A Golden Age: Redux

Michael Brendan Dougherty, who used to be a political writer for the American Conservative, recently decided to write about baseball full time in a daily E-Newsletter called the “Slurve” – and a few weeks ago, on Baseball’s opening day, he penned a piece for the Daily Beast in which he declares that baseball is in a golden age.

My regular readers will remember that I made a similar case for cricket a couple weeks ago.

And so I decided to re-post the pertinent sections of Dougherty’s article and see if his notions about baseball’s current condition apply, at all, to that of cricket’s.

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In 2013 Major League Baseball’s opening day could not be more propitious. After a national-election year overstuffed with anxious national debates and alternating rhetorical wars on women and the Catholic Church in which umbrage taking became our defining national trait, it seems like the right time to take a break from the national obsessions and enjoy the national pastime. And lucky for us, we are living in what is unquestionably the golden age of baseball.

Now this I agree with, when it comes to cricket. Baseball, cricket, football, film, music, everything: they are all fine diversion from the things that divide. Whether it is a golden age or not has nothing to do with it, I don’t think. Cricket might be dying, or it might be thriving, same with baseball, but I think people will still tune in to forget about life for a while.

It’s a human endeavor, so baseball naturally has some embarrassments. Some franchises, like the Marlins, are in the hands of pathetic con men and subsidized to an absurd degree by the taxpayer. Others, like the Astros, seem determined not to compete at all. The lingering crimes and negligence of the steroid era threaten the sport’s own Hall of Fame, the institution that connects previous generations of play to the games of the day. Even after improved testing, some players on the leading teams are tainted by suspicion. Each year it seems that the owners and players make money far beyond the social value they create. The games too often have a slack pace.

Mr. Dougherty, while surely a gifted journalist, seems to have broken the golden rule about taking a stance and put the arguments against his case at the very beginning of the article, but that is neither here nor there.

Cricket’s problems are well documented: corruption at all levels, spot fixing, match fixing,  too many meaningless matches, and a whole lot of simply bad cricket. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Mr. Dougherty feels, however, that when it comes to baseball that the positives outweigh the negatives (though I think the sport has far more problems than those he lists). And when it comes to cricket: I agree.

But overall the sport has never been better. The league has achieved a wonderful balance of parity and dynastic success, feeding just enough hope to smaller-market teams and just enough resentment of larger, perennially competitive ones. Most of the league’s ballparks have been updated in the last 20 years, and on the whole they are better than the stadiums that preceded them, less claustrophobic, better staffed, safer, and, yes, more expensive.

Parity is often cited as a reason why baseball is doing well these days, but while some feel parity is a real problem for Test cricket, the other two formats are quite competitive. When the T20 World Cup started up last year, every squad save for the Associates had a decent shot at winning it.

Cricket needs competitive world cups to remain strong, and they have those.

I cannot speak for the parity of domestic leagues, but internationally, despite the issues Test cricket has, the sport has parity.

And Test cricket does too: sure there are only four teams that realistically have decent shots at being number one in the world, but New Zealand, Pakistan, and the West Indies are all enjoying periods of resurgence, and I know it was against Bangladesh but Zimbabwe looked like world beaters in Harare last week.

And for all the faults of the league office, the sport has effected a revolution in how we find the sport. Online watching allows fans to see every out-of-market game on their computers or on television. The league has opened up the data about itself available to the nerds. You now can quantify the movement of every pitch thrown.

Advanced statistical analysis has given us greater depth of insight into the players and the franchises themselves. But at the same time we don’t have to be intimidated by the spreadsheets. Some self-designated “old school” writers like Murray Chass complain that the new stat freaks think the game is simply a clash of abstracted probabilities. But the geek view of the game has not penetrated the experience of the ballpark or even the way the game is portrayed on television. During a televised game, we’re not told a player’s VORP—his Value Over Replacement Player—which would add nothing to the narrative drama of a televised game. But we’re still informed of his batting average, giving us a sense of what is about to happen. The fan’s experience of baseball has not become an embodied math problem. It is still a game of leather, ash bats, cleats. It remains an athletic endeavor. We just understand it better.

