And, actually, it’s a good story, as you might expect from a good writer at a good publication. In it he makes a good distinction — one I should do better about making when I cover my currently favorite beat — about how the metrics of baseball and the cultural zeitgeist of baseball are two different things. Specifically, that’s it’s one thing to say that baseball is financially healthy and gets good attendance but it’s another thing to say it’s culturally healthy and prominent and all of that.
But his mode of testing that cultural health is pretty dubious. It’s the “would you recognize Mike Trout if he walked into a bar” test. No, really:
If Mike Trout walked into your neighborhood bar, would you recognize him? . . . When was the last time baseball’s reigning king was a cultural nonentity, someone you can’t even name-drop without a non-fan giving you a patronizing smile?
He compares Trout unfavorably in this regard to Derek Jeter and David Ortiz, each of whom are big, big stars but who are now fading from the scene. And soon, baseball will have no one to replace them in terms of star power, and that “baseball’s role in the national consciousness” will now suffer.
To which I’d say: how many people would’ve recognized Derek Jeter or David Ortiz if they had walked into a bar before they spent multiple Octobers on national TV screens? Mike Trout has never appeared in the playoffs. He has not won an MVP award. When David Ortiz was his age he played in 86 games for the Minnesota Twins, splitting time with Orlando Merced and Doug Mientkiewicz. When Jeter was 22 he was far more well known, but he had also happened to be playing for the World Series champion New York Yankees. Ortiz and Jeter’s legends — and their national profiles — grew after a decade and a decade and a half of consistently being featured as stars by Fox in postseason broadcasts.
A featuring, by the way, others who lament baseball’s impending death claim was a bad thing because it excluded everyone else who played for teams that aren’t the Yankees and the Red Sox. And which mischaracterizes the nature of baseball anyway, portraying it as a sport where stars rule when, in fact, it is less amenable to domination by any one player than any other major sport is. Was pumping Jeter and Ortiz up to big heights while ignoring the rest of baseball a good thing for the sport? Is teasing a baseball game as “Star 1 vs. Star 2!” wise given the small likelihood that Star 1 or Star 2 will actually dominate the game? I sort of feel like it isn’t, even if LeBron/Kobe or Manning/Brady-style marketing works for the other sports.
But that stuff aside, the people who talk about baseball’s cultural insignificance routinely use hindsight and compare apples and oranges in this way. “Babe Ruth was huge, but who knows who Giancarlo Stanton is?!” they lament. “Mickey Mantle owned the world, but no one could pick Andrew McCutchen out of a lineup!” Never mind that the players to whom current stars are being compared have decades of movies, books and other assorted bits of lore building up their legend.
Babe Ruth was three seasons away from even joining the Yankees when he was Mike Trout’s age. I feel like we can cut some barflies some slack if they don’t recognize Trout when he walks into a bar. Hell, he’s only been legally able to do so for about two years as it is.
UPDATE: Sorry, still thinking about this and the more I think about it the more irked I am at the very premise of the New Yorker piece. The premise being that it’s somehow bad that baseball is no longer the preeminent sport in the American landscape.
Worth noting: When baseball was THE NATIONAL PASTIME three or four teams were good, no one else drew crowds and players sold cars in the winter because they had to in order to make ends meet. A lot of players were out of shape and the quality of the game was pretty poor in many respects. Baseball was a monopoly in many ways and it suffered from the same problems any other monopolies do: complacence and laziness and dumb and destructive management that was never truly punished. Go read the book “Lords of the Realm” to get a flavor of how that all played out from the 20s through the 60s. Baseball’s alleged “Golden Age.”
Baseball is no longer the only game in town. It is no longer the most popular game in town. So what? What did its prominence and popularity do for it back in the 1950s? It didn’t add any money to the bottom line of the many teams which struggled to make ends meet and were forced to sell off their players or move cities. It didn’t give fans a better product. Unless, of course, the fans happened to cheer for the Yankees. In no other area of life do we pine for a time when there were fewer choices and options, yet we seem to do it with sports. Imagine someone saying TV was better when there were only three networks. Imagine someone saying beer was better when there were only a couple of big brands you could buy. Yet people, all the time, say that we were somehow better off as a society when baseball was king.
It’s empty nostalgia is what it is. Someone explain to me how either baseball as an institution or we as a society were better off when baseball was the only sport that mattered. In one single way, tell me how baseball or society is worse off now.