Is the World Series Still the Nation's Field of Dreams?
By Rick Moran
Tonight, upholding a tradition dating back to 1903 resumes when the Boston Red Sox take on the Colorado Rockies in baseball's World Series.
For the Rockies, it will be their first trip to the Fall Classic, having only been in the National League since 1993. As you can imagine, there is baseball mania in Denver with so many people trying to buy World Series tickets, their online computers crashed. Their fans are excited and should be. This is a team that woke up on September 16th 4 1/2 games out of the Wild Card race for the playoffs with only 15 games to go. Only a miracle run would allow them to make the post-season.
For the final 15 games of the regular season, the Rockies walked on water. They went an astonishing 14-1, defeating San Diego in a one game playoff for the Wild Card spot 9-8 in 13 innings. The Rocks scored 3 runs in the bottom of the inning off of all-world closer Trevor Hoffman after the Padres had gone up by two runs in the top of the inning on a 2 run homer by Scott Hairston.
Not content with pulling that rabbit out of a hat, the Rockies then raged through the Division Series and NL Championship Series by sweeping first Philadelphia and then Arizona right out of the stadium. Their amazing string now stands at 22 games played and 21 wins since September 16th - the greatest run to the post season in baseball history.
Speaking of history, how about those Red Sox? While the Rockies are playing in their first World Series, Boston can boast of playing in the very first World Series ever staged in 1903. They have appeared in 10 other Fall Classics, winning 5 of them but only once since 1918 - that memorable year of 2004 when pictures of 90-something seniors who had been alive the last time Boston won a world championship showed the aging BoSox fans weeping like infants.
But despite these compelling story lines, the sad fact is that the World Series today is but a shadow moving across the sports saturated TV landscape, a wraith whose imprint on our national psyche is but a ghost of what it used to be.
There was a time when baseball was king and the players were gods and the country literally stopped when the Series was on. In election years, politicians didn't bother campaigning much because no one was paying attention to them. Productivity plummeted as people would gather around radios at work, on the street, in bars and homes across the country. I can recall in 3rd grade Sister Nona giving us a geography lesson and occasionally interrupting to get the score from a student who brought a transistor radio to school.
World Series games back then were all played during the day. It was estimated that 70 million people would tune in to either the television or radio broadcast. Kids would race home after school to catch the last half of the game, joining their mothers and sometimes their fathers who were playing hooky from work in front of the TV or radio.
The Series transfixed the nation as no other event save war.
Tell that to anyone under 30 today and they won't believe it. Or even if they do, they roll their eyes and say "baseball" in a tone of voice dripping with contempt. Baseball's fall from grace wasn't exactly sudden but it dovetailed with a change in American tastes which reflected a growing preference for fast games and a faster lifestyle. Or maybe it was the onset of free agency and escalating salaries which turned players into hobos - fabulously rich hobos to be sure. But a huge change from a time when even average baseball fans knew many of the players and what teams they played for.
The reasons why are not really important. It's not like one can get in a time machine and take America back and deposit her in some other reality. Some refer to that period when baseball reigned supreme as a simpler time, a misnomer if there ever was one.
It's never been "simple" being an American. The ability to change, to adapt has always been the most highly prized attribute in American society. "It's good to be shifty in a new country" was actually an adage taught in grammar school in the 19th century. The unbridled pace of change that makes America such a hugely vibrant and vital place also makes it a scary, even depressing milieu to live. For many, the psychic cost of change is too much to bear and broken lives and shattered families litter the seascape of our society like the flotsam and jetsam of a shipwreck following a huge storm.
Change is neither good nor bad; it simply exists. And the changes in American society that have caused the game of baseball to lose its luster and hasten its fall from grace say more about us as a people and how we interact with each other than it does about the game itself.
It is ironic that while sports - all sports - currently occupy such a lofty position in the national psyche that the essence of the games and their original purpose as a uniting expedient for American communities has been lost. Now the games are shared experiences nationally. There is not quite the same feeling of intimate association with a particular team and its players.
Sports is very big business. Most franchises are owned by giant corporations rather than the gentleman sportsmen of the past. The Yawkeys, the Comiskeys, the Wrigleys and other former owners used to take a personal interest in seeing that their teams were competitive. This is not necessarily true today as the relentless rise in salaries has necessitated that the bean counters dictate how competitive a team might be in a given year. Can't afford that extra $15 million a year for a front line pitcher?
Oh well, maybe one of the kids we drafted last year will come through and allow us to be competitive until September.
This is what passes for strategy in today's game.
If the recent past is any judge, around 22 million of us will gather around the TV to watch Boston take on Colorado this year. That number is dwarfed by the numbers who watch the Super Bowl every year and barely beats the number who watched the NBA Finals during the last years of Michael Jordan's career with the Chicago Bulls. (Viewing for the Finals has dropped precipitously in this country since 1998.)
But no matter. The country may not pause in its headlong rush toward the future to watch baseball's premiere event but in my house, the Series will be the number one show of the week. And it will be that way as long as the game remains what it always has been, best expressed by James Earl Jones in the mythical baseball movie Field of Dreams:
The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again...
Perhaps when things are "good again," baseball will assume its old position as our National Pastime. No? Given this nation's ability to change, I wouldn't bet against the idea.
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