The Midsummer Classic and the American pastime

July is the time for Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game and Hall of Fame induction, so I’ll be devoting some posts this week to topics related to baseball’s future — and as always the case with this sport — and exploring how its past is immortalized.

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I’m going through withdrawal. Serious, serious soccer withdrawal.

This has been the case every four years, in mid-July, for the last 20 years now. A red-blooded American whose first love was baseball. I need a syringe and some soccer serum. Stat.

Today is the day after the end of the World Cup, which used to pass virtually unnoticed in the United States. After record TV ratings and unprecedented American mainstream media coverage from Brazil, however, that is no longer the case. Now, I have plenty of company dealing with my Summertime Blues.

When these blues began, following the World Cup in the U.S. in 1994, they were exacerbated by the baseball strike that led to the cancellation of the World Series for the first time in 90 years.

There wasn’t much else in the way of soccer to turn to back then, before the creation of Major League Soccer and the airing of games from the English Premier League, Bundesliga, et al, on American television. My local minor league team drew fans in the hundreds and played on a deplorable high school football field, but it was better than nothing.

national pastimeI was ready to turn my back on baseball, even as my hometown Atlanta Braves finally — after years of childhood suffering! — won the World Series the following year. While I was happy, it was a fleeting moment of joy. For me, the American pastime was starting to feel like the past time.

While soccer may have become the shiny new toy for Americans like me, we still had to endure potshots from sportswriters claiming that “hating soccer is more American than apple pie.”

Shortly after France ‘98 (a most miserable World Cup for the U.S.), I took in a Braves game at Turner Field and was surprised how serious my affliction had become. I was ready to leave in the early innings, but was with family and painfully watched Mark Wohlers blow a perfectly good save opportunity.

The sport, and the happiness of going to the ballpark, had lost its luster.

I have been back only a few times since. I have gradually made my peace with baseball, realizing that the zero-sum silliness that infects our politics, culture and society — you must make a choice, and stick with it — was depriving me of the joy of a game that will always resonate for me.

It’s just happening in different ways that I’m savoring in middle age.

The All-Star Game this week isn’t always a circle-your-calendar event for casual fans — I haven’t watched in years — but for baseball diehards it will always be special. Even though an All-Star Futures Game now kicks off the festivities (sorry, Home Run Derby), this event is a throwback to one of baseball’s most enduring traditions.

Like many of those traditions — good and otherwise — it’s about preserving a treasured slice of the game’s past. Tuesday’s game at Target Field will be highlighted by Derek Jeter’s farewell. While the game features players who’ve had great first half-seasons, tributes to retiring legends still strike the deepest chords.

Later this month in Cooperstown, Braves luminaries Bobby Cox, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux will be inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and that too will be emotional. Though they weren’t the idols of my youth, they brought my hometown its only professional sports championship during a time in which I was trying to tune baseball out.

I see some present-day American soccer aficionados making the same ridiculous assertions I once did — baseball’s truly boring, etc. — and firmly stuck in the past. It feeds too much on nostalgia and mythology and a faux-pastoral sentiment that never really existed, etc., etc.

Never mind that a new wave of fans and writers tied in to sabermetrics was revitalizing how we look at baseball, creating a template for advanced stats and fresh narratives that are abounding in other sports.

Finally, the fifty-something and the amateur sports historian in me came around to appreciating a more well-rounded, nuanced view, as expressed by Andrew Zimbalist and Stefan Szymanski in their 2005 book, “National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the World Plays Soccer:”

” . . . our national pastimes did not materialize out of nothing. Rather, they were shaped by the conscious decisions of organizers, albeit decisions made a very long time ago. No doubt some, if not most, of these decisions were made with the intent of promoting and developing the sport over the long term.

“One distinctive feature of professional sports is that the interest of the public accumulates over time. Indeed, one of the most important elements in the attraction of a sport is the the relationship between the stars of today and the history of the game.”

(Book excerpt here.)

But the hand-wringing is ramping up again. As the World Cup got underway, Frank Fitzpatrick of The Philadelphia Inquirer expressed serious worries that baseball is about to take a big hit, thanks to soccer:

“It’s cosmopolitan. It’s colorful. And because we Americans know so little of its history and customs, it is, for the moment at least, a fascinating curiosity.

“Soccer is the barista’s game, baseball the hot dog vendor’s.”

But Fitzpatrick, who also compared baseball to the Republican Party — “too old . . . too white . .. perceived as too square” — makes the mistake of pitting “winners” against “losers,” a familiar, quick and easy device. Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk writes that Fitzpatrick’s argument not only is “wrongheaded and insulting about baseball,” it also:

” . . . manages to insult the World Cup as well by not discussing it on its own terms as opposed to in terms of baseball’s alleged demise.

“Then again, the author refers to a game involving ‘the Florida Marlins’ from just last week, so maybe we’re not dealing with a guy who knows a whole hell of a lot about anything.”

This is hitting it out of the park, and booting it like Messi all at one. The rise of one thing doesn’t have to mean the downfall of another. Midsummer Classic

But it’s hard to deny there’s an ever-crowded soccer bandwagon. The World Cup set numerous social media records but remains a niche sport– albeit a rapidly growing one — in the United States.

As ESPN concluded its stellar World Cup run Sunday night, it smartly segued to a Major League Soccer grudge match between the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbersbefore nearly 65,000 fans in an NFL stadium. There’s your post-Cup soccer fix, American footyheads. The addiction never has to end.

David Brooks of The New York Times contemplated the baseball-or-soccer-metaphor for life question over the weekend, and came to this conclusion:

“Most of us spend our days thinking we are playing baseball, but we are really playing soccer. We think we individually choose what career path to take, whom to socialize with, what views to hold. But, in fact, those decisions are shaped by the networks of people around us more than we dare recognize.”

None of this should spell any doom for baseball. As the World Series approached last fall, Jonathan Mahler, also of The New York Times, raised concerns about the future for baseball, which he said “has never been healthier. So why does it feel irrelevant?” Yet post-season baseball is as compelling as anything in sports, including the odd infield fly rule call in a wild card game!

Mahler offers some hopefulness that explains why baseball is likely to endure, in spite of the mawkish sentimentality of the baseball poets:

“Maybe a new generation of fans won’t grow up thinking the game represents something more than it is. Maybe baseball will stop auditioning for another chapter in the Ken Burns saga. Maybe baseball can just be baseball. Yes, it’s quiet and slow, but if you hang in there, through all of the pitching changes and batting-glove adjustments, you might get caught up in the drama. If you don’t, there’s plenty else to watch.”

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