Gimme That Ole Time Religion
When we were kids too long ago, we often came to the game of baseball through the morning paper, scanning the box scores to see whether our team had won and which of our heroes had done the deed. Doris Kearns Goodwin book, Wait Until Next Year, captures that ethos remarkably well as she tells the story of a young girl on Long Island who grew up a Dodger fan following her team religiously every morning in the paper-a religion we appear to be losing as surely as the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Losing our daily news paper is only one side of the story. They provided a depth of coverage for baseball fans that we are certainly not getting elsewhere. But it is what is replacing it that concerns me, something with a perniciously manufactured taste, chemicals where there was once genuine flavor.
Back when I got religion, we came to recognize the familiar names not just because they were always at the top of the home run and batting average listings. Our heroes won the games. We had a team and we knew all of their names because they all made contributions to the winning. Whether it was Wally Moon or Stan Musial we knew their story. There were so many fine players at whom to marvel. One could only shake one’s head in wonder as they somehow managed to pull out another win. Lindy McDaniel meant far more to me than Whitey Ford.
I cannot imagine how young fans approach the game today. Certainly far fewer scan the morning paper for the box scores from the night before. They may catch them online, but I worry that too many fans allow the major media outlets to serve the game up to them, to brand the game with a corporate logo that obliterates all that I once loved. And the one corporate logo more and more commonly applied to the game is MLB, Inc.
Baseball is becoming more a corporate entity these days and less a set of box scores and statistics that I learned as a kid. It is an approach that lessens the game because it robs it of its individuality. Some of the best stories in the game belong to the more marginal of the players. There are Bobo Newsomes in today’s game, but we are too busy listening to the corporate noise to hear about them.
For example, from my perspective, there is little doubt that the best bat in the Nationals lineup this season has been Ian Desmond. Desmond leads the team in home runs–16, and his remarkable aggregation of extra-base hits–42, leads the National League most days. But if you were to talk to many fans, they would quickly point out that his .282 batting average is one point below that of Bryce Harper’s. And if you attend a Nationals game today you will find that Bryce Harper’s name draws the most applause and it is not even close.
If you are a fan who follows today’s game through the major media outlets and MLB, Inc. you believe Bryce Harper is the face of the Nationals, well along with Stephen Strasburg of course. But if you are an every day Nationals fan who follows the team closely, reads the box scores, watches the statistical curve as it bends across the season, Harper is an also ran. Desmond is the one who hit the home run off Matt Cain to bring the team back from the dead to win that game. His clutch performances have had far more to do with the team’s status atop the National League than Harper’s.
Yes, Stephen Strasburg has had a fine first half, but there are so many players on the team who are equally responsible for their status as the best team in the National League. Adam LaRoche has had a fine season, and the pitching staff is filled with heroes, none deserving mention more than Gio Gonzalez. I think if you were reading the box scores every day the way I once did you would know that.
I mean no disrespect for either Bryce Harper or Stephen Strasburg. They are phenomenal talents. The 19-year old outfielder plays the game hard and has a bright future regardless whether his stardom comes tomorrow or the next day. But he is not the best player in the Nationals lineup and is really not even close. Look up the stats. Yes he leads the team in batting average, but by the end of the season Harper will likely be eclipsed not only by Desmond, but by Zimmerman, Morse and LaRoche in many categories.
It is as if a team that included Furillo, Snider, Campanella, Reese and Hodges, had been collapsed into the story of Jackie Robinson. Sure, Jackie Robinson made history and is the most famous of the old Brooklyn Dodgers. His courage is legend. But Don Newcombe? We should forget Don Newcombe and Sal “the Barber” Maglie? They were as much part of the Dodger story when it was written, and more important to the winning of the 1955 World Series than Robinson. For Dodger fans that is the real story line: finally beating the Damn Yankees.
The problem is we do not make our own judgments about the game the way we once did. We do not judge our heroes because their numbers have risen to the top and stayed there. No, too much we are drawn to them by the TV analysts who flip from game to game like nervous teens with a push button radio. Why analyze the game on your own when you have hyperactives who can package the game for the 15-second attention span they believe is the best you can muster.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson said earlier this season that it takes 25 baseball players to win consistently. He makes the point that baseball is a team sport. Now there is a perspective that almost no one is selling these days. Can you put a corporate logo on that? But for the Washington Nationals to stand atop the National League with the best record of any other team, they have needed the contributions of Danny Espinosa and Jordan Zimmerman as much as anyone else.
So am I just some aging curmudgeon railing against the passing of time? You bet your sweet ass I am. And everyone is welcome to believe that baseball is played by a set of uber individuals selected as much for their marketing appeal as their ability to win games here and now. When Harper hits a game winner, I cheer as loud as the next person. But I know the difference between a rookie who is still probably a few years away from leading this team to a pennant and the ones who are doing it this year.
So punch his number into whatever MLB, Inc electronic system you can that allows you to send Bryce to the All-Star Game. Punch it in early and often. At least you are engaged in the game in some way. But he really doesn’t deserve it. By the numbers there are a dozen players having better years and whose career numbers are better as well.
But who’s counting the numbers anyway? They are too busy counting the money, of that I am certain. MLB, Inc.?? No, give me FanGraphs, SABR and Seamheads.com any day. That old time religion, it is still good enough for me.