Baseball postsTuesday October 01, 2013
Why Baseball is No Longer Central to the Culture
Sunday there was an interesting piece in The New York Times by Jonathan Mahler (“The Bronx is Burning”) on the whys and hows of the waning popularity of Major League Baseball.
He says a lot of what I say. Yes, attendance is up, yes, revenue is up. But TV ratings for national games are down and the sport is no longer central to the culture in the way it once was. People rarely talk baseball the way they talk football. If they talk baseball, it's local. If they talk football it can be the playoffs or the Super Bowl or the Super Bowl commercials. If they talk basketball it can be March Madness. The World Series? Is that on?
So Mahler goes into why this is so.
Here's a key paragraph:
The N.F.L. has certain structural advantages over Major League Baseball: teams play only once a week, and when the postseason arrives, every game is an elimination game. But its real advantage is that it’s louder, faster and more violent — which is to say, better in tune with our cultural moment. “We are a shouting culture now, shouting connotes excitement and engenders excitement,” says Daniel Okrent, who is considered the founding father of fantasy baseball. “Baseball is quiet and slow.”
We're a more loutish country so we have a more loutish national sport.
It’s telling that professional football has been around for about 100 years, but that it didn’t find cultural traction until the age of television.
If baseball was a game you followed, football was one you watched. Beneath the surface, it was an enormously complicated sport. But the passing, the running, the tackling? This was great television. And under the lights, on Monday nights, with Howard Cosell making you feel like the country’s fate hung in the balance of even the most meaningless game? Forget about it.
But he stops there. He doesn't go far enough.
Why has TV been kinder to football and basketball and hockey? Think of those sports. Think of the shape of the football field or basketball court or hockey rink. What is that shape?
Now what is the shape of your TV screen?
Put those sports on your TV and they fit right in. Baseball? Not so much.
Those other sports are two-dimensional. You follow the ball. Wherever the ball is, that's where the action is. Baseball? Well, the ball's in the right-field corner, the runner is rounding second with the tying run. Can he make it in time? Where's the right fielder? Where's the cut-off man? Where's the base-runner now? Around third? Here comes the ball! We want to be watching several things at once. It's requires three-dimensionality but TV flattens everything.
Final thought: If baseball is less central because of TV and because we're more loutish, are these things related? That is, are we more loutish because of TV?
Watching Harmon Killebrew at Met Stadium in the 1960s, I didn't know the sport's centrality was already waning.
Five A.L. Teams with Six Games to Go
Two weeks ago, Sept. 9, I wrote about the final wild card spot in the American League, adding:
Assuming the first wild card spot goes to Texas, which is 1.5 games behind Oakland but 3 games ahead of Tampa ...
Turns out that was a big assumption. Starting that very day, Texas lost seven in a row and 10 of 14. They're now a game back of Cleveland, who is a game behind Tampa.
Here's where we stand. I didn't include Baltimore, who has lost five in a row, and Manny Machado (to the ghost of Earl Webb?), and is now five out with six to go:
|Tampa Bay||87||69||.558||-||51-30||36-39||664||622||+42||Won 4||7-3|
|Kansas City||83||73||.532||3||44-37||39-36||630||581||+49||Won 2||6-4|
|NY Yankees||82||74||.526||4||46-32||36-42||637||648||-11||Lost 1||4-6|
- Tampa Bay: @ Yankees (3); @ Toronto (3)
- Cleveland: vs. ChiSox (2); @ Minnesota (4)
- Texas: vs. Houston (2); vs. Angels (4)
- Kansas City: @ Seattle (2); @ ChiSox (4)
- Yankees: vs. Tampa (3); @ Houston (3)
I'm rooting for Kansas City, forever bottom-dwellers, who has the easiest schedule. I'm waiting yet again on the death of the Yankees (Start spreading the news ...). I'm assuming the one-game playoff is Tampa vs. Cleveland. But you know what my assumptions are worth.
Ideal situation? The Yankees ending their season on the road in meaningless games against the worst team in baseball.
A-Rod Sets Grand Slam Mark; World Yawns
Am I the only one who cares about the grand slam record? It seems so. Alex Rodriguez broke the mark, set by Lou Gehrig way back when, when he hit his 24th Friday night, and there's nary a buzz. Maybe if a better man had broken the mark, one not so universally reviled or tainted, it would've garnered more attention. As is, a blip.
But I think it's more than that. Here's how unimportant the mark is:
Baseball Reference --> Leaders --> .... Nada
Baseball Reference gives you Single Season/ Career/ Active/ Progressive/ Yearly League/ Year by Year Top 10s in these categories, among others:
- Times on Base
- Hit by Pitch
- Double Plays Grounded Into
- Outs Made
They'll also give you some of the newer stats: WAR (their version), RE24, WPA, REW.
