GENE LYONS: Baseball isn't dying, it's thriving
For readers who skip the sports page, an update: There are no New York teams in the MLB playoffs this season. The Mets were dreadful right out of spring training, while the Yankees’ high-salaried lineup succumbed to age and injury.
Prominent was tabloid bad boy A-Rod, Alex Rodriguez, the handsome third baseman whose well-publicized woes keep him in a dead heat with Miley Cyrus for the title of America’s Most Tedious Celebrity.
How long before they’re photographed leaving a nightclub together?
But I digress. With no New York teams in the running, it follows that tout le monde has wearied of baseball. That’s a French phrase signifying “everybody who matters.”
Not you, Pittsburgh. Oakland? Fuggedaboutit.
It was therefore inevitable that the lordly New York Times would greet the playoffs with a mighty ho-hum in the form of an essay by Jonathan Mahler titled “Is the Game Over?” Because the Super Bowl gets much higher TV ratings than the World Series, all the luster is supposedly gone from the game once called “America’s Pastime.” Oddly, Mahler’s main journalistic credential is “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning,” his book about the serial killer “Son of Sam,” the 1977 Yankees of Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson fame, and owner George Steinbrenner — the Donald Trump of his time.
Anyway, never mind, as Mahler concedes, that baseball has achieved the competitive balance and overall financial success it never enjoyed during its “golden age,” i.e., when he and I were small boys. There have been seven different World Series champions in the past 10 years, only one of them the Yankees. By every objective measure except national TV ratings, the game’s thriving.
Today he thinks NFL football has all the advantages. “Teams play only once a week, and when the postseason arrives, every game is an elimination game,” Mahler writes. “But its real advantage is that it’s louder, faster and more violent — which is to say, better in tune with our cultural moment.”
It’s an advantage to play only once a week? That’s just one reason I’ve always regarded the NFL as a colossal bore. Sure, the Super Bowl’s a huge TV event in February, when half the country’s stuck indoors, eager to get loaded and gamble. At most Super Bowl parties I’ve attended, people hardly watch except when the hardcore guys start yelling.
College football’s much the same. Where I live in SEC territory, football fans devote months to obsessive chatter about the upcoming season. Then come three or four cupcake games, a handful of exciting conference matchups, maybe a bowl game, and then eight more months of phoning radio talk shows to gossip about high school recruits and conspire against the coach.
Are they even sports fans, these people? Some, sure. But a lot of them are mainly there for the identity politics and the party. Meanwhile, I watch major league baseball almost every day from April to October — with occasional pilgrimages to the ballpark. I once overheard an impertinent woman ask my wife why she let me. Diane answered that she was a baseball coach’s daughter, and sometimes watches with me. (I guarantee you she can name the Red Sox starting lineup.) She added that I don’t supervise her pastimes, and that we do better when we don’t try to push each other around.
Does she never tire of it? “Sometimes,” she said. “But he’s home. He’s sober, and he’s not out making a fool of himself in some topless bar.”
Boys, if you get a chance, marry a coach’s daughter.
So why does even the NBA’s Game of the Week on ABC, Mahler wonders, get almost double the ratings of major league baseball on Fox? It’s the nature of the game, as New York-centric writers focused upon national TV ratings fail to grasp. See, I don’t just watch baseball. I watch the Boston Red Sox. (To me, the MLB Extra Innings TV package is the greatest bargain in sports.) It’s not a once-a-year spectacle. It’s an imaginative commitment, like reading “War and Peace” one chapter at a time. Not to go all literary on you. Baseball players are jocks, not English professors. Most highfalutin literary appreciations of the game go right by them.
I’m talking about the daily grind of baseball: the interplay of character and personality, and the thousand-and-one strategic and tactical decisions that make the game so uniquely absorbing to players and serious fans.
But incomprehensible to the once-a-year viewer who hasn’t followed the storyline.
Economically, it’s in local broadcasts where loyalties abide and the game thrives. The national game of the week is an anachronism, dating to when it was the only baseball on TV. Me, I’m watching NESN. It follows that many fans lose interest in postseason play unless their team’s involved.
Pretty much like Mahler and his fellow provincials at The New York Times.