Saturday, September 03, 2005

The End of Excellence

Summertime and the living is easy.

When we were little kids, baseball season began as the school year ended. Sunrise said, "Play ball!" and sunset was the bottom of the ninth.

In the old days, American values were taught in fields, sandlots, and in the streets. Hard work, fair play, and consistency were admired--in an individual and in a team.
In the big leagues, they played 154 games, later increased to 162. Every team had its good days, bad days, and in between days. Humility was the lesson taught on the diamond, wherever it may have been, and was reinforced by a proverb not found in the Bible: "You are not as good as you look when you win, nor as bad as you look when you lose." In a straight league, at a time when that had nothing to do with sexual preference, the standard as to what made one the best was simple--first place or no place.

Gary loved baseball and the underdog. How could we help being friends? We would go to watch the Washington Senators play. We were disappointed the year Yaz and the Red Sox lost the World Series to the Cardinals. We were elated when the Miracle Mets beat the mighty Baltimore Orioles. It was back to disappointment when Carlton Fisk's Game 6 homer only turned out to mean the Red Sox would lose Game 7 to the Big Red Machine. But we were devastated the year Bill Buckner had fielding problems against the Mets.

     Sunrise, sunset
     Sunrise, sunset
     Swiftly go the days

Things change. The Senators were deputized as Texas Rangers. There was talk of a National League team for Washington. After careful consideration of all pertinent issues in tough negotiations, which used mediation and arbitration, it was decided that Gary would get season tickets for the Baltimore Orioles. As the party of one of the parts, Groucho said, the new Senators were my responsibility. But things change.

The failure to take a swing in labor-management relations resulted in a called strike. Thanks to the dispute, there was no World Series. When the dust settled, the owners had turned the double play. They got rid of Fay Vincent, and they changed the nature of the game.

The owners' concoction is like the witches' brew in Macbeth. Eye of newt goes well with three divisions per league, wild cards, and, as an added bonus--gratuitous interleague play.

Gary was concerned when Major League Baseball went to two divisions in each league and there was talk of playoffs. He was relieved to learn that what the sportscasters meant was there would be a League Championship Series in the senior and the junior circuit. He did not live to see what would come next. First place has become meaningless. First place is no place.

Thanks to the owners, the American pastime has passed its prime. The unique drama is over. The last pennant race occurred when Atlanta finished one game ahead of San Francisco. The Braves went to the National League Championship Series, and the Giants went home.

      Double, double; toil and trouble;
     Fire, burn; and cauldron bubble.

The bag men gave us a bag full of gimmicks. Beyond the luxury tax, there is the first place penalty or the performance tax. The team that does well during the regular season is subject to pay the price, because the extended exhibition is about maneuvering for position, which befits a nation of lawyers instead of ballplayers--the type of people who applauded and embraced when the United States Supreme Court stopped the counting of votes in Florida. Yes, a head to head matchup against a particular team matters more than how one does overall. "What difference does it make?"--they say--"Our guys won." Ladies and gentlemen, handicapped parking is one thing and a free postseason gift certificate is another. How long before computers replace umpires? Diebold, Sequoia, and ES&S are ready to make the calls as they see them. They could also run the scoreboard.

All the former Commissioner wanted to do was to have strict geographical realignment of the Eastern and Western Divisions in each league. With his departure, an opportunity was lost to create distinctive play within them. Just imagine the Yankees and the Red Sox in the same division battling to the death every season. Instead, there is another Black Sox scandal.

TV money is the ultimate tail wagging a shaggy dog, and, because appearances matter more than substance, the game has been debased. Major League Baseball should be called Mislabelled Businessball.

In the depths of the Great Depression, FDR spoke of "the forgotten man"; and MDJ, in the depths of his depression, feels like the forgotten fan. Where have you gone, Dinah Washington? Baseball left me. Oh, what am I to do?

From sunrise to mourning, from line drives to teary eyes.

     But now the days are short
     I'm in the autumn of the year
     And now I think of my life as vintage wine
     From fine old kegs
     From the brim to the dregs
     It poured sweet and clear
     It was a very good year

Once, the World Series showcased the hitting and fielding of Mantle, Mays, Jackson, and Robinson and featured the pitching of Ford, Larsen, Koufax, and Gibson. But the Fall Classic has become a garage sale. For sustenance, we have gone from breakfast at Tiffany's to burritos at Taco Bell. And, in the evening, do not give me tuna and tell me it is caviar.

The mystery of how teams from the American and National Leagues would do against each other because of the differing styles of play has been replaced by the wheel of fortune and wondering whether, as one colleague put it, "some team can luck up at the end." Now, with the Joker in the deck, a psychic Columbo is apropos.

Because the Bronx Bombers supposedly "collapsed" or "choked," some speak of the end of the Yankee mystique. But was it their shortcomings, or was it inevitable? And should the men in pinstripes be second guessing themselves, or should we?

The Yankees are an anachronism; they dared to be great. Every pennant, every World Series championship--all twenty-six of them, even when they won five in a row--was the result of their having finished in first place. They set the standard; they defined what it meant to be the best. For, as Howard Cosell said, "The real test of greatness is in the consistency of excellence." Yet anyone longing for the old ways and lamenting the end of excellence is "an elitist," "an old timer," or "a purist."

Will bizball return to the days of first place or no place? Yank on your hanky. It is not in the Cards.

(c) 2005 Marvin D. Jones. All rights reserved.