Cricket and baseball have the above very much in common. I have more access to matches than ever before, and it is only getting better. And bloggers and journalists and fans have access to mountains of data heretofore unseen, which allows us all to drill down to the minutia of the game, which in turn makes the game far more enjoyable, at least for some. Despite the heavy behind the scenes analysis however, the game is still “leather, ash willow bats, cleats” – it is still about bowler versus batsman.

The players themselves are more accomplished than ever. A generation of greats like Pedro Martínez and Albert Pujols gives way naturally to an even more impressive generation of Clayton Kershaws and Mike Trouts. In this era, even a pitcher’s career that seems defined by unrealized potential, like Johan Santana’s, turns out on inspection to be one of the 100 greatest at his position. The talent pool is just that deep.

That might be true for baseball, but unfortunately I worry about cricket’s talent pool. Kids just are not interested in cricket anymore, and that might be end up being the real disease that finally kills the game: not enough talent to fill the gaps.

But as I have argued before, if the U19 World Cup was any indication, then cricket is going to be just fine, talent wise.

I still worry though.

As long as we have baby-boomer nostalgia and Internet gossip, the tendencies to idolize or vandalize will be indulged. But alternating temptations to lift baseball into a civic religion or pull it down into a sty of frat antics have largely canceled each other out, and neither threatens to overwhelm the culture around the game. MLB’s own television network, though it sanitizes coverage of the league, sets a great example of nonhysterical, worthwhile coverage of the sport.

Replace the MLB network with ESPNCricinfo and that paragraph could very well be about cricket instead of baseball.

Furthermore, in both sports, there are lots of great bloggers doing great work that I think bridges the gap between the “civic religion” and the “frat antics”. However, I think Mr. Dougherty lumps us bloggers into the latter category. His loss.

An under-remarked quality also distinguishes baseball and sports in general from our other national obsessions. After the game is played, we all agree on the facts. Every reporter and fan walks away from a game knowing the score and agreeing on the number of hits. Fans of a losing team are not made to feel less American or less dignified than the winners. We do not suspect that this game and its players are destroying the American way of life.

For a long time as a political reporter and opinion journalist, I looked sideways at sports writing. So inconsequential, so trivial. (Wherever did I get the idea that political writing was usually of great merit?) But for the past few years, and against my own expectations for my life, sports have become more important to me: as a refuge from strife, as a preserve of human excellence in a culture that revels in mediocrity, as a place to reconnect with my friends who would otherwise drift away as their lives diverge from my own.

Again: the above is true for every sport and every form of entertainment at every point in history. I am not sure what, if anything, it has to do with baseball being in a golden age.

Mr. Dougherty then ends his article with a quote from Pete Rose, who was banned from baseball for life for gambling on games. Not really the kind of thing you would want casual fans to remember when trying to argue that the game is in a golden age, eh?

*

His points are all valid ones, but I think in a lot of ways, his case is not as strong as my case was for cricket; because not only does cricket have all of the above going for it save for possibly the deep talent pool, it it also has a true international grass roots effort to grow the game at the youth level, it has diversity in formats as well as athletes and fans, and it is truly a global game – baseball has none of those things, and it probably never will.

Another way to put it: Cricket might very well become popular in America one day; but baseball will never be popular in India.

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2 Responses to A Golden Age: Redux

  1. Good article, enjoyed it a lot and very thought provoking. The thing I like about cricket over baseball is that it is more a game for all sizes…from the 6″7 quick bowler to the rotund leg-spinner, the little batsman so adept at using the pace of the ball, etc. T20 and the obsession with six-hitters might change that, but I still think skill presides over power. Whether it can ‘break’ America…I’m not so sure!

  2. Pingback: Kumbaya, my friends | Limited Overs

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