Monday, February 4, 2019

Overcast

When I was a kid it was easy to ignore baseball as a business: I didn't care about bottom line or salaries or profit margins, only that This Week in Baseball ran every Saturday and that I could watch the Orioles on television, and occasionally at Memorial Stadium, during the summer, the NBC "Game of the Week" for rare glimpses of National League stars, and the wonderful, exciting, seemingly endlessly tense playoffs and World Series.

Now, as Spring Training is set to gear up, I'm experiencing something of a dark night of the soul as a fan, as are many of my baseball-besotted friends. I don't like many of the changes the game is undergoing: the grim, nearly joyless over-managing; so-called bullpenning; the reliance on swinging for home runs and the suppression of station-to-station strategy and balls-in-play; the intrusion of replay which grossly rewards an unrealistic demand for perfection. But more importantly, the dubious and at times outright vile politics of many of those in charge and the obsession with the bottom-line on almost all teams, milking every last cent of the fans. (And now: gambling.) I could go on, and many have and many will. I understand that baseball is a business, run by men and women whose politics differ from mine and who do not have my best interest in heart, rather their investors and political bedfellows. I've been able to block this out, or frankly ignore it, for many years, yet the cumulative effect has been a watering down of my hitherto bottomless love for the game, which renewed itself this time every year for decades.

In the sports columns where I read about player contract news, I visually "x out" the dollar amounts, focusing only on the length of the contract, as I did effortlessly when I was a kid and could ignore off-the-field developments. But such childish gestures on my part can't erase problems everywhere: I've seethed at news of teams donating to politicians and causes I find reprehensible; I'll go out to happily watch my Northern Illinois University Huskies play ball, yet be aware of odious goings-on at the elite levels of collegiate sports; I'll listen to broadcasts of old baseball games online, but, guarding against nostalgia, recognize that the sport has always been infected with awful people with unfortunate interests. (On a far more self-interested note, I have a book about baseball coming out in a few months, which I'm enthused, not to mention obligated, to promote.) I don't want to have give up baseball cold turkey, yet I've been directing many 3 a.m. concerns toward the bedroom ceiling: am I disciplined enough to turn away from Major League Baseball given the many hours of deep and rewarding pleasures the game gives me for so many months? Will I refuse to buy tickets to games even though a day at the park is one of life's great pleasures? Can I sigh and philosophically acknowledge that humans screw up, that an ethically or morally pure sport is an impossibility? (Everything a human being touches "he deforms slightly in his own image," Flannery O'Connor.) Or am I being selectively righteous? Can I still enjoy the game as opposed to the sport? I allowed myself that luxury for a long time, something that's becoming harder to defend lately.

I'm not sure where I'll stand in a few months. (Yes, there are many far more important things in life.)  I'll continue to look for and enjoy what's good in baseball. I'll watch games and imagine the players battling without attachments to million-dollar contracts and unsavory owners, and out of the glare of 24/7 television, radio, and social media coverage. I can't not like baseball. My love for the game remains, yet will be in graphic contention with the growing, darker aspects of the industry.

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