Posts Tagged ‘baseball’

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Is Baseball Relevant?

June 5, 2008

I could be wrong but I think that commenter PigInZen meant something different than what I am about to respond to here, but nevertheless his comment to yesterday’s vintage baseball post got me thinking about the what we mean when we say that “X is/is not relevant.” Without going the high school valedictorian route of “Merriam-Webster’s New World Dictionary defines “relevant as…” here are my initial thoughts on the topic.

It is clear, I think, what someone means by “relevant” when it is applied in such a way that it means “pertains to” or “influences,” as in, “Whether John had prior knowledge of the group’s activities is relevant to whether he should be prosecuted as an accomplice.” It is less clear what is meant when people say that “hip-hop (or rock and roll or ska or rockablly) is no longer relevant.” Relevant to what?

I think what PigInZen meant by his claim that I fall into a segment of the population for whom “baseball is irrelevant” was simply to mean what is in fact the case: that I just don’t care about it because when I stopped watching it in the late 80s early 90s, I filled that hole in my leisure time with other pursuits. Having been out of it for so long has made baseball irrelevant to me.

But I immediately wondered if, as he mentioned in an earlier comment, whether baseball’s decrease in popularity along with the subsequent increase in popularity of football, NASCAR, and others was a sign that baseball was “irrelevant” in a larger sense–in the same sense that someone might assert that hip-hop is irrelevant, that is, irrelevant in a broader cultural context, not just to me and others disenchanted in the wake of the Crisis of Greed that was revealed with Pete Rose’s gambling and the players’ strike.

I won’t kill you with anticipation. I think the answer is no. Baseball is not, in my opinion, irrelevant in that sense. If baseball does, one day, become irrelevant it will become so in the sense that frock coats and hoop skirts are, that is, frock coats and hoop skirts, were they around today, would serve an identical role as they always did: they would be manifestations of a person’s right to choose from amongst various fashion(able) accessories–they are irrelevant due to their virtual non-existence. They are both still around, of course, in either modified or costume form. However both uses entails the additional context of being deliberately iconoclastic which becomes the predominant message–which was not the case when both were considered legitimate fashion choices. Similarly one can speak dead languages, play ancient games, or be desperately in love with rightfully obscure music–but all these choices are weighted down with the irrelevance that comes from being “past their prime” as legitimate couture.

It seems to me that all sports of sufficient popularity serve an entertainment function for players and spectators of the right kind. They serve as exercise in an age of decreasing demand for manual labor. They serve a significant amount of their fan base with an outlet for the use of the analytical function of their brains. They serve as “water cooler talk”–that is to say, a common cultural experience that we can use as a mechanism for reaffirming our connections with one another. They can even–and baseball is perhaps the exemplar here–influence the nature of our conversations through both metaphor and the alteration of our lexicon. H.L. Mencken in his masterpiece The American Language and Bill Bryson Sr. have both noted the dramatic impact that baseball in particular has had on, well, the American language. Even those of us who don’t watch baseball can, for example, talk about “three strike laws” and use expressions like “She really knocked that presentation out of the park.” And those are just two of the most obvious.

In the context of baseball as sport, baseball will not cease to be relevant until it also is out of fashion, and I mean entirely out of fashion, like Chicen Itza out of style. That’s not impossible of course, but it would entail, or seems to entail, the passing of American culture as a whole.

There is, I think an urge, in the defense of baseball’s relevance, to use baseball as an explanatory model of the culture in general. But I don’t think that’s true. One would not want to say, for example that, baseball hearkens back to or was a product of “a more pastoral age” as some have suggested, or that the rules of the game reveal a culture more decorous or less barbarous than the one that created football.

Such comparisons don’t help us understand the success of baseball in tech-friendly Japan or the fact that both sports have enjoyed competitively similar audiences for most of their existence. Nor do they explain away the uncivil and barbarous nature of the time of baseball’s creation which in many respects were more barbarous and uncivil than our own (and we created mixed martial arts and professional wrestling). But most importantly in this regard, such an analysis is forced to ignore the historical antecedents of the games they try to explain in this way.

But I’m not personally partial to these explanations because I think it leads us to be too cynical about our own times. Certainly life can be compared to baseball, but I don’t think that the reverse is true. Or as Joyce Carol Oates said in her book On Boxing, “Life can be like boxing, but boxing can only be like itself,” or words to that effect. Part of this is a mere semantic truth, but there is more compelling reason for this. For all its intricacies, for all its history, baseball can only be a bare model of certain elements of life: Only cooperation exists amongst teammates–only competition amongst opposing teams. Failure to abide by this principle leads to team or sport collapse. If teammates compete, the team falls apart. When teams collude, the sport itself is jeopardy.

