Author's Note: Recently, the Baseball Prospectus website asked for submissions for a new contest, Baseball Prospectus Idol. The editors would pick the ten best submissions, and the BP readers would vote off one writer each week. Unfortunately, I did not make the cut. Still, I was very proud of my essay. Since it won't be shown at BP, I'd like to introduce it here:
"Eleven to four
That's the score
And now the Braves
Will try for more." — Skip Caray
I can only think of four times over the past five years that I have been "giddy." Please understand that I am not a naturally giddy person; my level of emotion ranks somewhere between "shy and reserved" and "Vulcan." But I remember vividly what it was that made me, Sam the Eagle, giddy with joy like a little kid. It's no surprise that it was usually something to do with baseball:
1. Yankee Stadium, April 19, 2007. The Yankees are losing to the Indians, 6-2, in the ninth inning. Cleveland turns the game over to its – for lack of a better word – closer, Joe Borowski. But after a homer (Josh Phelps), a single (Posada), a walk (Damon), a single (Jeter) and another single (Abreu), the score is 6-5, and A-Rod is up. Everybody knows what's about to happen, but that just makes it even more special. A-Rod comes through in the clutch and hits a three-run bomb to right-center. Yankee Stadium goes berserk, and so do I. Every other day of my life, I hate the Yankees. But I've never felt so much like I had been a part of something special.
2. August 8, 2007. My roommate catches a foul ball at the Reds-Dodgers game. Andre Ethier slices a foul over our heads. It bounces off the façade overhead and lands somewhere near us. My roommate, Jonathon, lifts up his hot dogs, and the ball is right there in his lap. I think I actually bounced in my seat. I should have been mad; I've been to dozens of baseball games and haven't even come close to catching a ball. My roommate — who only came along to take advantage of $1 Hot Dog Day — catches a foul ball at his first major league game.
3. January 2009. This is my top non-baseball experience. I stop in at a Barnes & Noble in New York City without realizing that Jimmy Carter is there to sign his new book. I buy the book and stand in a line that stretches around the block. It was about 20 degrees and windy. My eyes were too frozen to read, so after an hour or so, I turned around to talk to the chatty blonde behind me. It was Renee Zellweger. I got to chat with Renee Zellweger for an hour. Apparently, though, I didn’t make much of an impression. Renee (I can call her that now) mentioned her Jimmy Carter experience in a USA Today interview and listed all the people she got to talk to in line … except for me. Ow.
I've got something of a passion for listing and ranking things (I am a baseball fan), so I had to figure out which of these experiences was the biggest for me. All things considered, I should go with #3, right? When else am I going to meet a president and a movie star on the same night?
But to be totally honest, none of the three events listed above top my list. It's event #4:
4. On two separate occasions, I got to run around the bases at the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati.
How does a trip around the bases of a six-year-old park rival the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet a Nobel Prize-winner and an Oscar-winner on the same night? Because, somehow, getting that close to baseball meant more to me than getting even closer to a former President. As much as I may have crushed on Renee "Roxie Hart" Zellweger in the past, it can't compare to the way I've felt about baseball since I was four years old. No, the most amazing that that's happened to me in recent years was that I, a common, ordinary fan and undistinguished Internet blogger, got to reach out and touch baseball.
And unfortunately, that experience seems more distant and improbable now than my evening with Jimmy and Renee.
In my role as Internet blogger, I spend a lot of time writing about what is wrong with baseball. But several times I've asked myself this hypothetical question: what one thing, more than anything else, is wrong with baseball? I could never come up with just one answer. Oh, I could come up with a few things, such as drug use and publicly-funded stadiums and the DHL Hometown Heroes. But I couldn't come up with anything big enough to answer such a big question. But the answer was there. I just needed to reflect on my time on a Cincinnati baseball diamond to put it into words.
Baseball has lost the common touch.
That's it. That's what really bothers me. The "giddy" baseball experience is becoming a thing of the past. What I mean is that sometime during the last half-century, when the MLB's business was booming, it started to lose the ability to make a legitimate connection with its fans. It's very hard to pin down a specific cause or a specific date when things went wrong, but you can see its effects all around us in the modern sports world.
The easiest place to see this is right there on TV. Baseball's problems with television have been well-documented by people with a better understanding of the business than I. Still, think about how manufactured and distant the TV product has become in recent years. As for an example, I don't know where to start: graphic designs copied directly from football without recognizing the fundamental difference between the sports, announcers who have become so bland and inane that even the casual fan is forced to mute, or maybe just the sense that what you're being shown is just a well-funded ad campaign with little or no sincerity. Some fans would point to the MLB's attempt to put the Spider-Man logo on the bases as a tipping point. I'm more annoyed by the WebMD Injury Update, which uses 21st century medical imaging technology to show me a "sore knee."
That's why I miss Skip and Pete — that is, Skip Caray and Pete van Wieren. It was a sad day for me, a lifelong Braves fan, to watch TBS cancel an old favorite and replace it with the most generic baseball broadcast in recent memory. Gone was the familiarity, the coziness and the sincerity of a guy like Skip, my favorite announcer. My favorite Skip moment came during a game in the late '90s, when the Braves exploded for a ten-run inning. Skip asked when the Braves had last put ten runs across in one inning, and was told (I believe) that it was sometime in the late '80s. To which he responded, "Back then we didn't score ten runs in a week."
But it's unfair to focus the blame on television; it's merely a symptom of a wider problem. Ballparks today are built and priced for the upper-middle class, leaving a crowd of rich white people wondering why African-Americans are choosing to play basketball and football. The lyrical and inventive sports writing of Rice, Lardner, and Runyon has been bequeathed to a narrow-minded and insecure minority, bent on opposing the few progressive voices that do emerge on the national scene.
Outside of a lucky chance for an autograph, the fans aren't getting that sincere experience from the players. They're not getting it from the owners or executives (where is Bill Veeck or Larry MacPhail when you really need them?). And they're especially not getting it from the Player's Union. Don Fehr seems like a very capable man, but his recent endeavors as the public face of the MLBPA have been disastrous.
In tough economic times, baseball needs to realize (and we need to remind them) what it is about the sport that makes it special to us. We need to tell them what we get from baseball that we just can't get anywhere else. It's not gone yet. Stand outside Wrigley Field and ask the fans. Go to the blogs and ask the writers. Pick up a book and learn from the historians. Make the effort; it's in your best economic interests.
Until that happens, I guess those few moments I have listed above are the only hope I can cling to that we can still find joy in the basic baseball experience and, as fans, demand more of it from the powers that be. It doesn't have to make me giddy. Maybe it could just make me happy. And maybe the next time I write about the subject, I'll have a top ten list instead of a top four list.
As for Skip, Harry, Ernie, Ring, Damon, Yogi, Casey, Bill Veeck, and all the rest: I think they would have wanted it that way.