But grand slams? Grand schlams.
Growing up, the grand slam mark meant something to me. Maybe because Lou Gehrig meant something to me, seeing as I was an overly sensitive kid and seeing as his was baseball's most melodramatic story. Or maybe it was because Gehrig was hanging out there all by himself with 23. The nearest guys? Jimmie Foxx and Ted Williams with 17. Willie McCovey would eventually hit 18 but not until 1977 or so. There was Gehrig and then everyone else.
And Babe Ruth batted in front of him! How about that? The guy in front of you was baseball's most famous base-clearer and yet you hit more grand slams than anyone. Of course, the guy in front of you also walked more than anyone else. That helped.
Obviously, to do this, you need to be on run-scoring teams for a long time and during a high-production era, and Gehrig was and was, and A-Rod was and was. So now the mark is his. 24. Junior's number.
It was even important. It put the Yankees ahead. They were tied with the Giants, 1-1 in the bottom of the 7th, and A-Rod jacked it with two outs. A single, a HBP and a walk and then gone. And then magic. You could almost call it heroic.
What's sad about all of this for people in Seattle? Three of the guys that scored in that historic grand slam for the Yankees were former Mariners: A-Rod, Ichiro, Brendan Ryan. More power to them. It's nice to know that somewhere, something historic is happening.
Yankee mystique: Brendan, Ichiro, Alex.
The Wild Wild Card
After dropping three of four to Boston, the New York Yankees are 10 games back in the A.L. East ... and, thanks in great part to the lowly Seattle Mariners, who beat Tampa Bay twice in a three-game series at Safeco Field, only 2.5 games back for the second wild card spot. Which is turning into a wild wild-card spot.
Five teams are vying for it. Five teams are within 3.5 games of each other: Tampa, then Cleveland and Baltimore (2 GB), then the Yankees (2.5) and Kansas City (3.5). Assuming the first wild card spot goes to Texas, which is 1.5 games behind Oakland but 3 games ahead of Tampa, which of these five teams has the best shot at the post-season?
They each have six series left:
- Tampa Bay: Boston, @Minnesota, Texas, Baltimore, @Yankees, @Toronto
- Cleveland: KC, @White Sox, @KC, Houston, White Sox, @Minnesota
- Baltimore: Yankees, @Toronto, @Boston, @Tampa, Toronto, Boston
- Yankees: @Baltimore, @Boston, @Toronto, San Francisco, Tampa, @ Houston
- Kansas City: @Cleveland, @Detroit, Cleveland, Texas, @Seattle, @White Sox
red = .500+ team
The Yanks and KC are down to just two home series (vs. four away) while the other split theirs (three home, three away).
Cleveland looks to have the easiest schedule: they're playing KC twice and then the three worst teams in the American League: Houston, the White Sox (twice) and Minnesota. Baltimore, I think, has the toughest schedule, including Boston twice, but they're the only team that ends its season at home. Something to be said for that. Of course they end it against Boston while KC ends it on the road against the Mariners and White Sox, while the Yankees get Houston, the worst team in baseball. Something to be said for that, too.
What this really means? We've played 90% of the season, 145 games, and have really only eliminated six of 15 teams. Somewhere, Bud Selig is smiling. Are we? How close is this to the NHL?
Harmon Killebrew's 500th Homerun
Harmon Killebrew receiving his 500th homerun ball from the Hamilton family of Golden Valley, Minn on the night of August 10, 1971. The father, Bob (second from left), caught it after it caromed off another fan's hands in the left field bleachers. Looks like it was a cold night for early August. Love the youngest boy's Twins hat. (Photo courtesy of someone on Facebook.)
There was a bit of an anticlimax to it. We'd been so spoiled and we'd waited so long, and summers can be long enough in Minnesota when you're eight years old.
Harmon Killebrew hit 49 homeruns in 1969 and 41 in 1970, and he began the 1971 season with 487 homeruns, 13 shy of 500, which only nine players had ever reached before. By the end of May he was five away and we figured, sure, easy.
But June was a slog and so was July, and he went from a .295 batting average and an .885 OPS to .255 and .802. Worse, for us, he hit only 3 homeruns in June and didn't hit No. 499 until July 25th, off Luis Tiant, his only homerun all July—unless you count the All-Star Game homerun in Detroit that year, when the following players hit homeruns: Killlebrew, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Reggie Jackson, Roberto Clemente and Johnny Bench. That was the game Jackson hit the transom on the top of the roof in right field at Tiger Stadium—one of the longest homeruns ever hit. The wind was blowing to right, and everyone went to right except for Clemente, who went to center, and Killebrew, who powered it over the wall in left. Has there ever been a game like that? Where so many premiere players, all future Hall of Famers, all first-ballot guys except Killebrew, hit homeruns? Who, when they retired, were No. 1 (Aaron), No. 4 (Robinson), No. 5 (Killebrew) and No. 6 (Jackson) on the all-time homerun list?
