Baseball is my favorite sport. I grew up with the Boston Red Sox and endured forty years of heartrending frustration until my team finally broke the Curse of the Bambino in 2004. I no longer had to endure chants of “1918″ (the last time we had won the World Series) from loudmouth Yankees fans who invaded Fenway Park to root for “the evil empire.” Our victory (note the “our”) in 2007 proved that 2004 wasn’t a fluke, and introduced young Red Sox fans to the idea that our team could compete (and even win!) every year.
Baseball today has players from around the world, and I like that. Whether they’re from Japan or the Dominican Republic or even from faraway places like Canada, these players add a quirky and international flavor to the game, making the playoff games of October more like a true “world” series.
But I despair at the way money and media and mercenary players have invaded the game and changed its character from a pastime to a business. Just one recent example: today’s opener between the Red Sox and Yankees was moved to 8:05 PM for the benefit of ESPN Sunday night baseball in the hopes of garnering higher ratings and advertising revenue. Few seem to care about inconveniencing the fans, or flouting the tradition of opening day played in the afternoon under God’s natural light.
It’s sad: as we build “throwback” stadiums that are designed to rekindle simpler days – those days of “Field of Dreams” – we price the seats at these stadiums out of the reach of most working-class Americans. A couple of years ago, relatives of mine won the chance to purchase four “Monster” seats at Fenway Park (the seats above the “Green Monster” wall in left field). After purchasing the seats, driving into Boston, paying for parking, and buying food and drink, my brother- and sister-in-law were out more than $500. Nowadays, of course, four decent seats near home plate at the new Yankee Stadium can cost $1200 – and that’s not the scalper’s price.
And they say the price of jet fighters is soaring into the stratosphere!
When I’m in a sour mood, I ponder the similarities between the mercenary nature of players seeking the highest bidder for their services and the growing use of “free agent” mercenaries in America’s wars, willing to go (play) anywhere and fight (pitch or bat) against anyone, as long as the money keeps flowing in abundance.
Of course, major league baseball has always been a business. But as late as the 1960s and early 1970s, teams were still tribal in nature. You really bonded to your hometown team because its players (your players) were largely the same, for better or worse, year in and year out.
Free agency helped to get the players out from under the thumb of owners, but something was lost. Then the media got involved in a major, major way, and the money got too big for some teams to fail (notably the Yankees, but even true of my beloved Red Sox).
With the exception of “heart and soul” players like Derek Jeter for the Yankees and Jason Varitek for the Red Sox, today’s players are almost interchangeable cogs in baseball business machines. That is the reality of a sports model that has elevated winning (and profit-making) over everything else, an ethos that contributed subtly yet powerfully to the steroid era in baseball: the relentless pursuit of results at any cost.
But as the Good Book says, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world but to lose his soul”?
I still enjoy baseball — but baseball today has lost more than its innocence. It’s lost some of its soul.
William J. Astore
William J. Astore, a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF), taught for six years at the Air Force Academy. A TomDispatch regular, he currently teaches at the Pennsylvania College of Technology and is the author of Hindenburg: Icon of German Militarism (Potomac Press, 2005), among other works. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org