Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Baseball Passion

Where did the magic go?

I used to be a huge baseball fan. Beginning in about January, I used to--literally--count the days until Spring Training and Opening Day came. I was actually sad--physically sad and depressed--when the final out was made in the World Series. I read baseball books all winter to keep myself going. I had entire lineups sorted out and worked out.

During the summer, my evenings were spent by the radio (or TV, later) listening to the Reds on Radio. I have very warm, positive feelings from sitting on our front porch on a summer evening while Marty talked about his tomatoes...or in my bedroom with the radio REAL low when I listened past my bedtime. I was at Johnny Bench's Day. I relish days at Riverfront, Tiger Stadium, Wrigley, Fenway, Old Comiskey. The 1990 World Series is a treasured memory--as was seeing the Reds beat the Pirates in person in the NLCS. The summer of 1999, with its unexpected run, was a great year for me, as I listened to the games while I gave me 3-year old son his bath at night.

I'm trying. I really am. Maybe baseball should have worn a nightie to bed, but the magic is gone. I just don't feel it.

Today was the last chance I had given myself. I said, when the weather gets nice, I'll come around. Of course, it didn't used to be that way. Bad, snowy winters made me relish baseball more--not less.

I have been wondering why that is. I have been searching introspectively for what happened. Was it me? Was it baseball? Do we both share some blame? Was our passion too hot, did it burn itself out? Or did we just fail to work at it?

I'll drop the dopey romance metaphors, but they make a point. What changed?

Was it the game? I think its fair to say that the game has played a role.

Back in December, I linked this Paul Daughtery column that says you treat the ballpark like a movie. Enjoy the time there, don't make it a passion. That is increasingly how I feel...let me try to figure out why.

One reason that it is getting harder and harder to follow each baseball season is that it feels more and more like each season is, in essence, an exhibition season.

(I should define myself and say that, like most people, the word "baseball" manifests itself in the professional game. We go to Minor league games and love it. My son is starting real baseball, and it is fun. We sometimes see college games. But those are all just baseball games, and not invested with the mythology and operatic historic context of major league baseball).

Unlike other professional sports, in baseball, most teams start out the season with no chance of making post-season play. The czars of the game, in their unending desire to pull money from the pastime, have created a system where teams in smaller markets have no real chance to competing. This might be OK if it was from year to year. But fans in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and other cities have no hope of winning anytime in the forseeable future.

The cost of winning talent simply exceeds the ability of these markets to pay, and there is no reason, short of a Falstaff Owner/savior (see Mark Cuban), to think that is going to be any different. You might steal a year here and there, but in a real way, the Baseball season for teams in small markets is a 162 game exhibition season.

Even Oakland's vaunted Moneyball approach has gotten them no serious championship run, and time will tell whether there truly was a new approach, or whether the A's just drew an inside straight with Mulder, Zito and Hudson.

I understand there are no unmitigated goods or evils, and that salary caps have their own downsides. Having said that, why can Minnesota content in the NFL? Why can the Tennessee (Nashville) Titans contend? What about the Kansas City Chiefs? The Indianapolis Colts? The Pittsburgh Steelers?

The salary cap system makes the system real, and creates the conditions for rapid turnarounds. It narrows the overall talent band, and creates parity, and with parity is some level of entertainment.

There's another thing football has that would help small-market baseball teams. That would be the end of the long-term contract. Let's not fool ourselves, long-term talent projection is hard, and some people might be better at it than others, but no one is very good at it and a lot of it is luck.

Problem is, a small-market team with a $60 million payroll makes a mistake on a long-term deal (Ken Griffey Jr, for example, or Bobby Higginson), and it is very difficult to take the remainder of their capital and turn it into a winning team. If the Yankees or the Red Sox or Cubs do the same thing, they have a better chance of absorbing the hit and moving on.

In the NFL, you'd just cut a guy like that, and take the dough and go looking for three new guys. Or, use it as leverage to extract a smaller deal. Either way, if baseball had it, it would even the playing field.

So, Opening Day is less than a week away, and I am only curious. I have no level of anticipation. Every empirical point says the Reds will be lucky to be .500, and that's not much to anticipate.

What else could it be--on baseball's side?

Steroids, you might say. Certainly, this winter's news, and the debacle over steroids before the US Congress have left a sour taste in my mouth. That can't be the whole thing, because all the strikes left a sour taste in my mouth, and I spit it out and went back to going overboard. It might contribute, but its not the whole thing.

How about the players? Candidly, whether they make money or not doesn't effect my enjoyment of the game. There are players I like (Sean Casey), but I do think I have less emotional attachment to the players now.

As the young people say, somewhere along the line, the game jumped the shark. Somewhere along the line, owners, players and commissioners began to act as if things that matter didn't matter.

It matters that the game has integrity on the field, but Don Fehr thinks its more important to defend the constitutional principles.

It matters that the "Championship Season" be a true measure of skill and that teams with a major league franchise be in the same league (metaphorically) as everyone else. To the players and owners alike, this is an abstraction behind the reality of playing the season through and having each team adjust its expenses to meet its revenues. It is an abstraction behind the reality where each player views the game as a series of transactions—deposits and withdrawals to be balanced.

It matters that baseball is not professional wrestling. It matters that it’s closer than it should be.

It matters that the magic and myth live on in its ballparks, but to the owners and players what matters is getting through the day in the black....prose has replaced poetry.

It matters that ballparks were cathedrals to our passion--for baseball, for architecture, for our cities. Today, they are Downtown Disney replicas built to reassure crowds, not inspire them.

