Monday, October 3, 2016

I Liked It Better When... #5

-- By Tom Phillips

An elegy for the baseball season:  I liked it better when it was about winning the pennant.

Fenway Park, Boston 
Up until 1969, when Major League Baseball began divisional play, there were just two leagues, and two champions at the end of the 162-game regular season.  The two pennant winners then met in the World Series, a best-of-seven playoff, to crown one or the other.  But both were legitimate champions, and flew their banners proudly at their home fields.

Today, big-league baseball has 30 teams in six divisions, but just one winner.  The regular season is no longer a race to the finish line, but more like the starting line. Teams spend all spring and summer jockeying for position in the October post-season, where ten teams compete for the final two slots in the World Series.  Six times in the last 20 years, the World Series winner didn't even win its division, but sneaked in as a wild card in the playoffs.  Any team that's healthy after the grueling regular season stands a chance.

It's been good for fans, and baseball as a business.  Fans stay engaged when their team stays in contention, and more playoff spots mean more games, bigger crowds and TV audiences.

It's not so good for players.  The season used to end early in October, but now it goes until Halloween, 20-odd playoff games added to an already punishing schedule.  World Series teams face a short winter, less time to rest and recuperate.  Not once in this century has a World Series winner been able to repeat.

Arguably, it's also bad for America. Baseball used to be our National Pastime, and it was a countervailing force to the culture of speed, technology, and violence.  It's a slow, thoughtful game, every pitch like a chess move, but on an open field where chance and wind determine the fall of the ball, where the shape of the field varies from city to city, where the size and shape of a player matters less than his savvy.  Like all sports, baseball is competitive, fiercely so; but it's such a complex and beautiful affair that a close game, even a loss, can be more satisfying to watch than a one-sided victory.

Today baseball is no longer the National Pastime; in sports bars and living rooms, even the playoffs take second place to pro football -- which, rather than countering American values, eggs them on. The patron saint of pro football was Vince Lombardi, winning coach in the first Super Bowl, who famously said: "Winning isn't everything.  It's the only thing."

The man most responsible for bringing a football mentality to baseball was George Steinbrenner, the Trump-like owner of the New York Yankees, who according to his own players didn't want competition -- he wanted a slaughter.  Steinbrenner is dead, but his mean spirit lives on in the Bronx. Joe Girardi, the current Yankee manager, ceaselessly repeats the mantra that his job is to win World Series championships, and nothing else matters.

Contrast that with the story of the 1967 Boston Red Sox, the "Impossible Dream" team.  After finishing last the year before, they ran neck and neck with three other American League teams through September of '67, winning the pennant on the last day, their first in 21 years.  Though they went on to lose the World Series to St. Louis in seven games, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Lonborg and their teammates were celebrated as civic heroes for bringing the pennant back to Fenway Park.  And 1967 began the great revival of Boston baseball that continues to this day.

This year, the Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers finished with the best records in the National and American League.  But those records, and their hard-earned division championships, mean little beyond a slight advantage in the post-season schedule.  To win the "only thing," they'll have to survive three rounds of playoffs.  The World Series winners can spend a short winter as celebrities, then arrive hung over for spring training in February.  The losers can just go watch football with the rest of America.

What do I propose?  Nothing.  I just liked it better when ...

Copyright 2016 by Tom Phillips

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