Why Fans Should Stop Mythologizing Baseball

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Werner Kunz (werkunz1)/flickr

In the aftermath of the blown call that cost Detroit Tiger pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game earlier this month, it was inevitable that baseball would come under fire for not embracing instant replay of umpiring decisions as the NFL, and now the NBA, have done.

It was just as inevitable that first-base umpire Jim Joyce's glaring mistake would be spun as an argument for the virtues of baseball. "It's the imperfections, including blown calls by umpires, that make the sport so special," a rare front-page sports column in the Los Angeles Times proclaimed. "What baseball did and should continue to do, is swallow hard and accept that what makes it so vulnerable is also what makes it so cool. " And sure enough commentators rushed to remind us of the insight of Dante-scholar-turned-Yale-president-turned National-League-president Bart Giamatti that baseball "is designed to break your heart." Excuse me, but how can such arguments be seriously offered in defense of baseball as a spectator sport? Shouldn't we want to see skill and ability appropriately rewarded and a pitcher who exhibits such exceptional (well, maybe not so exceptional, since there had been two perfect games—recorded without interference by the umpires—within the previous two weeks) mastery enjoy his just reward? Why do we need baseball to break our hearts- don't we get enough of that in our everyday lives at home and on the job?

Struggling to make lemonade out of umpire Joyce's lemon, baseball commissioner Bud Selig was reduced to claiming:

Only baseball could produce a story like that ... I don't want to be trite here, but it really turned out to be a great story. You have a pitcher who acted just beautifully. You had an umpire who did what a lot of people in life should do—told the truth, "I screwed up," and that was it. And I have undying admiration and respect for him, as I have told him. You have the Tigers fans that acted well. [Detroit manager] Jimmy Leyland could not have been better. I was very proud of baseball.

Is this really the best pitch that baseball can make? Sadly, it was pretty much of a piece with the ways in which its advocates tend to write about the sport. Football and basketball celebrate athleticism and achievement. As coverage of the World Cup now reminds us, so does soccer, with artistry thrown into the celebratory mix as well. Baseball's acolytes tend to stray beyond any apparently trivial attention to what actually happens on the diamond itself. To come back to Giamatti, he evoked "The Green Fields of the Mind" and wrote:

the game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.

This summoning up of fields of dreams, green grass of everlasting youth, time standing still, mystical bonds of generational memory, and so on seems to dominate the sport's literature. Why is it so difficult to make a stronger case for the virtues of the game itself as actually played?

But perhaps it is safer to rest the case for baseball on such ethereal grounds. The alternative may be even more detrimental to the "best interests of baseball" from the point of view of salesmanship. After all, a baseball official once testified in opposition to free agency that a typical game of baseball was so lacking in excitement compared to other spectator sports that the only way to keep fans interested was to create long-standing emotional ties to favorite players by allowing teams to control players for the length of their careers.

As for the ultimate consolation that was held out to pitcher Galarraga—that the hoopla over his perfect game would have blown over in a few days but that now he would enjoy a kind of immortality as a result of his victimization—don't be too sure. With baseball the favorite sport of only 6 percent of fans under 30 years old, the odds are against even that kind of back handed claim on the future.

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Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball and has written widely about the business and politics of sports. More

Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball (WW Norton). He has written about the business and politics of sports, the American left, Jewish and Israeli history, and legal affairs for publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Journal of Sport History, Israel Affairs, The Public Interest, American Communist History, The National Pastime, and the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, and his work has appeared in several baseball history anthologies.

His article "Revising the Revisionists: Walter O' Malley, Robert Moses and the End of the Brooklyn Dodgers" was awarded the Kerr History Prize for the best article published in 2008 in the journal New York History; an earlier version of that article was presented at the Columbia University symposium "Robert Moses: New Perspectives on the Master Builder" (March 2007) and received a McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award. He is the recipient of research grants from the Society for American Baseball Research and the Harry S. Truman Library Institute.

Fetter is a graduate of Harvard Law School and also holds degrees in history from Harvard College and the University of California, Berkeley. A native New Yorker, he attended his first major league baseball game at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field on Memorial Day 1955 and some years later followed the Dodgers to Los Angeles where he has practiced business and entertainment litigation for the past 30 years.

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