After the homer off Tiant, Killebrew came to the plate 28 more times in the homestand but didn't go deep, then the Twins went on a seven-game roadtrip, during which he came up 31 times and managed only four hits, all singles, and his OPS dipped to .781. This for a guy with a lifetime OPS of .884. When he retired, he had the third best homerun-to-at-bat ratios in the history of the game, behind only Babe Ruth and Ralph Kiner, a homer every 14.22 at-bats. Yet he'd been sitting on 500 for 59 straight at-bats. He'd been sitting on 499 even longer. Our attention wandered.
That was the summer things began to fall apart for the Twins. They'd been one of the best teams in the American League in 1969 and 1970 but not in 1971. The Orioles, meanwhile, the better team in the American League in 1969 and 1970, who crushed the Twins in six straight games in the playoffs those years, were better than ever, on their way to having a record four pitchers win 20 games. And guess what? They were the team coming to town, August 10, 1971.
My mother's mother, Grammie, was also in town, and she was a big Orioles fan. She lived in Finksburg, Maryland, worked at Black & Decker for decades, occassionally ranted against miscegenation and the like. Grandparent visits were always a treat but a summer one seemed odd—usually they came at Christmas—but at least it meant we could take her to a ball game. And we did, August 12th, in what looked like a good pitching match-up: Jim Kaat vs. Jim Palmer. But Don Buford deposited the first pitch into the bleachers and the Orioles romped. In my mind it was 8-0 but according to Baseball Reference my mind is faulty. It was 8-2. We might have left before the Twins scored their final run. My father was a “leave early” guy. He was a “beat the traffic” guy.
Is that the summer things began to fall apart for my parents? Is that why Grammie was out? My parents would separate in 1974 and get divorced in 1975 but they'd always been fighting. They really weren't made for each other.
Grammie was staying in my little sister's room, off in the corner, light green everywhere (shag carpet, flowery wallpaper), and on August 10th she was listening to the game on a radio in my sister's room. Why wasn't she watching it on TV? Maybe it wasn't on TV. Baseball was rarely on TV back then. Why wasn't she listening to it in another room? In the kitchen? Had there been a fight? Was she involved in it? I don't remember. I don't remember who asked her how the game was going, either—it could have been me—but she had nothing but complaints. The Orioles weren't winning. That Killebrew kept hitting homeruns.
Wait—WHAT? Killebrew hit a homerun?
He's hit two, Grammie answered.
Hey! Hey, everybody!
We all gathered in the tiny room with the light-green shag carpeting, my father, my brother and I, and peppered Grammie with questions.
She didn't have many answers but Baseball Reference does. He hit No. 500 in the bottom of the 1st, two out nobody on, to put the Twins up 1-0. In the bottom of the sixth the Twins were behind 3-1, and he came up with one on, one out, and slammed another one to tie the game. It went into extras. The O's won it in the 10th, 4-3, with Cuellar going the distance and getting the win, his 14th, which he would need to get to 20, which he would need for the Orioles to set a record with four pitchers winning 20 games. Killebrew almost prevented that from happening.
I like the fact that he hit two homeruns that day. When I was a kid going to Met Stadium, it seemed Harmon Killebrew always hit two homeruns. More importantly, he'd finally broken through and went on a late-season tear: six homeruns in August, 10 in September, 28 for the year. A comedown, sure, and I still think of 1971 as the year Harmon Killebrew got old, or human, but this is a bit faulty, too. He still led the league in RBIs with 119, and walks with 114—not that anyone was paying attention to walks or OBP or OPS back then. Back then, we were hoping he'd simply been pressing too much in June and July. Maybe things would go back to normal the following year. Normal was: my parents together, Nixon in the White House, Harmon Killebrew leading the league in homeruns. This was before I realized that normal was things falling apart.
Killebrew was 36 the next year when he would hit 26, and 37 in 1973 when he went down with an injury and hit only five. He rebounded a bit in 1974 but in January 1975, the Twins, ever loyal, released him, and a week later he signed with the Kansas City Royals, where, in his final season, 1975, he added 14 more homers for a career 573. He hit his last one, fittingly, off the Twins at Met Stadium on September 18, 1975, and that was the difference: the Royals won 4-3. I wish I'd gone to that game but my life was complicated by then. My mother and sister were living in Maryland and I was being bussed to a different school. I was learning what normal meant.
But I kept the newspaper for No. 500. I wrote my name on it as if to make sure it never went away.
The Minneapolis Star, August 11, 1971 edition. (Click on the image for a bigger, more readable version.)