With apologies to Melanie (kids, ask your grandparents).
Several years ago, when I was sports editor at the New Jersey Jewish News, I came across an article, “Why I’m No Longer a Sports Fan.” The sport in question was soccer, but the sentiment has been gnawing at me for a long time. It read, in part:
In the greater scheme of things, in a game played by people I’ve never met, owned by people I don’t know, I have no vested interest in the outcome. I’m not a gambler, so there was never even any money on the line! The deepest it really ever got was my ability to brag to people the following day that my team won and their team lost. What did that matter, when their win had nothing to do with me? I wasn’t the coach, the trainer, or anyone else that contributed to the success of the team, so what was I really bragging about anyway? Was it my ability to pick a winner? Not that impressive considering the 50/50 odds!
I don’t have a favorite team in basketball, football, or hockey. I just like watching a good game. Or even a bad one. Usually, I find myself rooting for whoever is losing at the time. What does that mean, doctor?
But baseball has always been my sport, since the time I was in fourth grade. I used to swipe change from my mother’s purse to buy trading cards. One day, in fifth grade, having never actually played (I was a late bloomer because my father was from the “old country” and thought Americans’ obsession with baseball was a waste of time), my P.E. teacher stationed me at third base with a borrowed glove. In the very first play, the batter smashed a line drive right at me. Caught! And a love affair began. I couldn’t wait to get to the park and find a pick-up game. I was Charlie Brown, but with mad skills.
Up until about three years ago, I was playing in a 50-and-over league. My first year as an eligible for that institution, I was the number one pick in the league’s “draft” and had a fantastic season, in all humility, helping my team into the playoffs for the first time. Unfortunately, as I advanced through that decade, a combination of diminishing skills and younger additions led me to seek new opportunities with other teams in need of my services. I became a journeyman, playing for two more clubs in three seasons before calling it quits. It was an epiphany, like when I stopped eating meat: One day I was out in the field having a good time, the next day I was looking at the glove on my hand and asking, “What am I doing out here?”)
I don’t know when it happened. I don’t think the strike of ’94 — when a lot of fans threw in the towel, disgusted at how the players and owners were handling things — had anything to do with it. Somewhere along the way, I just lost the ardor. Could it be that some of these players were now young enough to be my grandchildren (theoretically, at least)? Could it be the way the game has changed, with players being shuttled in and out of the roster so frequently even a scorecard couldn’t help? Could it be the upper echelons of the sport doing whatever they could to ensure losing future generations? Don’t tell me your bottom line will suffer irreparable damage by scheduling a daytime World Series game.
I wonder if the recent passing of Tom Seaver — coupled with the already damaged season thanks to the pandemic — has exacerbated these feelings?
Seaver transformed the Mets — my team — into winners. I can still recite their 25-man rosters, along with those of most teams from that era, but don’t ask me who the All-Star starting third baseman is for the Colorado Rockies (I just made that up). Or who won the Fall Classic three years ago. I was talking with a younger coworker about Seaver and we agreed that baseball is losing its place in American culture. When a Yogi Berra or Mickey Mantle or Joe DiMaggio died, it was front-page news across the country. All good wishes to Derek Jeter or Mike Trout, but I doubt when their time comes — not for many, many years, I hope — that it will receive the same coverage.
The updated rules necessitated by Covid-19 are supposed to make the game safer (seven-inning doubleheaders, NL using the DH), but even before that, the slew of new metrics were encroaching on my enjoyment. The defensive shifts and the recalcitrance of players to try to hit against it (“They pay me to hit home runs, not go the other way.”). The inability of pitchers to get through five innings. I might be the old man on the lawn, but this isn’t the baseball I grew up with and while some changes might have been for the better, I can’t think of any recent innovations that have done so.
I will still watch the games whenever I can, although my current job necessitates going to bed before 8 p.m. And I still get annoyed when the Mets do stupid stuff (some of these relief pitchers drive me nuts, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory). But increasingly, I find myself asking, “Why?”