The game of baseball extends itself beyond entertainment for me. As a student of baseball and history, I am genuinely intrigued by the way the game has consistently turned the mirror on American culture.
The obnoxious contracts recently signed by Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, and Mike Trout should come as no surprise to anyone paying attention in this country. In fact, they’re entirely consistent with America’s current character: The privileged and elites keep pulling away from the common man, widening the chasm between the have’s and have not’s.
But this is nothing new.
Baseball, in its rudimentary form, began in the Elysian Fields of Hoboken, New Jersey, in the mid-19th Century, pre-Civil War. During and following the war, the game was played both Northern and Southern states, prompting the poet Walt Whitman to proclaim that baseball was “the American game” adding that it would “repair [those] losses, and be a blessing to us.”
And for many years, it remained a pastoral game until the turn of the century, until it was irreparably tainted in 1919 when The Chicago White Sox infamously threw the World Series at the bequest of big city gamblers. The game and the country lost its innocence as “The American Dream” took a darker turn (anyone forced to read The Great Gatsby in high school remembers this).
In the carnage of The Black Sox scandal, eight White Sox players, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, were banned from the game for life by commissioner Kenesaw Landis—a decision still rippling in the wake of Pete Rose’s campaign to get in The Hall of Fame.
Perhaps, most famous reflection of the American culture—and something that requires little explanation—was Branch Rickey’s signing Jack Roosevelt Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945, a decision that many view as a harbinger of The Civil Rights Movement. By breaking the color barrier in America’s pastime, the country finally started to confront the deleterious racism and hate corroding its core.
In 1969, the St. Louis Cardinal’s Curt Flood challenged baseball’s reserve clause and paved a way for both free agency, which—in a time of civil and political unrest—called to question the rights and roles of American workers.
In the 1980s, everything was ostensibly Reagan-perfect and America-awesome until the sport met the Generation X’s colossal ennui and a strike in 1994 that almost completely buried the game.
Enter steroids and the long ball and everything totally extreme.
Meanwhile, the children of Curt Flood kept capturing larger and larger salaries as the income gaps in American society became more and more disparate and…obscene.
Now take the contracts signed by those two free-agents—Harper who signed for 13-years and $330 million with the Phillies and Machado who got 10-years and a cool $300 million from a Padres’ team he already declared is going to “try to fight for a Wild Card spot.”
Most of us—at least fans in big markets—can barely afford to go to a ballgame anymore. Yet we possess the cognitive dissonance, in 2019, to explain away the fact that these ballplayers (Harper batted .249 last season) are making more per at-bat than most of make in a year.
Similarly, the average CEO makes 361 times more money per year as the average worker, a fact we all must conveniently ignore to make it out the door in the morning without revolt.
[Settle down, I’m not endorsing Bernie Sanders or stoking a socialist revolution.]
But next up to sign one of those gaudy contracts, Sox fans, is our own Mookie Betts, and don’t be surprised if that contract doesn’t come from Boston. In fact, don’t be surprised to see Mookie in pinstripes.
Then there’s the fact that America’s smartphone addicts can’t focus on things longer than 30 seconds, and the game—unless profound changes to the pace are addressed—is imperiled and could become a niche sport staring down the barrel of oblivion.
If baseball dies…
I don’t want to finish that sentence.
[Update: This column was submitted for editing before Mike Trout, baseball’s equivalent to watching a pubic hair grow, signed a 12-year $430 million contract with the center of baseball’s carnival, the always-electric Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, of Places Where Baseball Could Not Be More Insipid, Save San Diego Who Stupidly Signed That Ass-hat Machado. The aforementioned comments belong to Nate Graziano, and Nate Graziano only.]