It matters that the people who communicate the game have an appreciation and love for it. Today, sports broadcasting is an assignment, and at newspapers it is apparently not a coveted one. No one invests TV coverage with the sepia tone of history like the NBC game of the week used to.

Baseball is not a game of constant stimulation. Baseball asks the fans to fill in the blanks…with the narrative of the unfolding game, with the tension of a pitcher-batter battle, with the hope of a rookie making his first start, and with the intensity of a team playing for a title.

Problem is, baseball isn’t giving us very much to fill in the gaps with. Exhibition seasons, players that range from uninteresting to offensive, it is as if the baseball leaders have decided that it doesn’t matter what happens on the field. These intangible things—that can’t be created by marketing departments or ballpark architects, these intangible things that can’t be created at all, these things are gone from the game.

Have I changed? I’m not in my 20s anymore. If life isn’t hard, it’s harder. There are more responsibilities, less time, less energy.

Baseball is a game of relaxed passion, and I have a harder time relaxing than I used to. Its more crowded up there, and the temptation to think about other things is strong. And baseball is not putting up much of a fight.

Sometime after I arrive at the ballpark, I feel the needle slip off the record, and I become distracted. The game becomes a TV show that’s on while I am doing something else. Far from being sucked in, I am estranged. Am I…bored?

Those evenings with the radio are, to coin a phrase, long gone. It is rare that I can capture a game in the 1st inning, and baseball is a narrative game. Its parts add up. They are not discrete. For me, at least, it is not possible to pick the game up in the middle and sustain interest when you don’t know if the pitcher struggled with a lot of 3-2 counts in the first inning.

Maybe I expect too much. Or maybe my senses have been dulled by expecting too little from everything else.

The conclusion? Yes, I have changed, and my life has changed. But so has the game. And in the middle, somewhere, those two reached some critical mass.

I still watch. I still read. I still listen. But I can’t seem to care.

I feel a little bit like a disillusioned Charlie Brown looking for the meaning of Christmas, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. On one hand, isn’t this whole thing a little self-indulgent? Isn’t change and loss part of becoming an adult? Should I just grow up?

Or should I remember that Charlie Brown wouldn’t have found the meaning of Christmas if he hadn’t understood that it was lost in the first place? After all, the myth exists in the audience, not the play. Did baseball embody my dreams because I had dreams? Did baseball amplify time because I had time to fill? Did I engage the game actively because I had the intense desire to engage and understand and dissect those things I met? Did baseball look good when I was hopeful and bad when I became more cynical?

Is the whole thing nothing but a cruel mirror?


Anonymous said...

Hey excellent work! It's nice to know that sports fans and their lives don't exist in a vaccum. This is really touching stuff. I hope you are able to regain, rekindle or pass on the passion that once existed. By the way, I commented on this article at www.tigerblog.com if you want to see my perspective. Thanks again Steve

Anonymous said...

That is www.tigerblog.net, sorry

Anonymous said...

I think you hit the nail on the head when you suggest you grew up. I relate to most of what you wrote, and it reminds me of when I lost my youthful exuberance. I can pinpoint to the day it happened. It wasn't the '94 strike, as some might guess I bounced back from that ugliness pretty quickly. It was 1999. The Reds loss in the one-game playoff was heartbreaking, but that didn't do it. I was eager to see the Mets--a team I like--beat the hated Braves in the NLCS. I just can't stand any of that chop/chant stuff, and having called themselves "America's Team", homer announcers on TBS--yuck. Well, if I didn't have an ulcer before that series started, I had one by the end, with seemingly every game going into extra innings, or at least feeling like it. When the Mets' Kenny Rogers walked in the series-winning run I was utterly devastated.

MLB has done plenty over the years to irritate me. It mostly has to do with money. Problems with MLB have been well documented pretty much all over the place. But in the years leading up to '99, I mostly shrugged things off. After all, I still had youthful exuberance. Something about that crushing defeat tipped the scales. All the irritations that hadn't sunk in finally took root. It was as if the bitterness I felt over the loss just lingered on. Even into the next season.

The 2000 Subway Series should have been kind of a dream come true, as world series match-ups go, but I lacked the enthusiasm I thought I should feel. Interleague games were partly to blame. The novelty of these two teams playing each other was long gone. The Mets lost in five, and I was not crushed. I was not bitter. It barely bothered me. And that's the problem. It bothered me that it didn't bother me. I recognized that I'd lost it: the youthful part.

It doesn't help that the Reds went through the dreaded Bob Boone era, brief though it was. It became bother stacked upon bother. The financial disparity in the game magnified. The irritations emphasized. Oh well. It's like "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers", I guess. The loss of youth was bound to happen sooner or later. I mean I am past 40 after all.

Oh, I can still get crazy excited about a MLB game here or a MLB series there. I loved the Red Sox post season adventures last year. I got all giddy and childlike over the ALCS long before Damon hit his second game 7 homerun. It was great. But it was more along the lines of enjoying the moment, and those kinds of lost-in-youthful-pleasure moments are more rare. It saddens me to recognize this, so I try to savor the moments more.

I don't know where this is going, but your writing sparked something I recognized in myself in a way. I was excited about spring training starting, but that had as much or more to do with wanting the warm sun on my face, flowers blooming and birds singing as it does wanting to hear the crack of the bat and a ball slapping leather. Now Opening Day is right around the corner. I'm excited about it. I'll watch the Reds opener on tv, and savor the moment. I do love the game of baseball after all.

--Nap Ahoy