Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Change We Need

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, November 6, 2008:
On Tuesday night America got the change it needed and wanted. All of us, Republican and Democrat, can now forget Ashley Todd, Joe the Plumber, Sarah Palin, and other campaign pranks. Barack Obama will be our new leader, which is both gratifying and astonishing to most of us over the age of 60 — which is to say anyone with recall of the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and ’60s. Over nearly two years of campaigning we might have anticipated the outcome, if not how emotional we would feel about it: as autumn came to John McCain’s candidacy, an Obama victory was hardly an upset. Yet that scene in Chicago’s Grant Park at 11:02, when the Western polls closed and the clear outcome could be officially declared, well, that was a moment that every American will install in his scrapbook of indelible memories. Where were you when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon? When John F. Kennedy was shot? When Bobby Thomson hit the home run that turned an entire baseball season upside down? Or when the nation turned its helm over to an African-American?

Regardless of policy successes and failures to come, a new America begins now.

It has been said with some justice that without Jackie Robinson there might have been no Martin Luther King. (Yes, I know that without A. Philip Randolph, or Marcus Garvey, or Frederick Douglass, Robinson’s path might have been different.) Is it too much to say that without Derek Jeter and Tiger Woods, beginning with their onset to professional sports in the mid-1990s, there might have been no Barack Obama, at least not now? Like our President-Elect, Jeter is biracial (ambi-ethnic, Halfrican-American, pick the term you prefer). Woods is multiracial, or as he likes to say, “Cablinasian” — short for Caucasian, Black, Indian, and Asian. However, both athletes are termed black in common parlance because of America’s pernicious tradition that one drop of African blood makes one black.

Voters have accepted Obama as a black man of high merit not because they think him half white but because who, in this day and age, wants to be white anymore? Non-Hispanic whites are projected the Census Bureau to be than 50 percent of the total population by 2050 and America will look like Brazil by century’s end. “There may have been a sense that [for minorities] being white was part of the process of being assimilated,” said John R. Logan, director of the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research at the State University of New York at Albany, in a 2003 article in the New York Times. “There's a trend toward rejecting whiteness as a way of expressing success.” This was said in the context of emerging patterns in marketing and advertising, and may go some way toward explaining the broad appeal of racially blended pop stars Mariah Carey, Jessica Alba, Halle Berry, Lenny Kravitz, Alicia Keys, et al.

But unscripted sport, particularly baseball, is more culturally transformative than staged entertainment, more intricately linked with national memory. As the oldest and most hidebound of our major sports, baseball has, paradoxically, the capacity to ease in the most revolutionary change. It shocked no one when, in 2003, the Yankees named Jeter their captain. As Monte Irvin said, “Baseball has done more to move America in the right direction than all the professional patriots with their billions of cheap words.” On Election Night 2008, it would not have been amiss for baseball to take a bow.

But you come to this column not to read about politics. So let’s look at another national dilemma. The World Series, born in the 19th century, needs an overhaul if it will endure through the 21st. The most recently concluded example was a dud, but it fell in line with those that came before. We have not had a World Series extend to a seventh game since 2002. We haven’t even had one go to Game 6 since 2003. In the most recent instances (2004-08), the five losing teams COMBINED for two wins.

In the 2008 “Fall Classic” the Philadelphia Phillies vanquished the Tampa Bay Rays in a fifth game that commenced with five and half drizzly innings on a Monday (following upon a 90-minute rain delay) and concluded with three additional innings on Wednesday. The fifth game was the least watched in recorded Series history (since 1968), and the average viewership of 13.6 million for the whole Series was a staggering 4 percent decline from the previous low of 15.8 million for the Cardinals’ five-game victory over the Tigers in 2006.

Once upon a time, the glory of our national game was the length of its season, which rewarded tortoises, foiled hares and culminated in a climactic contest between two clubs that had not faced each other (or any team in the opponent’s league) all year. Today, however, with interleague play, a wild-card system, and a three-tiered postseason competition, the season may run from the end of March to the beginning of November. (For 2009, Opening Day is delayed to Monday, April 6 because the triennial World Baseball Classic runs to March 23, impinging upon conventional spring training regimens.)

I have written previously about my opposition to interleague play and the wild-card (“Baseball’s Silly Season,” New York Times Op Ed, October 22, 2005). But this time let’s focus on the weather, about which everyone talks but does nothing.

Baseball began as the sport that tracked the pageant of the seasons from planting to harvest, and perhaps to this day we still feel its archaic rhythms. The long season has been the game’s glory, but now it has bled beyond its seasonal bounds. The problem has been not only that the season ends too late but also that it opens too soon. Moreover, America is no longer agrarian, and baseball is a game whose future will be increasingly on TV, the internet and other emerging technologies; the venue is decoupling from the revenue. All the same, we’ve got to play the damned games or there won’t be anything to broadcast.

So how do we eliminate freezing and/or gale conditions for games played in the Northeast prior to mid-April and after the third week in October? I have a plan, and for part of it baseball will need to go back to the future.

1. At the turn of the last century, when Major League Baseball consisted of 16 franchises in 11 cities, none west of St. Louis or south of the nation’s capital, clubs would abandon their spring training grounds and embark upon a lucrative barnstorming tour of locales where no top-rank ball was played — in the Carolinas, for example. They would wend their way north for a mid-April Opening Day, “bringing the news,” as Buck O’Neill liked to say, and making money and new customers. We could do this again—opening the regular season not in Japan but in the spring camps and Southern states, at collegiate and minor-league baseball parks.

2. Return to the best-of-nine World Series format frequently employed in the first two decades of the last century — only this time with the first four games split between the contestants, and anywhere from one to five games slated for a warm-weather or retractable domed site, selected well in advance, as is done for the Super Bowl. If this “Super Series” of one to five games runs into November, so what? The last weather-threatened games will have been played by the end of the third week in October, and the hometown crowds will have been assured two games apiece, which is what they’ve been getting lately anyway. This system has the additional benefit of eliminating the home-field advantage for an ultimate game, which preposterously has been awarded to the league winning the All-Star Game. The first four games of the Super Series can be played on Tuesday through Friday, with a finale, if necessary, on Sunday night so as to bump up against college or pro football minimally.

3. Expand from the current 30 clubs to 32 and realign them into four divisions for each league. With this new league structure, every one of the eight teams contending in the postseason will have won a divisional title in the regular season—no more wild card gatecrashers. However, until the expansion takes effect, remodel the playoff structure to reward winning in the long season. Penalize late-awakening wild cards by giving them only one home date, and that in the middle of the best-of-five opening series.

Change We Need.

--John Thorn

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