I originally intended to publish this piece in issue 37 of my print-only ‘zine METANOIA, but thought it’d work better as a blog post, so…
“Fellas, I don’t want any one of you to feel bad about this.
No one of you coulda done this on his own. This was a team effort.”
~ Casey Stengel,
manager of the 1962 New York Mets,
after the team lost its final game of the season
to become the losingest baseball team in history (40-120)
One of my few remaining childhood possessions is a beat-up circa 1979 Philadelphia Phillies baseball cap. I bought it when I was in high school, and it’s traveled with me ever since then, and, not being a sized wool cap, it still fits. I used to have a “14” written in black magic marker under the cap’s brim, representing my favorite Phillie, Pete Rose, but that number, like Rose’s reputation and standing in the game, faded to a black smear long ago.
I’m saying this because some of my earliest memories are of Phillies baseball on the radio. I was always a Phillies fan, so much so that I actually chose my undergrad program (Temple University) in part because I knew I could hop on the subway in Philly and go to Phillies games quickly and easily. I was studying communications, and it was between Temple and Point Park, and what… was I going to go do my undergrad in the PIRATES’ home city???
This past season, the Phillies, who have always been one of my two favorite teams– the other is the Orioles– the teams I grew up following and loving as a fan– made it to the World Series. The Phillies lost to the Astros, four games to two.
I’m going to trace a progression of steps that led me from being a hardcore, loyal diehard fan of two teams in the 1990s to where I am now as a baseball fan:
* First, there was the owner’s takeover and gutting of the commissioner’s office, so that the office of Baseball Commissioner no longer was an authority in the league offices who functioned independently of the owners, player’s union, or umpires, but was a puppet installed by the owners to rubberstamp their agenda.
* Next, there were steroids, and the two ways that Major League Baseball as an entity reacted. First, while the PED-enhanced players were unnaturally breaking record after record, the league promoted those players and profited from them. Then, once the revenue was in and the dust settled and the ledgers balanced, the league did a turnaround:
Now, now, we can’t have any more of that. Not only are we imposing stricter testing and penalties for PED use, but all those records we loved while they were being set? Those all get an implied asterisk, and the players who set tham are persona non gratis. Not saying they can’t go into the Hall of Fame, but, you know…
Nothing sours me on something quite as effectively as a veneer of sanctimony over hypocritical, revenue-driven opportunism.
* Then there was realignment. Divisional realignment meant that one of my team’s (Phillies) longest-lived, deepest and most natural (geographic, same state) rivals, the Pirates, were moved out of the Phillies’ division, as were two other traditional divisional rivals (the Cubs and Cardinals). Same thing with my other team (the Orioles) in the AL East.
* The league’s “solution”? Institute interleague play and promote interleague rivalries, and while Mets-Yankees regular season games are fun for the fans, the upshot is that a team’s in-league record as league champion no longer really means anything.
* The playoffs were expanded. This was one of the things that made me lose interest in the NBA and NHL in the late 80s-early 90s. The regular season became a de facto “play-in” round for the playoffs.
* What MLB allowed to happen (or, more accurately, “did”) to the Expos as a franchise and to Montreal as a city was inexcusable. The league wanted Montreal to build a new stadium. Unlike US cities, though, where the teams push to get those venues built at taxpayer expense, the voters in Montreal and Quebec said NO PUBLICLY-FINANCED STADIUM. MLB responded by allowing the team to be gutted from the inside (puppet ownership and management absconded with the team’s scouting reports, traded away its best players and prospects, etc.) and then finally moved the team to Washington. Yes, DC needed a team, but not at the expense of Montreal.
* The BUILD US A NEW STADIUM thing ties into another factor: teams started building nice new stadiums, which in some cases was necessary, in other cases extortion of the sort that Montreal refused (“build us a ballpark or we’ll move the team”), but the result for fans was that every ticket was expensive, and there were no longer cheap, abundant bleacher seats. Say what you will about the Phils’ old home, Veteran’s Stadium, but in the 70s, 80s and 90s, the Vet had the 700 level: an upper deck of cheap, unreserved seats. This meant that a fan could go to a game inexpensively and on the spur of the moment. But with the new cozy ballparks, seating became limited and ticket prices soared, so that going to the ballpark became a boutique experience. There was no such thing as “spur of the moment:” planning to go to a game was like plotting out D-Day. And I don’t have a military mind.
* Next, players around my age or older started retiring. Baseball is partly about youthful hero worship, and when the rosters on my teams started filling up with players who were younger than me, it got harder for me to “look up to them.” Cal Ripken Jr, Brady Anderson, and Jim Thome were the last players I cared about and admired in the same way that I admired players when I was a kid.
* Similarly, broadcasters that I loved started leaving the game. I’ve always primarily enjoyed baseball on the radio, and when the play-by-play men I liked left the booth, the games literally no longer sounded the same. This paired perfectly with my teams moving their broadcasts from clear channel AM stations (which you could pull in anywhere on the east coast) to local FM outlets, which, for me living in Vermont, meant that if I wanted to hear my team’s radio broadcasts, I either had to pay for a subscription to an online streaming service, or just stop listening. So I stopped listening.
* Finally, the owners insistence on MORE OFFENSE! as the solution to the supposed “Why are young fans abandoning baseball” problem led to a bunch of rule changes that are too numerous to catalog, most notably pitch clocks, the “runner on second in extra innings” rule, and, worst of all, the DH being instituted in the National League. As someone who had a team in both leagues, I neither loved nor hated the DH. I liked seeing a pitcher take his turn at the plate, but I also liked it that two different rules in two different major leagues meant two different approaches to the game. Now that’s gone, and both the AL and NL have the DH, “just like,” as a writer once said, “every other minor league.”
The end result? This season, the Phillies made it all the way through the playoffs to the World Series, yet I did not watch, listen to, or read about any of their games: not just postseason, but preseason and regular season as well.
Not one pitch of one inning of one game got my deliberate attention.
I’d say it’s just a matter of the things to which I’m now choosing to devote my attention instead, and, yes, my writing and other interests have crowded out a lot of former “distractions” like movies, TV, news, and pop culture in general.
But every weekend this fall, I’ve carved out time to listen to Penn State football games. Joe Paterno dying, and players and coaches being generations younger than me, and revenue grabbing and conference realignment, haven’t killed my enjoyment of those games. Part of that allure is that in the fall, Penn State football feels like “home:” reminding me of my dad and his tales of being on the PSU freshman football team with head coach Rip Engle and a Brooklyn-born grad assistant coach named Joe, and it SOUNDS like home: hearing the games on the radio every Saturday fall weekend growing up.
But… Dad and I shared a similar love of baseball. You’d think that’d be equally hard to kill.
It wasn’t a conscious choice, and I still love baseball, but due to all those reasons above, and a few others, Major League Baseball lost me.
I wonder if I’m alone in this.
Fellas, I don’t want any one of you to feel bad about this…