Baseball has always shined in nation's toughest times

In ancient times, the baseball off-season was a yawning, aching void; a prolonged and dreary hibernation occasionally spiced with summer dreams. In today’s brave new baseball world it is legitimate to ask whether — in terms of drama, competitive fury, and nasty give and take — the regular season can be as interesting as the off-season?’ Are pennants won in December? We are about to find out.

This latest off-season edition ran from All Saints Day to Palm Sunday, stretched needlessly by the entirely ill-advised and over-stated World Baseball Classic with rarely a day lacking in hot-button issues brimming over. The Grapefruit League sweepstakes lasted almost two months. How many dandies left their best game in Sarasota or Palm Beach let alone in some meaningless exhibition with the Koreans? That is another question.

We had the Perils of A-Rod, the Yankees’ Christmas spending spree, the Red Sox failed Teixeira flirtations, Joe Torre’s book, A-Rod’s outing, Selena Roberts’ book, A-Rod’s confessions, Joe Torre’s book tour, more Japanese supremacy in the American pastime, the Bud Selig debates, much ado about the Dominican cousin, the Hall of Fame debates, the further adventures of Manny Ramirez, the unveiling of the twin baseball Taj Mahals of the Bronx and Queens amidst the requisite controversy, the latest Larry Lucchino ‘evil empire’ tantrum, the decline of the players union. How can a three game series with the Washington Nationals or Seattle Mariners compare with any of that?

All of which should presage either one of the more uproarious seasons in baseball history or an inglorious letdown. Or so might be the case under ordinary circumstances. But there’s no such thing as ‘ordinary circumstances’ in anno domini 2009. And there’s the rub.

Actually, baseball has done well in hard times historically. Not many businesses were steadier during the Great Depression when the minor leagues were deep and widespread and stacked. Lads got paid what might seem pauper’s wages now but they were five to ten times what they might have commanded in ‘the real world’ assuming they had the rare luck to find a job in a general economy with 35 percent of its work force on the beach.

Moreover, there was a wonderful national network of business, trade, industrial and town team leagues —semi-pro baseball — where working stiffs could supplement meager paychecks with important dough. My dear late dad, the estimable Ace Booth, a stylish first baseman out of Squantum, was still smiling 15 years later when he recalled how he got a $10 a week raise for jumping Filenes to play for Jordan Marsh. Scandalous! 

During the War, when the game bore on in the interest of national morale, the owners made more money than they made in the Depression while most of the old-timers and draft ineligibles who glutted big league rosters made far more than they would have in the defense plants. And thanks to FDR, with his ‘bear on Boys’ mandate, they were made to seem like patriots to boot.

In those early to mid-20th century economic downswings, baseball, along with the movie industry, invariably thrived. The notion that in hard times the great-unwashed public yearns for such escapes became the governing rationale. But then we’re talking about times when a general admission baseball ticket cost a quarter and you could get into a movie for a dime. Maybe the hundred or so bucks such amusements might cost you now isn’t that much more when you factor two thirds of a century of soaring wages, mushrooming disposable income, and hyper inflation. But the psychology of the thing is a whole lot different. This is not 1933 revisited. 

As best dramatized by the ludicrous extremes. In 1965, which was only yesterday, reserved grandstand seats at Yankee Stadium cost $2.50 and those up-close box seats, some of which they are pricing at $2,650 at the new palace, cost $3.50. Not that the wretched excess is confined to the Bronx although it is so comforting for the cheeky denizens of Red Sox Nation to think so. For the price of just one game viewed from the top of the Fenway Park leftfield wall for mom, dad and no more than one kid (not including the beer, junk food, parking, programs, ad nauseum) you could have had a season ticket for the entire regular and post-season in that epic year, 1975.  Where wretched excess is concerned, the Red Sox and Yankees are brothers under the skin.

This is totally uncharted territory for baseball. There are no valid comparisons. The great question of the ‘09 season is not about who ultimately wins or bombs or excels or fails or leads the leagues in this or that. Rather it is about whether they all survive and how well and how grave is the impact of an economy gone sour and a customer base shriveled by obligatory prudence veering on sheer, abject, and unmitigated fear, as FDR himself might have termed it. Thus baseball becomes an economic indicator, much like the jobless rate or the Dow Jones. Attendance figures will be studied as closely as batting averages. It should be mighty interesting.

As for the traditional factors — you know, the ones about who wins or loses and all that relatively mundane stuff — our cup of burning questions runneth over.

Will the Yankees reap the benefits of their runaway spending? Will the Red Sox pay a price for not patching aging gaps in their offense? Will Manny, driven by new contract incentives, burn up the NL? Will all that undeservedly feather Joe Torre’s nest? Are the Phils a one-year phenom? Will it be 101 years and counting for the Cubbies? Are the Rays for real? Is the Angels run done? Quo Vadis A-Rod? Will the WBC cost Daisuke the Cy Young?  Will A-Rod keep his mouth shut and lower his profile? Will the Royals Zack Greinke win the Cy; the Yanks’ Mark Teixeira the MVP? Will the Royals rise from the ashes? Will some team (Jays, Tigers, Padres, Astro’s, Nationals) go bankrupt? Will the Mets flop classically again? If the Yankees blow it will A-Rod get blamed? Will the Red Sox finish second and be life or death for the playoffs? Will the other 103 names on that 2004 steroid test list be revealed? Will there be still another, steroid-related blockbuster? Are hard times ahead for Czar Selig, the $18 million a year, do-nothing, commissioner? Is the Players Union, as we have known it, in trouble?

The answer to all the questions is ‘Yes’ —save for those about the inscrutable A-Rod, which are appropriately unanswerable. Hence the dear boy’s dubious charm. Yet another question might be, “Is there life for the Manhattan tabloids after A-Rod.” To which the answer would be, ‘uncertain’.

Clearly that’s enough to keep us amused in the forthcoming campaign which proceeds merrily from the blocks this week with all teams being equal for about two weeks. Heaviest attention is on the AL East where, some maintain, the three best teams in all of baseball reside. They’re saying it’s how the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays deal with one another that will decide who wins this race and ultimately the whole enchilada. Many believe all three could win 94 or more games with one of them — incredibly — missing the playoffs. That’s the conventional wisdom and it’s widespread.

Which is, as ever, a good reason to be skeptical and look elsewhere. I have the hunch that one of them will fail and another will be better than expected and that the race in the AL East will not be as grueling as predicted. Always remember that you must never trust the ‘conventional wisdom’.

For sure, fine story lines abound but the best remains the one that has nothing to do with what happens on the field or who wins or loses, etc. Can baseball, a never-never land existing in a rarefied bubble that defies all laws and logic having to do with economics, finance, even basic reality, for that matter, simply shrug off forces that have shaken the entire global order?

If the answer is ‘Yes’, it is one helluva story. We shall hold our breath.

Play Ball!