Saturday, May 18, 2013

The old fanly connection

Roger Angell, sighing
Writing in the September 21, 1998 issue of The New Yorker, as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were finishing slugging their ways across the country, stadium by ear-splitting stadium, Roger Angell couldn't help but sound a note of regret and loss. As I've remarked before, Angell rarely wrote confessedly, but always personally, with nostalgia and sentimentality held, for the most part, manfully at bay. I've been reading my way through Angell's baseball essays for a while now—the pile of his uncollected pieces since the mid-1960s is cheerfully enormous—and if there are common threads of discontent running through his fan's love for the sport they are faults found generally with modernity, not with the game itself: talent-diluting expansion; too many night games; escalating salaries; owner posturing; television's breathless, 24/7, non-news coverage of a quiet, august game that, relative to the bombast and spectacle of football and basketball, is essentially modest.

Something about Big Mac and his enormous feats troubled Angell, even as he was cheering the good vibe that the home-run record chase produced. Instinctively, he looked backward, and here perhaps nostalgia and sentimentality get the better of him. "One can’t quite blame sports television and its technical feats for our current state of total sports distraction," Angell sighs,
and perhaps we shouldn’t blame ourselves, either. Perhaps this full-court blather over the home-run record has become more important to us than the games themselves, which suggests that the function of baseball now is simply to be historic, to remind us, through feats and statistics and the unchanging dimensions of the game, that we are still connected to Roger Maris and to Babe Ruth and their times—times that may have been simpler or more vivid than our own. It’s also possible that we are preoccupied with the sideshows because we can no longer find the old fanly connection between ourselves and the extremely rich, extremely large young men we see out on the field. Back when the players stayed in place from one year to the next, they appeared to represent us on the field—not just our town but the way we would play the game, too, given a little break. Now they are lost to us, like our grown-up children-—admirable or awesome at times, and anxious to please, but members of a different species. 
Eight months later, as a new season was commencing, Angell's gloom had barely lifted. "At this hopeful time of year, we should perhaps put off further discussion of the ironbound or dollar-bound competitive imbalance of contemporary ball," he writes in the May 17, 1999 issue,
except to note that money now entirely controls the free-agent market, the amateur draft (thanks to signing bonuses), the international-talent market (how else did Hideki Irabu and Orlando Hernandez wind up with the Yankees?), and the great majority of trades. Indeed, one of the few competitive attractions this summer may be to watch what happens to the Dodgers, habitual non-winners in the National League West, who have raised their payroll to seventy-nine million dollars, the most in their league, since their acquisition by Rupert Murdoch last March. Their signing of the pallid, hard-throwing Kevin Brown, last seen with the Padres, who was the No. 1 free agent on the market last winter, showed the lordly manner as well as the depth of their ambitions. Counting bonuses and incentives, Brown will receive a hundred and five million dollars for a seven-year contract (he’ll be forty in its last season), plus twelve free private-jet flights each summer for his family, to L.A. from their Georgia home. Based on his performance last year, Brown’s stipend breaks down to fifty-eight thousand dollars for each strikeout and four-hundred and seventeen thousand dollars for each game. Like other fans, perhaps, I try resolutely not to think in these terms once the season starts—he players themselves never do—but the numbers explain why the Yankees, whose average salary of over three million dollars is the biggest in baseball, will win almost all those close games with the young Blue Jays or Twins, no matter how gallant we find them. 
It is this form of denial, coupled with the: instability and anonymity of home-team lineups from year to year and the proliferation of divisions and franchises, that tells us fans how our need for records and monuments could have begun to replace our joy in the games and our eagerness for action. Don’t Wait till next year—what good will that do?—but keep us watching a little, because something new or never before seen could happen here, and we’ll be part of it. This is duller than our old passion, but it hurts less and doesn’t require as much attention. Wait long enough and Mark McGwire will hit one out or sign your wristband.

Those players out there on the field don't seem to be the same players I remember as a kid in the Polo Grounds: their bodies and wallets and distance from us are too large, too spectacular. How human, these Y2K complaints; the kid eye-rolling at Gramps Angell today will be lamenting the passing of his Good Old Days soon enough.

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