Sports Nut

Baseball: Our Fake National Pastime

The most important thing to remember about me is that I’m a baseball agnostic. Always have been. Whatever it is in the game that touches its most fervent adherents, I’ve been immune from birth to it. Basketball revs me up. So does football—the true national pastime, in the sense that football at every level touches more parts of the country, large and small, than baseball ever will. Football grows organically out of far more places. Baseball, even at the minor-league level, is sort of imposed on a town, and, compared to football, there is no high-school or college baseball worthy of comparison. To me, there hasn’t been a minor-league baseball game ever played that compares in the least to the average LSU-Mississippi game, let alone monsters like Alabama-Auburn or Army-Navy. Hell, there aren’t many major-league games that do. And that’s because those games are tied into a sense of grass-roots community with which baseball lost touch years ago. And yes, I know that, at the gate, baseball still outdraws the other sports, and that’s good, if only because the figures usually make Bud Selig look even sillier.

(By the way—if baseball were truly as important as it once was, could it possibly tolerate a Babbitty huckster like Selig as its CEO? That’s like handing the Nimitz over to Cap’n Crunch.)

Consequently, I agree with you, but I also think that there’s something more random about baseball interest, particularly with the playoffs and World Series. Every time there’s a great series—like the Sox and Yankees this season—the baseball fascists will thump their chests and talk about baseball’s reasserting itself as the national pastime. Then, come next June, it will have dropped once again to the same level of interest it has every year—a regionally significant entertainment enterprise that benefits most by the fact that it’s played in the warm sunshine. Baseball engages us almost anecdotally now—the great Series, McGwire and Sosa in 1998, a long winning or losing streak. It reminds us of why it once was important without ever reasserting that importance for any length of time.

On the other topic, my baseball agnosticism also leaves me disinclined to enter into arguments about the announcers—although McCarver’s more unpopular in Boston these days than he was in ‘67, when he helped Bob Gibson squash Yaz and the Impossible Dreamers. I tend to tune McCarver in and out, but I’d be lying if I said I never learned anything about the game from him. I give him points for being largely shtickless, and I deduct some for his sudden turn into Fudhood. (Has he shut up yet about Manny Ramirez’s styling? God, it was like listening to Chris Matthews blathering about Monica. My dear young man, it simply is not done.) I still like Jim Kaat. As for the play-by-play dudes, aren’t they all named Buck, Brennaman, Caray, or Albert? God, I love living in a meritocracy.