Jun 29, 2023, 06:29AM

Still Flashing Leather

Major League Baseball was never dead.

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Like most people, my attention span is minuscule on a number of aspects of 21st-century life. Long grocery store lines—worse than years ago when customers didn’t unsuccessfully fiddle with credit cards—automated phone interactions with banks (fraud or incorrect penalties) or companies like Comcast, traffic jams messing up a city’s grid with the increasing number of parades for this or that “holiday,” medical appointments delayed by an hour and, most recently here in Baltimore, the “infrastructure” demolition of our street that was promised, in February, to last three days and has stretched to nearly a month. However, as an enthusiastic reader, I don’t at all mind a very long journalistic essay (called “longform” in today’s USA Today woeful shorthand—no one I know predicted that that daily’s debut in 1982, predicated on graphs, color pictures and 450-word articles, would come to define modern journalism; when even The Wall Street Journal affixes a “Reading time: four minutes” to a story, it proved to me that you’ve never “seen it all”) or 700-page novel.

However, after reading Mark Leibovich’s Atlantic July/August cover story “Moneyball Broke Baseball: But now the whiz kids who nearly ruined the national pastime have returned to save it," a wheezy, bloated, repetitive and loaded-with-cliches treatise on Major League Baseball’s rule changes that started this season, I wish the author had adhered to a time clock on his prose. (Leibovich is usually a fine writer, and I found his 2013 book This Town about Beltway journalism/political cronyism very entertaining, even though, through no fault of his, it’s now fatally dated.)

One of the problems with this interminable Atlantic story is—like one of those terrible Elizabeth Drew “Letter From Washington” essays in the pre-Tina Brown New Yorker—it’s now the end of June but the information and interviews stop in mid-May, and, unlike Leibovich’s book mentioned above, there’s nothing new revealed about MLB’s time clocks, the ban of defensive shifts and penalties for batters primping before finally getting into the box to hit. Perhaps Leibovich, a Red Sox fan who says until this year his interest in the baseball season had waned (he’s 58, and says he watched Sox games religiously in his 30s), just had to get it out of his system. For example, he begins with an inconsequential anecdote about the San Diego Padres’ Juan Soto, and his hero-worship of Theo Epstein is embarrassing. (I like Epstein too: as the architect of the Red Sox’s 2004 World Series win, he’ll, like Tito Francona, David Ortiz, Jason Varitek, Keith Foulke, Pedro Martinez, etc., will, as is often said, never have to buy his own drinks at a Boston bar. It doesn’t matter that those stars could buy most bars three times over.)

The baseball season has reached its midway point: the Red Sox are a so-so team (better than last year, a shadow of 2018 and 2021) but unless there’s a pressing obligation, I still watch every game—even if I switch to a re-run of Inspector Morse or Silk in the sixth inning if the Sox are getting blown out—just as I have for 20 years when I discovered the valuable, and cheap, MLB Extra Innings package that gives a consumer access to almost every game. Unless, as is becoming more common, a game is broadcast on Apple+ or Peacock. My lifelong enjoyment of baseball has never wavered; even when the Sox are out of playoff contention, I still twitch and suffer toothaches when they play the Yankees.

I won’t bore you with all the instances of sportswriters (or political columnists masquerading as such) declaring that the “national pastime is over” but it numbers in the hundreds. People forget that in the midst of the “national pastime” the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to California not only because the owner was a visionary (after rebuffed by Robert Moses to build a new stadium in downtown Brooklyn) but also the attendance at Ebbets Field had dwindled, or that in 1961, when Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s home run record, there were just 23,154 spectators at the original Yankee Stadium.

I’m not even sure what the “national pastime” is today—perhaps politics, texting, super-hero movies or very stupid TV?—but if exists it’s not baseball or any other sport, since so many Americans never could pick out Ted Williams, Aaron Judge, Paul Hornung, Bob Cousy, Wayne Gretzky, or Shohei Ohtani out of a police lineup. It was a saying made up in the latter part of the 19th century as a promotional tool for the game, implying it was good, clean fun for the family.

Anyway, I did get a kick reading this Leibovich “humble brag”: “I’ve interviewed presidents, Nobel laureates, and all flavors of tycoon and luminary over the years and never felt intimidated. But put me in front of a partially dressed man-child in pajama pants who can hit a baseball and I’m suddenly reduced to a puddle at his feet.” Very Important Journalist, take stock!

There’s so much money sloshing around the game of baseball—far, far more than “national pastime” days; remember that George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees for $10 million in 1973—today, and attendance (depending on a team’s fortunes) is robust, so I’m not sure if the sport has been “saved” by the rules changes. Younger would-be fans who’ve other diversions now aren’t likely to begin watching baseball because the games are 45 minutes shorter; it’s the older demographic that is pleased. If MLB really does want to attract kids and young adults to the ballparks or TV, they’ll need a more revolutionary idea. When I spoke to my 28-year-old son Booker last night—a Red Sox fan who also believes in Billy Beane and sabermetrics—he suggested that that “revolutionary idea” is already here: all the gambling sites associated with baseball and other sports, which, apparently, has grabbed, especially, younger men.

—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023


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