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Review-a-Day
The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, May 20th, 2003


 

May the Best Team Win: Baseball Economics and Public Policy

by Andrew Zimbalist

The Reluctant Fan

A review by David Kipen

My wife drew a blank this morning when I asked her what Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, and Ted Williams had in common. Thinking cap firmly in place, she did hazard a guess: "They're all baseball players?" (She meant this as a joke, she says now.) "They all hit home runs? In the World Series?" This was getting us nowhere. It was time to turn over all the cards, as they used to say on What's My Line?, and spill. Unfortunately, I was spilling already misting up, or starting to, as I sometimes do when the conversation turns to baseball.

Misting up is one of two physiological reactions the game tends to produce in me. The other, a symptom I regularly present in the later innings of most game broadcasts, is unconsciousness. At first, when on the couch with the remote, or in the study with the computer, or in bed with an ear over the pillow speaker, I'm in heaven. Too soon, though, heaven is forsaken for dreamland. Something about a postgame show always wakes me up, but sleep usually makes a comeback before I can hear what the final score was. It's like radio traffic reports: We wait forever to hear one, but when we do, our attention falters before the announcer can get around to the route we want. "Hey, did she mention the 101 yet?"

Tears and snores. One wouldn't think the same stimulus could produce two such divergent responses, but then, baseball has never been an oasis of strict causality. Sneak a bad pitch past a napping hitter and you're a hero. Snap off a wicked curveball and get beat on an excuse-me swing. Logical it's not. How to explain a game (to the uninitiated, or even to initiates) that has us choking up like a pesky bunter one minute, and nodding off the next?

The stock answers are that we weep from nostalgia, and we doze out of boredom. According to this line of thinking, we're tired of greedy owners, and of overpaid ballplayers who change teams so often that we're left rooting for little more than an empty uniform. We pine for the game of our childhoods, when salaries were lower, tickets cheaper, and all the grass if not greener was at least real.

Andrew Zimbalist is here to tell you that the stock answers are, like a batting-practice pitcher's aim, all too true yet inadequate. A professor at Smith, Zimbalist argues persuasively that the biggest problem with baseball today is the monopoly power exercised by the owners running it. Undergirding this power is baseball's antitrust exemption, as enshrined in 1922 by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in Federal Baseball Club of Baltimore v. National League of Professional Baseball Clubs. Although a wise and witty man (whose father helped to found this magazine), Justice Holmes appears, in retrospect, to have rendered one of the Court's more cockeyed decisions here. Through it the Court held baseball immune from antitrust laws governing interstate commerce on the grounds that because crossing state lines to play ball was "a mere incident, not the essential thing," and because playing amounted to "personal effort, not related to production," professional baseball was neither interstate nor commerce. Whatever the merits of these findings in 1922, before pro ball went west and became a multi-billion-dollar industry, it's a toss-up which half of the argument looks more ludicrous now.

To give us some idea what he thinks of Federal Baseball, Zimbalist makes a habit of referring to "baseball's presumed antitrust exemption." If this monopolistic exemption were repealed, he contends, market forces would distribute talent more evenly; players would no longer have to strike whenever the general agreement came up for renegotiation; financially mismanaged teams would fold, and the rest would make enough money to quit pleading poverty all the time; cities could more easily resist owners' shaking them down for public funds to build new stadiums; and Zimbalist's bogeyman, baseball commissioner Bud Selig, might finally be out of a job. That's a lot of hopes to pin on an idea that nobody has exactly tried yet, especially with the owners' lobbyists and lawyers ready to make a meal of any member of Congress who tries anew to reconsider the exemption. But Zimbalist had me believing him almost all the way. He adduces pertinent statistics and historical parallels from football and basketball both of which have by most yardsticks eclipsed baseball in popularity, and without the dubious benefit of an antitrust exemption. In addition, Zimbalist documents instances in which team accountants' massaging of club finances has called to mind another profession one for which massage often serves as a handy euphemism. Ever since the publication of Zimbalist's somewhat dated but more accessible Baseball and Billions (1992), owners have been trying everything to discredit his figures everything, naturally, except opening up their books to public scrutiny.

Of course, one can be glad a book exists without especially enjoying the act of reading it. Zimbalist's actuarial prose style doesn't do much to help his case. Too often he writes like the little kid who used to keep score at home during NBC's Saturday Game of the Week. We now have a good idea what happened to that kid: he grew up to be an economist (like Zimbalist), a baseball statistician (a career for which Zimbalist shows great aptitude, in case the Robert A. Woods chair at Smith ever slips out from under him), or, well, me. The only time Zimbalist's learning plays him false is when he mistakenly writes that "in 1988 the Twins became the first MLB team to surpass the 3 million mark in annual attendance." He should have said the Twins became the first American League team. The first major-league baseball team to pass three million, fully ten years earlier, was the National League's Dodgers something Zimbalist can be excused for not knowing, since he probably didn't cut sophomore Spanish with Alan Foonberg to watch them do it.