Some assert, of course, that life is like this, but that is an extremely narrow vision of the multitude ways humans interact. If we are forced to admit that life is like the sports we play must we also admit that we are all steroid abusers, that we all tape the defense, that we all purposefully clip the drivers in front of us, that we all pretend to be hurt when we’re not to gain sympathy? If we interpret the modern Major League Baseball Association as being in decline, must we recognize that America is also in decline?

I would argue that this is to put the cart before the horse. Certainly there are those who might be eager to admit the things I’ve listed, others may do so only reluctantly. I think both are misplaced. There have always been cheaters and manipulators in baseball, just as there have been in football, auto racing, shipping, banking, taxes, war, and love.

Furthermore I think it is too easy to rush to learn a lesson from the current state of baseball. Steroid abuse in major league baseball, in my opinion, is a real shame, but I’m not so certain that it represents any sort of decline in the integrity of the sport. Ty Cobb used to slide in with his cleats up, other players were notorious bat corkers. There were, of course, the Black Sox. In a hundred years, if baseball has continued to exist as an entertainment commodity, I think future analyists won’t draw a graph of baseball’s decline from the 19th century into the 21st. Rather there will be a nice flat line that includes the admissions that black players were kept of the league because it was feared they would outperform whites, the Black Sox scandal, Pete Rose’s gambling, multiple on-field riots, and the steroids scandal. The fact is that steroids are just a new way to cheat, but cheating itself is not new at all, not to baseball, not to sports, and not to any other segment of human history.

If we remove this conventional narrative from modern baseball, it seems to me we remove the ability to claim that baseball is either more or less relevant today compared to baseball say pre-1988 or pre-World Series 1919. Similarly, if all sports are equal in their ability to provide metaphors of human competition, then we can’t say that baseball is more or less relevant than any other sport and so if I find football relevant, then I must find baseball relevant too. Which is not to say that I must admit to any more or less personal relevance. Baseball is only as relevant to me as I make it or choose to recognize.

And at this point I’ve about reached the end of my thoughts on the subject, except for this final note. It is true that, if I grew up a hundred years ago baseball’s relevance would not have lent itself to quite as much personal choice. In the same way that conversations with friends, allusions in magazines, jokes in comedy bits, are littered with references to this or that reality show or episode of “Lost,” conversations 100 years ago would require far more knowledge of the sport than I am required to have today. Or at least, that is one possible defense of baseball’s declining relevance that is harder to buck.

The fact is that the 64 year old William James probably would have gotten along just fine without needing to know the batting order of the St. Louis Nationals and I am capable of discussing at some length the propriety of the congressional investigation into steroid abuse. It is hard to quantify the relative cultural magnitude of this sort of thing. Certainly at the turn of the 20th century baseball had no real rivals in the team sports category, a fact that means that America’s mass media could concentrate on baseball’s comings-and-goings without fear of alienating anybody. As a consequence many more people–as a percentage of the whole–knew about those events, which would lead them to discuss them more and use them more often as nods to a shared common understanding, a set of shared metaphors. It is also true that America is much, much larger than it was then and baseball is now a global commodity. There are, inarguably, more people familiar with Derek Jeter as a cultural icon and sportsman now than were ever familiar with Babe Ruth in his prime–even if this knowledge doesn’t transfer into cultural currency with as many people per capita.

So, in response to a question that was not asked: I think baseball is still a relevant enterprise.

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Vintage Baseball

June 3, 2008

I was adding the Eight Men Out Tour to the front page of the IHC website today which reminded me of what is perhaps the most awesome part (next to the tour of my office space–the historic home of Meredith Nicholson, of course) of the day long Eight Men Out festivities: the Vintage Baseball Game Round Robin Tournament.

I probably shouldn’t say it, but I’m not a huge fan of baseball. Back in the late 80s I received a one-two punch–Pete Rose-gate and The Strike–and I’ve been out of baseball ever since. But the idea of three baseball games played by 1867 rules sounds just flat spectacular. It’s a sporting event! it’s history! it’s possibly illegal!1 I hope they wear 1867 attire as well.

This entry was posted by: Jim

Photo of Grover Lowdermilk–St. Louis Nationals by The Library of Congress under no known copyright restrictions

1. I’m sure it’s not illegal, but maybe slightly unsafe? I mean, they changed those rules for a reason, right?