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Take Me Out of the Ball Game

3 April 2006

Baseball is back.

But the wholesome and idyllic aura historically associated with America’s national pastime is now but a distant memory. Whatever innocence remains has been more than offset by greed, excessive commercialism and “chemical enhancements.”

Despite a new probe to investigate steroid use, it’s clearly a case of too little, too late. Everyone in the game—from players to managers to owners—benefited financially by ignoring the problem.

A tipping point has been reached, however, that makes ignoring it virtually impossible. MLB commissioner BUD SELIG insists that the investigation has nothing to do with BARRY BONDS threatening to shatter baseball’s hallowed all-time home run record. His assertion, though, rings as hollow as the corked bat once used by SAMMY SOSA.

This spirit of artificialness is but a metaphor for where the game has been going for some time now.

The official Field of Dreams movie site poses and answers its own question: “Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa. A place of fertile soil, traditional values and simple pleasure.” Iowa, maybe. But going to a major league game today is more like being stuck in Times Square traffic at rush hour.

When 50,000 fans see BRITNEY SPEARS’ undulating butt light up a panoramic scoreboard—all in the noble name of hawking cans of Pepsi—Iowa starts sounding better by the minute (no offense Iowa!).

Accompanied by earsplitting top-40 detritus, we see digital rockets explode and bulls blow smoke from their flaring nostrils before they pummel their weaker counterparts.

Pavlovian exhortations condition fans much as laugh-tracks cue sitcom viewers. “CLAP!!!” (As if fans don’t know when to show their excitement.) Clap. Clap. Clap, clap, clap. The pace is the same. One. Two. One, two, three.

Then the cavalry trumpet blares before the sound of “CHARGE!!!” rises and subsides with parabolic predictability. And let’s not forget “Rock and Roll Part 2,”—popularly known as “The Hey Song,”—the essential call to battle by convicted pedophile GARY GLITTER.

Why is the game being so cheapened?

Could it be that MLB’s power brokers are gussying up their great dame of a game with blinding ‘glitter’ and third-rate trinkets because basketball is hipper and edgier? If so, they should stop it.

Baseball’s fans love the game because of its strong identity and sense of self. They adore the centrality of strategy and the nostalgia, history and stats associated with the game.

If America’s youth doesn’t care for baseball, so be it. The youthful and influential hip-hop culture has embraced the world of basketball, not baseball.

And things won’t get any easier for MLB.

Young Americans are being raised in a society totally immersed in video games and the Internet, media which offer constant feedback. In basketball, the action is near-continuous. In sharp contrast, more than 80% of a baseball game’s official time-length occurs between pitches.

Young Americans probably don’t want to see action just 20% of the time. Nor are they inclined to wait three innings to see their favorite player bat. In comparison, a basketball fan’s favorite player is almost always in motion and can score at virtually any time.

However, MLB was smart to support the World Baseball Classic, which was a joy to watch, and represented, for the first time, a true world series.

After Japan beat Cuba to win the inaugural series, exultant Japanese players threw manager SADAHARU OH high above their heads.

Now compare the goodwill and affection showered upon Oh with the acrimony and distrust sticking to Bonds as he pursues what should have been MLB’s greatest public relations moment.

Even if Bonds ends up passing BABE RUTH and HANK AARON, his record will always be discounted due to serious allegations of steroid use, which means that baseball would be cheapened—yet once again.

[Photo Courtesy of AP]