America’s love affair with baseball is not absolute. Consider, for example, that its college game gets barely a fraction of the attention so hugely lavished on football, basketball, even hockey (where it’s waged).
Yet in the end, despite that substantial promotional deficit, more people in this country this year will pay more money to watch more baseball being played than all the other games combined. As plodding, pastoral, scandalized, even flawed as it may be, dear old baseball bears on. Can you imagine interest in an NFL football team persisting the length of a 162-game schedule every year? I can’t.
It is baseball’s deep roots in the American mythology that has sustained its unique stature. The genius of this game has always been its ability to transform the mundane into the mystical, again and again every generation, creating the legendary out of mere memory.
No amount of bumbling or even crookedness has fouled up this near- sanctified process, at least so far. Baseball has survived all the scandal, institutional racism, the tyranny of the monopoly, outright greed, wars, booze, rebellion, expansion, the Yankees, and idiocy of leadership. Which is why I’d bet the ranch, Bunky, that it will survive performance enhancement drugs like steroids, too.
The bonds of baseball are binding in the culture. Or, as the philosopher Jacques Barzun famously wheezed about a half century ago, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn Baseball.” Nor was the very distinguished Dr. Barzun, to the best of my knowledge, even a fan. Baseball is not so much a game as a state of mind.
All of this might explain why older devotees of this heartfelt game know and care much more about what happened 50 years ago than what happened last season. But I’m not going to be dumb enough to argue that this blissful state (at least for baseball) is everlasting. For it may also explain why younger fans are more interested in football and basketball and all the games social media play than baseball. America is changing in ways not even guys as smart as Jacques Barzun could have possibly foreseen.
Can I imagine the American public one day running out of patience with a 162-game annual professional baseball schedule? The answer is “yes.”
What bestirred all these vague and idle musings is the World Baseball Classic (WBC), now rumbling to a somewhat indifferent conclusion; indifferent, that is, if you are a citizen and baseball fan of the USA. But if you come from an under-privileged third- world Caribbean nation hovering deep in Goliath’s shadow and regard a mere baseball tournament as a golden opportunity to rattle Goliath’s chain, it is quite another matter. Politics undergirds the WBC; at best, a mixed blessing.
Yet, in theory, the WBC is a terrific idea. International proliferation has been the American game’s lofty goal since early in the last century.
In the Thirties, Connie Mack and John J. McGraw took fabulous MLB all-star teams to Japan for a succession of happy festivals aimed at exporting our favorite game even as that nation’s warlords were weaving the military master-plan that would culminate in Pearl Harbor. If they weren’t crazy about us they sure loved Ruth and Gehrig, Foxx and Grove, et al. Everybody who was anybody in baseball was delighted to be part of the effort to evangelize the Japanese, although it’s important to note those barnstorming extravaganzas took place after the regular American baseball season, not before it.
After the war, the international movement took a major hit when colorful Mexican impresarios seeking to set up a rival league south of the border raided MLB for choice talent and got smacked down for their temerity. It was all in good fun and perfectly reasonable when you consider the despotism of the American baseball owners who, so nicely empowered by the reserve clause, were able to keep their players in virtual bondage.
There was enough talent withering on the vines of our then vast minor league network to float fine leagues in a dozen countries. But to the lordly MLB moguls that was not the point. Their righteous wrath was terrible and swift. The Mexican movement in all of its fetchingly musical flair was ruthlessly crushed. The defectors were harshly penalized. Mexico remains resentful. There would be little more talk of globalizing baseball for another 30 years.
And then they began to come to us. First it was from Cuba and Puerto Rico and then from all over Latin America until, by the turn of the millennium, choice baseball talent was flowing to the American major leagues from the farthest corners of the world, most notably Asia, to the point where today an MLB roster without players from faraway places is unthinkable. We did not globalize the game. The game globalized itself.
It was on this reality that the World Baseball Classic was conceived. The thinking was sound. Like every commissioner since Bowie Kuhn, Bud Selig has been ardent in his promotion of the international game. As for the owners, they’ve always been warm to the idea, sniffing potential profit that could even become vast. But few have backed it up with solid support and, increasingly, most allow their players to participate only with the greatest reluctance while scrounging for excuses to keep them from doing so.
In short, the entire business has been half-hearted in this country. But everywhere else – among the involved – it has been quite another matter, making the evolving results both inevitable and logical. We don’t really care. They do. We lose, they win! Simple enough; reasonable, too!
For the third time, the US team didn’t come close and for the second time, it didn’t even make the semi-finals. Wouldn’t you agree that a lineup that parades Ryan Braun, Adam Jones, Giancarlo Stanton, Joe Mauer, Eric Hosmer, Jimmy Rollins, Brandon Philips, Ben Zobrist, and our own $40 million man, Shane Victorino, might be as good as any in the major leagues and would be odds-on favorites to go all the way? There are three ex-MVPs in that lineup. But, you ask, what about the pitching? Well, for openers the staff was anchored by a sitting Cy Young awardee backed by a star of last fall’s World Series.
Admittedly, the manager was week. Those who watched closely say Joe Torre did a lame job. But then Torre, now well into his 70’s, lost his edge near 10 years ago, well before the Yankees finally woke up and canned him. But it’s wrong to blame Torre. He took on the task because no one else both available and of necessary stature was willing. The first pick was Tony LaRussa. But Tony – a very smart guy – turned it down. Thanks, Tony. As we were saying, the American effort is half-hearted and such attitudes don’t win, chum.
In their elimination game, a 4-3 loss to an aroused Puerto Rico squad in what all describe as a corker of tilt, the mighty Yanks were humbled by a certain Nelson Figueroa, a journeyman hurler exiled from the majors two years ago. The win was saved by J.C Romero, a journeyman reliever still looking for a job this season.
Hey, it’s baseball, you say, ever wonderfully and wildly unpredictable. The Netherlands eliminated Cuba in a more shocking upset. That’s baseball’s glory. Upstarts prevail far more often than in other games. True! But one suspects the explanation, in this case, runs deeper. Baseball is personal. We just don’t identify with the World Baseball Classic. It is not our thing.
So it will be the Dominican Republic, Japan, Puerto Rico, and Netherlands in the showdown for what they can arguably claim is world supremacy in the precious game we invented, perfected, and so long believed, in our vanity, that we entirely and exclusively owned.
The final rounds are beginning as this is written and so you know who won but I already know who lost. We did! And the fact that few of us noticed, let alone gave a hoot, doesn’t diminish that.