Sunday, November 7, 2021

MLB: The Joe Buck Era

 I started really paying attention to sports around 1971, when I was five years old.  I didn't know it, of course, but 1971 was a funny time to start keeping track of Major League Baseball.  Starting after the 1952 season, MLB went through one of the most convulsive periods in its history.  Between 1952 and 1972, the Majors added eight new teams:  the Mets, Astros, Padres, Expos, Rangers, Angels, Brewers, and Royals.  During the same period, the Senators moved to Minnesota, were replaced by an expansion team, and then moved again, leaving Washington without a major league team for the first time since the majors began.  The Dodgers and Giants moved to the West Coast -- triggering a whole generation of sad memoirs in their wake.  The Braves moved twice -- once to Milwaukee, and then to Atlanta.  The Athletics also moved twice -- to Kansas City, and then to Oakland.  The Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles.  MLB ended the traditional pennant traces and started having playoffs.  They started playing on artificial turf, and even indoors.  They started playing World Series games at night.  In 1972, they had a strike.  In 1973, they started the designated hitter.  For anyone who started watching baseball before, say, 1950, it must have seemed crazy.

But by the time I came along, it just seemed normal.  And, as it turned out, the changes were pretty much finished.  From 1973 to 1993, the only major change to MLB was the addition of the Seattle Mariners and the Toronto Blue Jays to the American League.  There was a strike in 1981, and that was pretty painful, but other than that MLB was really very stable.  And with that stability, the game flourished.  The 1960's were filled with articles about how much trouble baseball was in -- how it had been overtaken by football, it was too slow, blah, blah, blah.  But by the late 1970's -- particularly after a thrilling 1975 World Series -- it was clear that MLB was in a very strong position.  The quality of play was very strong, there were a lot of solid teams in both leagues, attendance was growing, and cable television was turning the Cubs and Braves into household names.  

By 1986 -- the year that the Mets and Red Sox met in one of the most thrilling World Series ever played -- it made sense that Hollywood would have Ferris Bueller spend part of his day off at Wrigley Field.  Meanwhile, off the field we fans were enjoying an explosion of great baseball writing:  Roger Angell in The New Yorker, Thomas Boswell at the Washington Post, Peter Gammons at the Boston Globe -- and, of course, Bill James's masterful series of Baseball Almanacs.  We also got to see movies like The Natural (1984), Bull Durham (1988), Field of Dreams (1989), and A League of Their Own (1992).  It was a great time to be a baseball fan, and I thought it would go on forever.  I had never lived through significant change in the baseball world, and I thought the chaos of the 1950's and 1960's was the result of unique circumstances that would not come again.

I was wrong.

Apparently there were lots of owners who really hated the world of baseball that I grew up with, because in the early 1990's they decided to destroy it.  MLB in my childhood was defined by strong Commissioners like Bowie Kuhn and Peter Ueberroth -- the owners decided to change all of that.  In September 1992, they ran off Fay Vincent, and replaced him with -- an owner, Bud Selig.  They then declared war on the players, leading to a labor dispute that blew up the 1994 season completely and wasn't settled until the late spring of 1995.  A lot of  folks, including me, never looked at baseball the same way after the 1994 shutdown, and in fact MLB has never recovered its place in American life.

But this war, like all wars, eventually ended, and by the late 1990's we had clearly entered a new baseball era.  This era was marked by lots of home runs, lots of focus on the Yankees and Red Sox (there were seasons in which ESPN acted as though they were the only two teams in the game), a lot more playoff games, and a TV deal with Fox ensuring that the most important games of each season were decided after midnight on the East Coast, and were always called by Joe Buck.  (Bob Costas, Jon Miller, and Charlie Steiner were all available and all in their prime during this era, and yet MLB never gave any of them -- or anyone else other than Joe Buck -- the chance to call World Series games since Fox took over for good in 2000.

When I was growing up, baseball had been a truly popular sport, with lots of fans of all ages and backgrounds -- Hollywood could make baseball movies because almost everyone in America understood baseball.  But in this new era, the folks watching baseball divided into two camps.  At any major league game, you were likely to see more fans than ever -- but many of them were just there for the concessions or to give their kids a fun day out.  Meanwhile, TV ratings indicated that the number of people who actually cared about the playoffs and the World Series were dwindling down to a small and obsessive claque.  To this day, MLB can draw a mass audience for playoff games in the towns where those games are being played -- in Houston and Atlanta this year, for example.  But outside of those towns, the only folks watching the games on TV are likely to be obsessives like me.

This stark division between obsessive MLB nerds and casual fans showed up in all sorts of odd ways.  For example, no other sport makes it so easy to follow every regular season game -- for a very small fee, you can get radio and TV broadcasts for every MLB team, no matter where you live.  Perfect for obsessives -- but not very meaningful to casual fans.  And the old days of watching the Cubs and Braves as part of your regular cable package were gone -- now you have to make a special effort to watch MLB.  Meanwhile, no sport makes it so hard to watch the playoffs; the notion that the NFL or NBA would schedule a huge game so that it would finish after 1 A.M. on the East Coast (which happened to the last game of the 2016 World Series) is simply ludicrous.  But MLB does it every year.  Again, it's OK for obsessive nerds -- but terrible for casual fans.

