Thursday, August 04, 2005

Mid-Summer Post

Americans inveterately use sports metaphors in talking about everything from politics and economics to personal development and sex. But sometimes, to paraphrase Freud, a game is just a game.

I mention this because John Judis, one of my few journalistic idols, posted a meditation at TNROnline yesterday on Ryne Sandburg's Hall of Fame induction speech last weekend. Judis' purpose was to suggest that baseball is falling prey to the same erosion of community and responsibility as corporate America at large.

While I agree with Judis' broader point about the decline of mutuality in the modern corporate workplace, I'm not sure baseball is a particularly apt example of it. For one thing, baseball, as a highly regulated competitive game, has self-correcting features not generally prevalent in other markets. And for another, the game has gone through similar problems many times before.

In suggesting the Pastime's association with the sturdy virtues of the past, Judis says: "baseball itself is a very conservative game." I disagree. But there's something about baseball that certainly brings out the conservative instincts of its fans.

Indeed, what struck me most about the preoccupation of both Judis and Sandberg with the alleged ruination of the game by one-dimensional sluggers was a strong sense of déjà vu: their complaint closely tracked the very first book I read about baseball, more than a generation ago, My Life In Baseball: The True Record, by Ty Cobb and Al Stump. Cobb and Stump similarly fretted about the domination of the game by "humpty-dumpty strong boys pulling the ball over the fences," and echoed every old-timer's paen to the Total Players of the past. As it happens, they were writing near the end of a relatively brief period of home-run-oriented baseball not fundamentally different from the 1990s. By the mid-1960s, pitchers began controlling the game, and soon after, thanks to the construction of large, multi-purpose stadiums with artificial turf, the game devolved back towards something resembling the old-timers' fantasies, with high levels of stolen bases, sacrifice bunts and other one-run strategies, and strong defenses characterizing many winning teams.

Yet baseball "traditionalists" generally deplored those boring, sterile stadiums and the fake grass. In one of the great ironies of the game, the most self-consciously conservative trend in baseball history, the construction of a new generation of intimate, baseball-only, retro parks, did a lot to produce the "ruinous" and revolutionary home run derby of the 1990s. And now, though you wouldn't know it from the Judis/Ryneberg argument, there's been another reaction, and home run totals are steadily heading down towards historic norms.

The point is that baseball moves in cycles, and it's only the tendency of so many fans and sportswriters to idolize the real and imagined past that makes the movement look unprecedented and negative.

If you want a much more balanced and nuanced view of the game and its development, along with a more measured series of suggestions about current excesses, you should read The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract. As James shows, the game has always featured greedy and sometimes stupid owners; narcissistic superstars; cheaters of one variety or another; and over-evaulations of the contributions of one-dimensional players, from sluggers to batting champs to acrobatic infielders to "closers."

And while the economics of the game have indeed gone nuts, the most recent trends in baseball may well be slowly but surely producing a correction. Look at the standings today. Most of the big-payroll, big-market teams are struggling. The hottest team in baseball right now is the Oakland A's, a team (as detailed by Michael Lewis in his 2003 book, Moneyball) that has applied Bill James' empirical measurements of player value to win with a relatively tiny payroll. James himself is a consultant to the World's Champion Red Sox, working for a whiz-kid disciple of his. The most successful franchise in recent history is the Atlanta Braves, who have won 13 straight division titles with stable management, a strong farm system, and a very balanced offense and defense--a very old-timey approach.

Perhaps salary insanity and steroids are truly producing an irreversible crisis in baseball, but I doubt it. And while I don't endorse this regulated industry as a model for American capitalism, I also don't think it's typical of capitalism's worst features, either.

Let's continue to treat baseball as a game; as a metaphor, it's usually overplayed.
-- Posted at 3:59 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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