the market indicators are very bullish for the game. It means that baseball matters again. It is playing a larger role than it has for many a year. Maybe it would be fitting for the game to garner an Academy nomination for best sport in a starring role.  I’m just saying.

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