It is often said that love and hatred are closely allied. Why does baseball so often have to remind us of this? I don't know that I've ever loved the game as much as I did at the end of last season. And my favorite team lost the World Series! (It's true that they'd won the last four out of five.) Something about the Fall Classic last year was beyond winning and losing; it smacked of Greek drama. Though the Yankees were vanquished by the Diamondbacks (few humiliations were sharper than seeing Randy Johnson scoring two runs as a batter in Game Six!), their late-inning heroics in games Four and Five, with New York City still reeling and the tattered Stars and Stripes flying above the Stadium, left my nerves permanently and pleasantly jangled. Baseball did for our nation what nothing else could do—a mere game brought healing and catharsis.
Enter Bud Selig, baseball's uncouth commissioner. He chose the week after the Series to call for the elimination of two teams before the start of this season (apparently with full consent of the owners), opening old wounds that bring back the misery of the 1994 strike. Although this was perhaps the only way that the Montreal Expos would ever become the talk of the off-season, the price has been heavy upon baseball fanhood. And deferring contraction at least until the end of the 2002 season seems to me merely to make matters increasingly ugly—the Expos lameduck journey is depressing before it has even begun, and the legal wrangling in Minnesota, with none other than Gov. Jesse Ventura in the midst, has taken on the flavor of WWF theatrics. Thus the game that wrought such pure passions from us in October has elicited enmity over the winter.
But baseball's troubles go much deeper. Rooting for the Yankees—as I hate to be reminded, even as I celebrate the acquisition of Jason Giambi—means rooting for the wealthiest team in the sport, with the heftiest payroll and an outrageously deep revenue stream. And it is money that is at the root of baseball's woes, as the sport tries to deal with the very odd problem of an embarrassment of riches.
Indeed, the contraction debacle has obscured the real dilemma, the seemingly impassable divide between the owners and the players' union. November 7 of last year marked the expiration of the current labor contract between the owners and the players and the beginning of what threatens to become a protracted battle over how baseball's embarrassing riches will be distributed.
No play at the plate has ever generated the sort of collision that will transpire when the "sweeping changes" that Bud Selig claims are necessary for the health of the game, begin to take shape. Congress is currently deliberating once again the unique anti-trust exemption which has protected Major League Baseball since 1922, and though Selig opted out of testifying to the Senate Judiciary Committee on February 4, he did send his lawyer to publicly lament what the owners see as an untenable financial situation, citing losses in the hundreds of millions last year.
The average fan stands by baffled, witnessing an ambitious and stubborn players' union justifying salaries of $20 million a year as "defending market value," while owners who charge $35 for bad seats at stadiums that are often filled to overflowing, with television revenue doubling and gate income tripling, claim to be broke. Where might some sanity be found?
In books, of course. Books written by people who love the game of baseball unequivocally. The long-simmering crisis has inspired several well-known voices to seek a hearing—and I do mean "voices" literally, as a handful of baseball's signature broadcasters have written books on the state of the game over the last several years. Bob Costas and Joe Morgan, longtime colleagues in the NBC booth, have each offered their useful, albeit idiosyncratic, perspectives on the troubles that currently plague the game, and Tim McCarver, the Fox and longtime New York Mets analyst, has written a couple of books that deserve some attention, although McCarver's tone is decidedly more positive.
McCarver's The Perfect Season (1999), written with Danny Peary, grows out of the conviction—which he shares with Costas and with Morgan— that the 1998 season, particularly the sustained drama of the McGwire-Sosa home-run record chase, served as a redemptive moment for the game. If only baseball could bottle the ingredients of that wonderfully improbable year!
The exuberance McCarver displays in this series of essays is at times overwrought, but he has his reasons. As he writes in the introduction, "The sport of baseball is characterized by imperfections—remember that great hitters make outs seven of ten times—so, ironically, a 'perfect season' in baseball must include flaws and failures. What made 1998 so rewarding to fans, however, is that the players achieved so much as individuals and as a whole that the negatives virtually faded into the background. The flies in the ointment were killed off."
Such unashamed optimism carries through almost all the essays in the book, which cover all the expected ground, from Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to the Yankees record-breaking number of victories, from Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout game to the remarkable seasons of Ken Griffey, Jr., Barry Bonds, Randy Johnson, and others.
Only occasionally does McCarver allude to the troubles hovering around the game even in its finest hour, but the places where he does turn out to be the most interesting of the book. For instance, his essay on the long-overdue induction of Larry Doby, the first black player in American League, into the Hall of Fame bears subtle condemnation of the racial inequity that continues to plague baseball.
I much prefer McCarver's 1998 book, Baseball for Brain Surgeons and Other Fans, also written with Danny Peary, because in it the author reveals in a systematic fashion the wealth of baseball knowledge he has gleaned from over 20 years as a major league catcher (what else?!) and nearly another 20 as a broadcast analyst. McCarver's insights are penetrating, and the book is encyclopedic in its expanse.
Still, his only real lament on the state of the contemporary game comes at the very end, with reference to the dearth of all-around skills in the modern player: "I think players should have a responsibility to learn to play the game more thoroughly, including fielding and base running. They should no longer take things for granted. For the sport to capture the imagination of the public as it once did, I think that it's up to the players to raise the caliber of play in the major leagues to the level of their amazing talents. They owe it to the fans, they owe it to themselves, and they owe it to baseball."
The sentiment is right-spirited, but it belies McCarver's near-exclusive emphasis on the game as it is played between the foul lines. Unfortunately, the health of baseball depends on factors far beyond the playing field.
Next week: Solutions to baseball's crisis?
Michael R. Stevens is assistant professor of English at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Books & Culture Corner earlier examined baseball at the end of the 2001 World Series.
Michael R. Stevens also wrote an article for Books & Culture on T.S. Eliot.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
America's Homegrown Islam—and Its Prophet | The strange story of Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam and onetime mentor of Malcolm X. (Mar. 11, 2002)
'Must Be Superstition' | Rediscovering spiritual reality. (Mar. 4, 2002)
Science Holds a Meeting | A report from the annual convention of the AAAS. (Feb. 25, 2002)
Saint Frodo and the Potter Demon | The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series spring from the same source. (Feb. 18, 2002)
Dictionary of the Future | Trendspotter Faith Popcorn on the words that will define our tomorrow. (Feb. 11, 2002)
Does Creationism Equal Holocaust Denial? | Yes, says Michael Shermer in Scientific American. (Feb. 4, 2002)
Theodore Rex | Is "popular history" getting a bad rap? (Jan. 28, 2002)
Letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. | A progress report. (Jan. 21, 2002)
Keeping the Dust on Your Boots | Remembering the Afghan refugees—and the church in Iran. (Jan. 14, 2002)
Coming Attractions | Books to watch for this year. (Jan. 7, 2002)
Books of the Year, Part 2 | After the top ten, here's the best of the rest. (Jan. 4, 2002)
Books of the Year | Part 1: The Top Ten (Dec. 17, 2001)
"Daddy, What Is the Soul?" | Does the church have an answer? (Dec. 10, 2001)