Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Why baseball has gone to the children

Jordan Ellenberg argues that baseball has endured over the years "not because of stuffy conservatism, but because almost any change would make it worse." He says it appeals to children in particular because it's an easy sport to grasp, and its institutional strength outweighs any potential corruptive influence currently living within it.

I agree completely. From the time I was 10 to 13 (and again during the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run race when I was 18), I was as obsessed with baseball as I am with football now. Despite not having a home team (I adopted the Milwaukee Brewers), I collected a million baseball cards, had several caps, T-shirts and jerseys of various teams and absorbed all the games, news and stats that I could. When Nolan Ryan notched his 300th win, I bawled, because even though he was one of my favorite players, he did it against my Brewers. My dad had to calm me down and put me to bed. The next day, when I saw an Advil ad on TV congratulating Ryan on his historic win, I screamed at the TV all over again.

But mostly, my obsession was a positive one. It gave me a focus I hadn't yet had in my life, and it made me happy. I started reading the newspaper every day because of baseball, and Topps Magazine inspired me to start my own baseball newsletter. I bought several baseball games and figurines that stimulated my imagination and trivia knowledge. I learned the value of a dollar by saving up for baseball cards and tracking their worth (which in turn taught me to organize and to handle things with care). And, above anecdote aside, I generally didn't hate any players or teams. I had lots of memorabilia on my wall of many different teams, and my allegiances would shift as necessary. I aspired to play baseball, though that never happened in any organized sense outside of P.E. class. (At least it kept me fit.) In short, baseball for me was an education on how to be a better person.

But I ultimately left it behind. And it's hard to go back full-throttle as an adult, at least in the professional sense; I still love to play, attend games and browse memorabilia. Baseball has a huge adult problem, and it isn't the drugs. Nor is it that the game is antiquated or regressive. It's the politics.

The NFL has measures in place — basically, socialism — that levels the playing field for every team. It doesn't make each team equal, obviously, but it ensures that a team's success or failure rides mainly upon how it conducts itself. Also, the league has been far more aggressive in testing for steroids, and has been more open to technological innovation. The NFL is far from perfect, but it's that aspiration to equity that separates it from other sports right off the bat.

Major League Baseball, on the other hand, is a stacked competition from the outset. Bob Costas once said that the league might as well have a two-tier structure with a few major-market teams competing, and the rest just selling ballpark ambiance. Owners are free to buy stacked rosters, which the then-Florida Marlins notoriously did in 1997, and the New York Yankees pretty much always do. Teams like the Kansas City Royals rarely inspirationally surmount such obstacles. They can't afford to.

That's too close to real life for a lot of us.

Baseball's best roots are in its pastoral innocence. Kids are innocent. No wonder it's their game these days. If only the sport itself reflected their sensibilities, it could be all of ours again.

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