The same thing happened to the game on the field.  I really enjoy the analytical baseball that we've seen in recent years -- it's very satisfying to watch managers make moves that make sense, instead of simply rolling with "the book" like they used to do when I was a kid.  In my childhood, managers were always leaving pitchers in too long, or burning out young arms, or having too many runners get thrown out on the base paths.  That sort of thing doesn't happen nearly so often these days, which makes me very happy.  But you have to be a nerd to really appreciate all of this stuff -- the casual fan just sees that the games are really long and seem to consist mostly of strikeouts and walks.  It's no wonder that the only really memorable baseball movie of this era was Moneyball, a great movie -- but one focused on the General Manager, not the players.

These developments all affected how the game was processed.  The last seven-game World Series before the 1994 strike was in 1991 -- the Twins and Braves.  The average TV rating for that series featured 35.68 million viewers per night, and Game Seven drew over 50 million.  The last seven-game World Series since the 1994 strike was in 2019 -- the Nats and Astros.  The average game drew 13.9 million viewers per night, and Game Seven drew 23 million.  Those 23 million fans were undoubtedly more knowledgeable than anyone who watched baseball in 1991 -- but the idea of the World Series as something that most normal Americans care about has been lost.  And we certainly aren't getting any Roger Angells or Fields of Dreams.  Under Selig's leadership, MLB stopped trying to be the National Pastime and took on a role more like the NHL or the NBA:  providing a very specific product tailored to a narrow audience.

Personally, I don't have that much to complain about.  Contrary to what I expected in the late 1990's, I have thoroughly enjoyed this era of baseball.  I love hearing so many radio broadcasts.  Washington got a team again in 2005, and it turned out to be a pretty good franchise -- the best this old town has ever had.  It's been a good era for dynasties, and the Yankees of the 1990's, the Red Sox of the 2000's, and the Giants of the 2010's are some of the most entertaining teams I've ever seen.  And since MLB got the steroid problem under control, the quality of play has been spectacular.  It's made me sad to see MLB losing its place in the culture, but in the South it's been exciting to watch the growth of college baseball, and even softball, which are growing in popularity by leaps and bounds.  So I have enjoyed this era of baseball a great deal.

But now it's all coming to an end.  The owners have once again decided that they need to blow everything up.  It's time for a new collective bargaining agreement, and the owners have made it pretty clear that we're going to see major changes.  We'll probably have a lot more teams in the playoffs, and we'll probably get the designated hitter in the National League, and they are experimenting with other changes like robot umpires and oversized bases.  

It's hard to know whether any of this will "work," because I don't know what MLB is trying to do.  I never understood the big changes that they made back in the 1990's -- it was always obvious to me that most fans wouldn't like them, and the TV ratings make that point very clear.  But Bud Selig always seemed really pleased, so maybe they accomplished some goal I never knew about.

And maybe that will happen again.  I've been watching MLB for over 50 years, and I plan to watch it for the rest of my life -- so I'll be there whatever they end up doing.  I'll hate seeing designated hitters in the National League -- but I hated it when they started Interleague Play, and when the Brewers and Astros switched leagues.  For that matter, Roger Angell hated all the franchise movement in the 1960's, and Ring Lardner hated the lively ball in the 1920's.  For better or for worse, we are in the hands of the owners, and we can either stop watching or adapt to whatever they want.  Of course some people will leave and never come back -- just like a lot of folks never came back after the Dodgers' move to Brooklyn, or the decision to cancel the World Series in 1994.  But I know myself much better than I did in 1994, and I know that I'll be here.

Also, I'm not as pessimistic about the future of spectator sports as I was a few years ago.  For over 100 years, spectator sports has been the province of boys who get carried away about things.  In recent years, a lot of those boys have spent their time on comic books, and computers, and other aspects of pop culture.  But pop culture -- at least to this 50-something -- is taking on many of the qualities that it had back in the 1970's.  Plots are getting easier to predict.  The distinctions between Good Guys and Bad Guys are becoming more rigid.  Nothing seems very funny.  And there are lots of things happening in pop culture that some parents won't want their boys to watch.  Those were the conditions that pushed so many of us toward sports back in the 1970's, and I could see a similar development happening now.

So we wait until MLB is ready to start up again, and we learn about what changes are coming next.  It could be a while.  And even once the game starts back up, it will be awhile before we know what the new era of baseball is like.  But we can be certain there will be a new era, and there will be young people who love that era as much as I loved MLB in the 1970's and 1980's.  And I'll be there, too -- an old fan now, one who has already lived through more seasons than he has left.  (We are now farther from Reggie Jackson's home runs in 1977 than the 1977 season was from the Gashouse Gang in 1934).  But I still get excited every time April comes around, and I've learned enough to enjoy what's available instead of complaining about what's not.

5 comments:

  1. OK, I've learned three things already from just the first paragraph of this post. In my head, I mistakenly had the (1) A's, (2) Braves and (3) Browns moving from Philadelphia, Boston and St. Louis, respectively, a little earlier than 1952.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I love Bob Costas and Charlie Steiner, and I really love Jon Miller.

    ReplyDelete
  3. My gosh, this is a great paragraph: "It's hard to know whether any of this will 'work,' because I don't know what MLB is trying to do. I never understood the big changes that they made back in the 1990's -- it was always obvious to me that most fans wouldn't like them, and the TV ratings make that point very clear. But Bud Selig always seemed really pleased, so maybe they accomplished some goal I never knew about."

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hurrah! I held this out to read over a quiet 15 minutes, and it was totally worth it.

    ReplyDelete