When you are born in Chicago, you are born into two birthrights. The first is that you will never, ever, have to succumb to Big Pizza. (Wouldn’t it be awesome if there were such a special interest group as “Big Pizza”? Like “Big Oil” or “Big Pharma”? I want to live in a world where the president is reluctant to veto pepperoni subsidies for fear of the wrath of Big Pizza.) The second birthright bestowed upon all Chicagoans is an allegiance to one of the two major professional baseball teams, the Cubs or the White Sox. I was born a Cubs fan, a gift and a curse in and of itself. Any time you can sum up a century-plus-long curse in one or two word phrases, it probably needs no further ellaboration. Bartman*. The Billy Goat. Lou Pinella. The gifts of being a Cubs fan are twofold, one more obvious than the other.
The obvious gift is that if and when the Cubs do win a World Series, you can say you’ve been a fan since the dog days way back when. And since you never expect them to win, it will be a delight when they do. (This can’t be overstated. The cathartic release when the Cubs finally win a World Series will move grown men to tears.) The other, less obvious gift of being a Cubs fan is this: Never expecting (in fact, downright knowing) your team isn’t going to win the World Series allows you a sort of disconnection from the sport that other fanbases aren’t afforded. A Yankees fan bleeds Jeter and Mariano Rivera and probably has kids named Mickey and Yogi. He never worries about a losing streak or a batter in a slump because he knows that, ultimately, his owner and general manager have put the best product out on the field. A Twins fan has a kid named Kirby and a dog named Santana and has gripes about the financial inequities that allow richer teams to monopolize winning while his team remains a step away from winning year in and year out. In Matrix terms, the Twins fan took the red pill, and has seen the horror and despair of his favorite team’s up and down (and ultimately down) battles year by year. The Yankees fans are high on the blue pill, never understanding why other teams aren’t as competitive and thinking that everybody signs with the Yankees because everybody wants to play for the Yankees, and the truckloads of cash being doled out have nothing to do with it. Cubs fans? We’re the ones in the movie theater wishing our shades were as cool as Morpheus’.
This sort of disconnection has afforded me the right to claim the following two statements with no irony and complete sincerity. I am a Cubs fan. I hate baseball.
I hate baseball. I hate the slower-than-dial-up pace. I hate the fact that everyone knew everyone was cheating and they all pretended they didn’t know to uphold the myth of the Legendary Baseball Player like some sort of patriotic-religious Rite of Denial. I hate that managers wear jerseys and that we call them managers and not coaches because they, in fact, do not coach their players and so what the hell does anyone pay them for? I hate that the winning team in the All Star game’s league gets home field advantage in the World Series. I hate that every team gets an all-star, even if that team had no wins or any player with a positive batting average. I hate that there are 162 damn games, thereby making the regular season this huge, lumbering Thing from which literally any baseball argument (and its counter) can be cited. (One exception. You cannot argue, by any stretch of any statistics, that Adam Dunn had a good season.) I hate that sports outlets (newspapers, radio, ESPN) cover spring training like it means anything, sometimes at the cost of coverage to sports that are actually in season (Ok, you got me. That was a basketball-slanted gripe. I couldn’t care less if the Red Sox/Yankees spring training game cost me Wimbledon coverage.) I hate so much about baseball that I can literally drop out from any given season until late September, when every
game pitch means life or death and when players and managers play and manage as such.
All that being stated, baseball could be great if only a few things got changed.
First, the game’s got to speed up. We live in a fast-paced world where all gratification is instant. Baseball games have no time limit. A “quick” game may be about two and a half hours, or length of the average basketball game. Most baseball games are anywhere from three hours to three and a half, or the length of the average football game. Why does football seem to go by faster than a baseball game? Because football is always moving. Movement, now there’s a novel concept. You know what 7 of 9 baseball players are doing 35% of the time? Standing. Absolutely. Still. Give a batter 15 seconds to get to the plate, a pitcher 10 seconds to throw a pitch, 20-second mound visits (and no more than two per game). When a guy hits a home run, why does he have to round the bases? We all know he hit it out of the park, and congratulations to him, now go sit back down. Soccer is one of the most boring sports in the world, but it will always have the upper hand on baseball, because at least I know that the regulation time of every match is 90 minutes. At a predictable length of time from the beginning of every soccer match, that match will end. The same cannot be said for baseball.
Second, baseball needs to even the playing field when it comes to salaries. Yes, I know that every once in a while a poor team squeaks through and beats the odds to win it all, but ask the Baltimore Orioles or even the Toronto Blue Jays if they feel confident about making the playoffs in a given year, and behind closed doors they’ll tell you that they can’t adequately compete with New York or Boston so long as the rich can spend whatever they want and continue to monopolize talent. All things being equal, a competent general manager is more likely to feild a winning team when he can spend 200 million dollars as opposed to 50 million. The NFL recognizes this fact, as does the NHL, as does the NBA. Baseball is still in the dark on this. W. T. F. ?
Some of baseball’s rot goes deeper. Baseball players are generally drafted out of high school, though some go on to college. Regardless, a baseball player isn’t likely to start making real money (by athletes’ standards, of course) until he is about 26 years old. LeBron James, by age 26 was already taking his talents to South Beach on his second max ($15 million a year or so) contract. If an elite athlete has the ability to choose between two sports with similar career life expectancies, why would he choose the sport where his earning potential is far less, or where he might not even play at the top level until he’s almost 30? The cases of athletes choosing baseball over another sport for which they had the opportunity to play professionally are few.
This year, an Indianapolis Colts/Tampa Bay Buccaneers game handily out-rated the New York Yankees/Detroit Tigers game in New York. Take a moment to let that previous sentence seep in. The New York Yankees, presumably Major League Baseball’s most popular and powerful franchise, failed to out-rate a much less important football game between two non-descript teams whose best player (Peyton Manning) didn’t even play. Baseball is dying the Slow Death, like an elderly family member wasting away with Alzheimer’s. Sure, baseball will stay alive and in the public consciousness, but never again with the same national fervor it once enjoyed.