Editorial by John Ziegler

Take Me Out to the Ball Game? Why?

6/22/2001

Recently, the Philadelphia Inquirer asked why it is that so few people are going to Phillies games, even though the team has been in first place for the entire season and has one of the team’s most popular players of all time as its new manager. While the question is quite legitimate, the answers are surprisingly simple.

When I was a kid growing up in Bucks County, there was NO ONE who was a bigger baseball fan than me. I used to be able to LISTEN to DOUBLE HEADERS on the RADIO during that glorious run from 1976 to the long awaited climax of a World Series title in 1980. Today, at the age of 34, I am not sure that I could WATCH more than a couple of continuous innings on TELEVISION, unless, MAYBE, you paid me (and it would have to be a pretty good wage, with benefits and plenty of time off).

Much has changed in those two decades since baseball mattered so much to me that a particularly disheartening REGULAR SEASON loss by the Phillies would literally cause me sleepless nights and bring tears to my eyes. For one thing, my attention span (like that of nearly every American in the age of MTV) has shrunk more dramatically than the performance outfits of teenage pop stars. Baseball is a game that requires a VERY long attention span. You must really care about what happens in a baseball game, and I, for good reason, have not cared for a very long time (nor have I been able to stay up late enough to watch most of the games that actually mean anything).

The irony of my lack of passion for this particular Phillies team is that the LAST time I cared about the Phillies was the day before they traded their current manager, Larry Bowa. Bowa was my boyhood hero, and when they dealt him to Chicago (in what is probably still the worst deal in franchise history) I felt as if my heart had been ripped out. To me it was the ultimate betrayal by the team that loved and, like any relationship where one partner has scorned another, it was never again the same. I thought that having Bowa back as manager might provide me with at least an “artificial” heart transplant, but, while I am glad for him that the Phillies are winning, it appears as if no “operation” can regenerate my fervor for the Phils.

The sad reality of baseball today is that there are really only four factors that can draw fans to the ballpark: a great stadium, a proud tradition, a superstar player, or a championship team. The Phillies are currently clinging to only the HOPE of ONE of those qualities, and with the Sixers recent triumphs and the understandable lack of faith that those winning ways will continue, it is easy to see why people are still staying away from the antiseptic, antiquated Vet.

Why does baseball need to rely on having at least one of those four qualities in order to draw fans? Because stripped of the loyalty of the fan to the teams and the players (or at least the illusion of that that loyalty) because of years of neglect and abuse, baseball has been revealed as simply a bad and boring game. The essence of any sporting contest is to determine who the better team is. Baseball does a by far a worse job of that than any other sport. That is why they have to play 162 games just to determine who gets into the playoffs. Baseball is the only sport where a team can go an entire season without playing even one game that is considered “critical” to the outcome of the season.

Even the core of the game itself is lacking. Can anyone say WHY one team beat another in any given game? Usually it is a result of a hot pitcher or a lucky hit. Why is that interesting? The vast majority of individual contests last well over three hours and usually only produce about a minute or so of excitement (sounds like a really bad date doesn’t it?). In the age of television, football has become America’s game and it is easy to understand why. In baseball, when two players collide at full speed while going after the ball it is considered to be one the highlights of the year, sure to be seen multiple times on ESPN. When the very same thing happens in football, it is simply called “second down.”

Frankly, I am amazed that baseball has been able to hang on to what is left of its popularity for as long as it has. Part of what has enabled the game to pretend that it is still a major force in American culture has been its willingness and ability to bastardize its own traditions and capitalize on the willingness of many big cities to shell out big bucks for stadiums that LOOK like they were built back when baseball seemed to matter. But now that the DH, inter-league play, the wild-card playoffs, and the juiced ball have created short-term, superficial excitement at the expense of what is left of the game’s soul, what will happen to the sport when there are no more places (or money) left to build retro-stadiums, or anyone left who remembers the “good old days” to BUY the nostalgia? My guess is that baseball will wither away like a ballpark frank left far too long under the hot glare of the concession stand’s heating lamp.

Here in Philadelphia I am sure that SOME interest will pick up if the team continues to win, and then again when the Vet is put out of its misery and the new stadium opened up. But the golden goose of “America’s Pastime” died a long time ago. Winning is no longer a guarantee of interest because people no longer (rightly) CARE about who wins a baseball game. When baseball decided that it was a business and not just a game it left itself vulnerable to being seen as the silly and irrelevant form of mediocre entertainment (much like the circus) that it has become.

For me, I will always cherish my childhood memories of Little League heroics and cheering on that very special 1980 team to the championship. I consider myself very lucky to have grown up in that era and feel sorry for the kids of today who will never get the same opportunity to feel like they are a part of something magical. However, just like Santa Claus, socialism, and organized religion, I have relegated baseball to the realm of those concepts which seemed like good ideas at the time, but which I have since realized are bogus at best.

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