October 28, 2022
Something happens to me in October. All that hipster rejection of professional sports as “redneck hyper masculine bullshit” flies out the window like a ball smacked out of the park by Aaron Judge. I become a baseball lunatic. Post-season brackets become my obsession and holding my breath for every pitch becomes my cardiac workout. Who am I?
The World Series starts today and, of course, I’m rooting for the Philadelphia Phillies. Yes, they beat my hometown Atlanta Braves, but I’m a National League loyalist. (Designated hitters are a weeny cop-out!). Plus the Phillies have a lot of weird looking players, like Brandon Marsh, who looks like Sasquatch hovering over home plate. Besides, we all understand why the Houston Astros suck (even if I want to pinch Jeremy Peña’s cheeks). So yeah, the only thing that matters in October is baseball, and I hope the Phillies lose a few games so we get the full seven-game series all the way to November 4th. I want to squeeze every minute of baseball joy out of the coming week.
All this began for me when my dad started taking me Braves games at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium in 1973. It was the reign of Hammerin’ Hank Aaron and I would wear my glove hoping to catch Homerun 714. I remember the racists screaming that a black man should not be allowed to top Babe Ruth’s record (Apparently, Aaron routinely got death threats), but Hank was my guy, my gateway into America’s pastime. I’ve loved tracking batting averages and ERA’s ever since.
So what’s the problem?
The most obvious issue is that Major League Baseball is a male only sport. Unlike U.S. soccer, where the women’s teams often outdraw the men’s team (at least in Portland), there is no female equivalent in MLB. And women’s Olympic softball doesn’t count. It’s a celebration of nut scratching maleness. There’s now an obligatory female interviewer on the field asking the male players and male coaches what the hell happened in the 6th inning, but other than her and the lucky lady on the Kiss Cam, that’s about it for women in baseball. But, as Andi reminded me, at least they don’t have cheerleaders.
I want my daughter to love baseball the way I did when I was a kid, but she doesn’t see anyone that looks like her on the field. Why should she care?
White Bread Sox
The complexion of MLB has changed dramatically over the years. When I was a kid, players of color were relegated to the outfield and the high profile infielders were lilly-white. Now it’s all We are the World (if the Dominican Republic was the biggest country on Earth). Black, brown and Asian players dominate. (Can I get a hell yeah for Cleveland Guardian Steven Kwan?) The Astros manager, Dusty Baker, who happens to be black, is a baseball legend. But the owners remain uber white. (And there is not a single African-American player in the Series this year.)
MLB still looks like a plantation system where white owners look to Caribbean islands for the next money maker. Lured with big salaries but short careers, they play their hearts out until their bodies are used up and they are retired to the field of dreams (typically a used car lot). The average career of a MLB player is only 5.6 years, so what’s a 30-year-old over-the-hill Puerto Rican to do? He’s been replaced and forgotten.
Feeling sorry for seven-figure salaries?
The average salaries of major league players is $4.4 million. It’s hard to see them as victims. But they’re also workers struggling for agency. When MLB players went on strike in 1994, the whole game shut down for nearly two years. It looked like greedy players were just pissed over a proposed salary cap, but it was really about the economic exploitation of men whose likenesses were generating billions for others. The goal was the better share of the revenue, but players are still eaten up and spit out at will by the league machinery.
So being a modern baseball fan is a constant internal dialogue. I have to see that a lot of fandom each October is a performance of a fairly pedestrian form of masculinity. “Did you know Justin Verlander is the first pitcher to pitch in the World Series in three different decades?” he says as he thumps his chest. My father would be proud of me dropping everything to scream at the TV at every possible moment in the post season. But I’m also aware of the many contradictions this massive baseball machine represents. It’s both deeply problematic and infinitely beautiful.
Fortunately, there are increasing numbers of women who are baseball mad just like me (including Andi, whose head almost exploded when Houston shut out the Seattle Mariners). The sport is full of pathos, including watching players age out of the game before our eyes. There’s David and Goliath stories, like the (wildcard) Phillies against the Houston Yankees (i.e., the Astros). There’s the collective held breath as a well hit ball approaches the top of the back wall. The emotionality of baseball could be seen as essentially feminine as relationships work together to create a moment, not to destroy one. There is crying in baseball.
The ever-quotable Yogi Berra once said, “Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too.” The poets can argue about the metaphorical value of “America’s past time,” and the rest of us can settle in for the story wrapped up in each pitch and the thrill of the crack of a bat. I don’t have time to feel guilty, I have to review the stats for tonight’s roster.