The conventional wisdom is that baseball was surpassed — long ago — by football as the No. 1 most popular spectator sport in America.
And the National Football League absolutely reveled in its apparent superiority to the Grand Old Game. Football people haughtily looked down their noses at baseball as the “sport of the last century.” No action, they said. Bucolic. A remnant of a bygone era.
Look at our sport, they boasted. There’s action. Skill. Violence. It was everything modern America had become. Or so it seemed.
Now it’s the NFL’s turn. It would seem that while the league executives were all busy congratulating themselves on what a fine sport they had, and what a fine business model the league was, basketball sneaked up and passed both sports.
That’s right. Basketball. The NFL is fending off report after report about former stars battling permanent brain injuries. The other day, there was a report that said nearly half the Patriots players on the team’s first three Super Bowl champions now had some presence of brain trauma they were dealing with.
To go along with this, there’s more than enough evidence that these injuries piled up with the complicity of the league itself, which spoke for years out of both sides of its mouth. On one hand, it implemented penalties for hitting defenseless players, while on the other hand, its broadcast toadies like ESPN relentlessly promoted the jarring violence of the game.
Meanwhile, basketball — at least on the professional level — made a decision about 30 years ago that the NBA was going to be a star’s league. If you were Shaquille O’Neal, or Michael Jordan, you were going to be allowed to take 12 steps to the basket before dunking. If you were Brian Scalabrine, and you moved your pivot foot two inches, you’d be traveling, my man.
That was the way of the league. Rookies would stand in the paint and take charges only to be called for blocking fouls. Shaq would steamroll some puny guard half his size on the way to the hole and there would be, in the frantic words of the late Johnny Most, “no call!”
So now, what do you have in the NBA? You have LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, and so many more. Just about every team has an identifiable, marketable star. And the league understands it, and plays to it.
I don’t lament this. In fact, I agree with it. There are too many things competing against each other, and in an environment where the American attention span is shrinking by the second.
We’re no longer talking about two people, or two teams, competing. We’re talking about a multi-billion-dollar collection of entertainment conglomerates. The NBA isn’t competing with the NFL as much as it’s competing with the latest Hollywood blockbuster, or, dare I say it without a flock of disciples pecking at me, the latest Donald Trump tweet.
It’s all the same thing. As Billy Flynn said in the musical “Chicago,” it’s all showbiz, kid. You gotta give ’em the old razzle dazzle.
That’s what works today, and I’m fine with it. But personally, I identify more with the way things were 50 years ago than I do with anything going on now. I fell in love with baseball not so much because of any action it had (or didn’t have), but because of all the quirky things about it — the names, and the mannerisms players had, or their batting stances, or the way they wound up and pitched. And the fact that it was a game that was completely in tune with the ambiance of a lazy summer afternoon.
I loved colorful, alliterative names such as Minnie Minoso, Mickey Mantle and Don Demeter. I liked the funny names like Ike Delock. I could watch Dick McAuliffe of the Detroit Tigers hit all day because of the way he stood there waiting for a pitch. My Little League coach would have screamed at me had I hit like that.
What kid didn’t try to imitate The Mick as he rounded the bases after hitting a homerun? Who among my peers didn’t try to kick that leg straight up to the sky the way Juan Marichal of the San Francisco Giants did?
When Tony Conigliaro began playing with the Red Sox, and I’d go down to the park to play a game of baseball, Sandlot style, more than half the kids got up to bat and went through his routine before getting ready to hit.
This is why I love the game. It’s more than just raw action. It’s a game for observant people.
Yes, it runs counter to every bit of what America has become today. It’s not brassy, and it’s not loud, and it’s not showy. You don’t have to have scintillating action every second for it to appeal to its fans. It more than makes up for that with a curious combination of tension and goofiness.
So as I sit here waiting for Snowmageddon III, I dream of a time, in the not-that-distant past, where I could lie on my couch on a Saturday afternoon and fall asleep to the cadence of Curt Gowdy or Ned Martin broadcasting a baseball game.
There’s still enough of that in my DNA to anticipate the opening of another season in two weeks, even if baseball tries its best to ruin every good thing about itself.