National / Sports / October 20, 2010

Why are Americans letting our pastime pass us by?

Let’s have a hearing. Everyone seated around a circular table with a pitcher of water, microphones and nameplates—the whole nine yards. The presiding member—I guess that would be me—must ask an opening question of all the participants. Let’s just have a show of hands.

Who watched Monday Night Football this week? Yeah, the Jaguars-Titans game. The one that was 30-3. Yes, that one. Okay, a decent amount of people raised their hands.

Who watched the Yankees-Rangers game on Monday night? Yes, on TBS. The Cliff Lee game. The Rangers won, 8-0. Yes, the Rangers. Okay, a not-so-great show of hands.

If, in this simulated hearing of ours, more people raised their hands for Monday Night Football, that would be in line with the national data. More people, for God knows what reason, tuned in for the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars—the Alliteration Bowl!—than watched Cliff Lee strike out 13 Yankees en route to giving Texas a 2-1 American League Championship Series lead over the defending champions and universally reviled empire.

Let’s have another hearing. Simple question and, again, a show of hands. Would anyone object to a moratorium on that whole baseball being the “national pastime” thing?

I mean, don’t get me wrong: I love baseball. I love it more, in its professional form, than any other league on Earth. I buy into the whole “baseball is America, America is baseball” business hook, line and sinker. When I hear Walt Whitman’s name, I do not think of “Leaves of Grass”; rather, I remember his quote from the opening chapter of Ken Burns’ documentary series “Baseball”:

“In our sun-down perambulations, of late, through the outer parts of Brooklyn, we have observed several parties of youngsters playing ‘base,’ a certain game of ball…Let us go forth awhile, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our close rooms…the game of ball is glorious.”

Americans, these days at least, seem to disagree. The National Football League, at a time when antipathy is as high as ever (perhaps due to the 46 concussions recorded this year, or Brett Favre’s penis), beat Major League Baseball with, again I reiterate, the Jaguars and the Titans. Vince Young got hurt. David Garrard got hurt. This was a blowout that featured Kerry Collins and Trent Edwards under center. It may have been the most uninteresting Monday Night Football game of the year.

The Rangers-Yankees game, on the other hand, featured Cliff Lee, a true rarity in our times: a rubber-armed lefty with a sharp curve, incredible control and mid-90s heat. He is, arguably, the most electrifying pitcher around today. And the Yankees, of course, are the Yankees: Jeter, Rodriguez, Posada, Cano, etc. This was set to be a hell of a game.

And Lee was up against Andy Pettitte! The best postseason pitcher of our generation! In primetime. In 1975, men across the country would have eaten a hot pile of sh-t to watch a game like this. In one bite.

But, again, not anymore. Baseball, for whatever reason, cannot maintain its relevance with NASCAR and the NFL around. October is no longer about baseball, no longer about the World Series. It’s about midseason matchups in the NFL or cars circling a track in Charlotte.

Don’t blame steroid use or other controversies. The NFL, again, is in the midst of a tremendous controversy regarding concussions, and dealt with their own steroid issues in recent years. After a summer that featured studies linking concussions to Lou Gehrig’s Disease and a fall that featured gratuitous photos of Brett Favre’s penis, Americans still worship the sport. And there is no reason to believe things are slowing down.

Don’t blame the length of games, or the infiltration of advertising. In Monday’s Jaguars-Titans game, ESPN producers had the balls to ask Titans coach Jeff Fisher to take a timeout with a minute left in the 30-3 blowout because they needed to air advertising. There are no words.

Don’t blame free agency, parity, etc. The NFL, in 2010, has never been weaker. How mediocre is the league that Ben Roethlisberg’s fat-assed return is the story of the season?

I’m not sure who or what to blame. Perhaps this is the natural blowback of the generations, revenge for George Will lecturing Americans in the late 1980s about baseball being “Heaven’s gift to mortals,” as Jose Canseco pumped himself full of crank and dinosaur testosterone. Maybe people have better things to do.

It’s sad, though, that fact: that baseball may no longer truly be the national pastime; that we may no longer associate ourselves with the only truly American sport; that most kids don’t know what the keystone position is; that kids probably think Pee Wee Reese is just the name of their local little league.

Hopefully, in twenty years, after two decades of parental discretion preventing kids from playing tackle football, pushing better athletes onto baseball diamonds, we can look back to this time as a sort of sporting-cultural low point, as the time when we almost lost sight of our pastime.

Then again, maybe parents will put their kids in stock car lessons. Little Larrys and Carls all over the country will dream of being Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson—not Justin Upton or Felix Hernandez.

My stomach turns.

Kevin Morris

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