The sportscaster Bob Costas contributes a brief, cogent foreword. To say it's the most engaging writing in the book would be like saying Costas is the most eloquent sportscaster currently on a national network. This is an achievement? May the Best Team Win should be Exhibit A the next time Senator Patrick Leahy or any other quixotic statesman calls hearings to explore the removal of baseball's antitrust exemption just so long as he doesn't make the mistake of trying to keep himself awake during a filibuster by reading it aloud.

Yet even if Zimbalist succeeded utterly, even if pro baseball lost its exemption and mended its ways and started acting more like a good citizen and less like OPEC, the problems of nostalgia and boredom would still be with us. Here a fan gets into dicey territory. In fan-nonfan relations, even to use the word "boredom" is to give ground one may never get back. Boredom in baseball is like Israel's nuclear bomb: everyone knows it exists, and everyone agrees to pretend it doesn't.

Yet torpor will out. Under the lovely, elegiac pastel haze, among all the hymns to the game's timelessness and craft, hides a secret shame. It's there in the 1911 book America's National Game (which has been reissued by the University of Nebraska Press), by the player, executive, and manufacturer Albert G. Spalding, who wrote that "two hours is about as long as an American can wait for the close of a Base Ball game or anything else, for that matter." It's there in Philip Roth's essay "My Baseball Years," from Reading Myself and Others: "Baseball with its lore and legends, its cultural power, its seasonal associations, its native authenticity, its simple rules and transparent strategies, its longueurs and thrills, its spaciousness, its suspensefulness, its heroics, its nuances, its lingo, its 'characters,' its peculiarly hypnotic tedium, its mythic transformation of the immediate was the literature of my boyhood." Hypnotic tedium. Has anyone ever put it better? Maybe only Don DeLillo, in the prologue to Underworld: "Dodgers go down in the top of the ninth and this is when you sense a helpless scattering, it is tastable in the air, audible in the lone-wolf calls from high in the stands. Nothing you've put into this is recoverable ..."

Unrecoverable. Is it any wonder baseball makes us choke up? Three hours a day, six months a year, the baseball fan commits himself to the game. Multi-tasking or mono-tasking, we carry it wherever we go. He listens. She watches. Next morning they read the game story, scan the box scores. On our deathbeds, surrounded by loved ones we almost remember ("Didn't you fetch me some Twizzlers once?"), we'll add up all the hours. Where is the return on all this time? As it says on the ticket stub, "nonrefundable."

Wait, the fan pleads, hold on. Isn't every game unique, like a snowflake? This is the most pathetic dodge of all. As if the 9-2 blowout we fidgeted through when we were five differed in some qualitative, unmistakable way from the 9-2 blowout we drowsed through at forty. Because the last batter fouled off six pitches instead of eight, perhaps, before he struck out looking?

And yet the two games were different. Not because the box scores diverged by a one here or a zero there, but because the fan at five takes in a rout differently from the fan at forty. The young fan will admit to boredom freely, griping and whining about it. The adult fan won't. Either he turns away from the game and some can, for the day or even for life or he sits there and takes it, mind wandering guiltily, flirting with sleep. Boredom is a luxury of the young.

Here, at last, is how baseball works its lachrymose and soporific spell on us: we feel nostalgia and boredom, yes, but more than that, we feel nostalgia for boredom, for youth's immensities of wastable time. The lovely poem "Spring and Fall: To a Young Child," by Gerard Manley Hopkins, a man who held no particular brief for baseball one way or the other, begins, "Margaret, are you grieving / Over Goldengrove unleaving?" To be flat-footed about it, Margaret is a girl distraught over the arrival of autumn and the loss of leaves from a favorite copse. For a dozen lines or so the speaker consoles her as best he can. Then, in fittingly arboreal language, he delivers a couplet that distills Margaret's sorrow, and with it that of every grown-up ball fan who ever wondered how a simple game could become so complicated: "It is the blight man was born for, / It is Margaret you mourn for."

A baseball is a skin full of different yarns, wound so intricately that strangers with nothing in common save the game economists and novelists, say need never want for something to chaw over. Baseball diamonds have preserved more marriages than any other kind. (By the way, Joe DiMaggio learned how to play ball in San Francisco, Ted Williams in San Diego, and Jackie Robinson in Pasadena: Californians all.) The game was codified by a man, Alexander Cartwright, whose middle name was Joy. I follow baseball, through the boredom, through the greed, and when I try to stop, it follows me.


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