Some years back, I heard about a serious historical paper with a seriously offbeat thesis: The Wizard of Oz is not, like most of us thought, simply a story L. Frank Baum made up for his children. Rather, it’s an allegory for the Populist rebellion of the 1890s.
The scholarly paper noted several curious parallels between Dorothy’s story and that of the Populists (whose movement, by the way, swept through Kansas like a whirlwind).
For example, in 1890 the agrarian underdogs rousted the old boys from a slew of governorships and congressional seats. (That was like dropping a house on the Wicked Witch of the East.) Their aim was to take Washington (the gleaming Emerald City), although they were beset by powerful enemies (the Wicked Witch of the West).
But their frustrating experiences with national politics left the Populists disillusioned (the Wizard turned out be a humbug), and, ultimately, they slunk back to the South and the Plains. (“There’s no place like home.”)
Which brings us ’round, as you knew it eventually would, to the annual opening of baseball season. In the historical paper’s spirit of scientific inquiry, I’d like to submit a really out-of-left-field thesis: that baseballin spite of sagging attendance, squishy TV ratings, competition from other sports, and an antiseptic hospital smell of decayremains an allegory for life in America. Therefore, restoring vitality to baseball will, in turn, revitalize American culture.
I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong. This is not the annual rant and blather of a baseball purist. Well, not just that, anyhow.
Let us stipulate for the record that, among sports, baseball ranks as low as sixth in national popularity, behind football, basketball, hockey, golf, and, God help us, even NASCAR. Mayor Phil Build-us-one isn’t exactly stumbling over his feet in a rush to finance a new ballyard. Big-league baseball is perhaps the only major sport Nashville doesn’t covet.
Nevertheless, right down to the unsightly warts and carbuncles, the condition of Our National Pastime reflects the state of our national life. And, as a few parallels readily demonstrate, our society takes its cue from the grand old game more than from any other sport. For instance:
The leadership vacuum. In contrast to the NFL, NBA, and NHL, baseball today is led by a contentious pack of marginally competent, untrustworthy, cash-grubbing weasels. See, just like America.
Put the major-league franchise owners in a room together, and you might pass them off as an informal confab in the Senate cloakroom (except that baseball owners don’t pretend they’re not in it for the money and power). Both groups continually have their hands out for cash and favors. Both have an amazing facility for rationalizing the pursuit of their narrow, porky self interests as exercises in commonweal.
And what Will Rogers once said about Congressthe Republic is safer when they’re not meetinggoes double for baseball owners. If left to their own devices, these bozos eventually will expand the playoffs to 16 teams and allow extra-long homers to count double.
There may not be an “i” in “team,” but there’s a big, fat “me.” In the me-generation 1980s, when top executives raked in compensation riches that far exceeded the bounds of avarice, much less merit, baseball players were right there, leading the way. The highest-paid player in the game one year wouldn’t even rank among the top 10 after the next season.
The market proved it would bear salaries that common sense would not, and CEOs and center fielders alike felt a sense of entitlement to their outrageous sums. Athletes in other sports, of course, are also paid in ridiculous disproportion to their contributions, but remember that the concept of free agency started in baseball.
Loyalty, schmoyalty. In baseball today, loyalty is about as out of place as Keith Richards at a Promise Keepers rally. Even L.A.’s Mike Piazzanephew of Tommy Lasorda, the ex-manager who bled Dodger blueis preparing to bolt over a tiff about how much icing should go on his multimillion-dollar cake.
Nothing remarkable about that, though. When someone dangles more cash, you follow. Friends is friends, but business is business. What could be more American than that?
Mergers, acquisitions, and downsizing. If you thought these practices were confined to the business world, you’re right: Big-league baseball is just another big business. And who better to make our case than the game’s ultimate victims of downsizing, the Florida Marlins, who are no longer to be confused with the outfit that won the World Series last fall.
After the Marlins’ championship, their boardroom mogul/owner Wayne Huizenga chose to sacrifice quality to the bottom line. So the Marlins began dumping their carefully assembled, high-priced talent in a garage sale that would have brought a blush to the White Sox’s Jerry Reinsdorf, who up until then had been baseball’s reigning soulless suit.
The downsized 1998 Marlins, defying expectations, began the season undefeated. By Easter they were 1-10, but making money.
No sense of proportion. Those of you still keeping up with the doings of Kato Kaelin and Judge Lance Ito via O.J. chat rooms, or who crave hearing projected election results before the polls close, will be pleased to learn that baseball reporters share your passion for knowledge. The first pitch on opening day had barely crossed home plate before we began hearing of the quest to surpass Roger Maris’ season record of 61 homers.
We promise to keep you posted every day. And in case you’re wondering, the leading contender right now is the heretofore invisible Jeromy Burnitz of Milwaukee, who has hit six long balls. Just five months and 56 more home runs to go!
The end of civilization. Spitting has always been part of baseballjust not spitting on umpires. Roberto Alomar’s expectoration, in response to being called by the ump an unflattering term for incest-monger, scandalized many.
But isn’t it reassuring to have a national sport that establishes national morés? Ask yourself: Would road-raged drivers run each other off the streets, or would businessmen defecate in the aisles to show their disapproval of airline service, if baseball weren’t setting the tone? (Before you even say it, hockey and footballwhich never achieved any level of civility from which to declinedon’t count.)
B-O-R-I-N-G. In a perverse way, even baseball’s dwindling appeal bolsters its claim as the national pastime. What other sport, I ask you, chronicles the shortening of our collective attention span, which is now barely longer than the time required to change sides between innings? We’re bored with anything that requires more attention than the front section of USA Today or involves much more subtlety than an episode of Jerry Springer.
All of this is intended not as a lament but as a clarion call for a populist crusade (and a last-ditch strategy for reviving fan interest): Saving baseball is the way to save America. On this, William Bennett, Ralph Reed, Bill Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, and Yogi Berra can all agree.
Restore a sense of values to baseball, and the culture that mirrors it will follow. Kids will stop smoking dope, elders will be addressed as “sir” and “ma’am,” and bison will return to the prairies.
So quit watching that stupid golf tournament. Pull the kids out of those soccer leagues. Dust off the bat and glove. Start going to baseball games now.
Remember, America is counting on you.