There was a time when Opening Day of the baseball season was one of the most anticipated annual events in America. For most Americans, the significance of the day transcended sport, marking the welcome change of season, and the arrival of warm weather and an alteration in the landscape from burnt umber to a glorious green. The day also rekindled hope in the breasts of baseball fans everywhere. Everyone had a favorite team whether you lived in a city with a pro franchise or not, and before any wins or losses were tallied, the dream of post-season glory was alive in every beating heart.
For those born after 1970, it is difficult to describe the hold that baseball had on the national consciousness. Today, despite record-setting attendance at ballparks, gigantic television contracts, and four 24-hour sports networks, Major League Baseball has fallen from its perch as the most dominant game in America, replaced by football in the hearts and minds of sports fans.
There are a plethora of reasons why this is so. Overexposure is a big one. When baseball was king, there were only one or two nationally televised games a week. Even if you were lucky enough to live in a city with a pro franchise, roughly half the games would be televised. I have fond memories of taking a transistor radio to bed, hiding under the covers to listen to Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Elson call a West Coast game, or sitting on the back porch on a Sunday afternoon with the game on the radio and the family gathered around.
Today, every single game is televised, with the all-sports cable networks broadcasting replays and highlights all day long. Something special went out of the game when baseball became so ubiquitous. It lost some of its mystique, its perception as a special event.
I wrote this back in 2005, while the White Sox were making their magical run to a World Series crown:
While there are many that bemoan the fall of baseball from its preeminent position as the number one sport in America, you cannot escape the fact that the game has fallen victim to what is the essence of America itself: an unalterable and inexorable fact of life in this country that things do not remain the same, that society and culture are in a constant state of motion.
America has changed. Baseball hasn’t.
Baseball couldn’t change. The game itself is draped in tradition, in memory. There is no other game seen through the prism of remembrance quite like baseball. Sitting on the back porch in 1950s and ’60s suburbia listening to the hissing, static filled play-by-play on radio while the fireflies blinked to announce their presence and the sweet smell of Jasmine filled the nostrils with the scent of summer, of family, of a shared passion. Or perhaps in the city you sat on the front stoop with every other house on the block blaring out the call of the game, a broadcast legend conducting a city wide symphony of sound, mothers with babies, fathers with sons, and the young, the old, laughing, talking, arguing, loving. A neighborhood, a community united around a passion so intense that enmities were temporarily forgotten as “the boys” or “the bums” performed extraordinary feats of effortless athleticism with both the workmanlike attitude of the blue collar hero and the pizazz of a circus performer.
Yes, that America existed at one time. And while memory may skew some of the details and gloss over much of the unseemly realities from those times, there is no doubt that baseball for much of the country occupied a privileged position in the hearts and minds of the people. In a time before the total saturation of sports, before ubiquitous replays, before free agency made players into hobos, before steroids turned the players into Frankenstein monsters, before rape trials and murder trials and divorces and scandal after scandal there was the pitcher, the batter, and the lovely dance of strategy and possibility. To bunt or not to bunt. To swing away or hit and run. To pitch out, or put the rotation” play on, or simply to play “straight up.” This was actually part of the national conversation when baseball was king.
James Earl Jones’ character in Field of Dreams, Terry Mann, said it best:
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. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.
Is there really something to mourn, that Opening Day doesn’t have the impact on our psyche that it once had? Or that baseball is considered by many as a second-tier sport, behind football and even basketball in some places when it comes to fan frenzy and fanaticism?
It is what it is. There’s no sense in mourning for an America that no longer exists and will never be again. But, like the old ones in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, I am hopeful that there will always be just enough of us to pass on our love and passion for the game to the younger generation and keep alive the traditions and the memory of what baseball once meant to America and what it still means to so many of us.