ON THE BALL AND OFF THE WALL: Pastime is Now Past Time

This column is for non-sports fans who would like some enlightenment and hopefully humor without being sports fanatics.

The French-born educator, philosopher and author Jacques Barzun once wrote of what was known as our country’s National Pastime:

Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball…

No more.

Major League Baseball’s World Series begins as Motif goes to press. But don’t look for local fans to be glued to their TVs to watch the Atlanta Braves face the Houston Astros, who knocked off the Boston Red Sox for the American League pennant.

In fact, that low howl of dismay you hear is coming from MLB’S home offices in New York City, and the boardrooms of their major sponsors. The money folk were hoping for a champagne Series between Boston and the L.A. Dodgers (who got tomahawk-chopped by the Braves in the National League pennant finale), and instead got a Thunderbird fortified wine toast in a Mayor McCheese glass. This will be watched predominantly − and nearly only − by fans in the Atlanta and Houston metro areas, instead of pumping up the ratings and revenue due to the national appeal that would have pulled in the Red Sox Nation and La-La supporters. Oops.

To be fair to Jacques Barzun, when he published that line about baseball in 1954, the sport was the most popular in the United States. It was riding the breaking of the color barrier by Jackie Robinson; the heroics of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Duke Snider; and backed up and buoyed by the emergence of rising superstars named Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron, who brought both fresh talent and flair to the game.

The only sport that was almost as popular as baseball was college football, and the four major bowl games − Cotton, Orange, Rose and Sugar − were played on New Year’s Day, and were required viewing or listening.  (Using one of those things called a “radio,” for you young social media misfits.)

Back in the transistor and tubes era, the National Football League was seen as kind of a poor man’s college game. People cared little about the fairly new National Basketball Association, which played in almost any gym that would open its doors to a game (including the old Rhode Island Auditorium for the Boston Celtics). The National Hockey League was just a bunch of Canucks dislodging each other’s teeth to an audience that was strictly from New York City north and west. And soccer? A shower of immigrants in ethnic urban neighborhoods who couldn’t even use their hands while performing, fer chrissake.

Now baseball has slowly been committing suicide with boring, three-and-a-half-hours-plus games, more strikeouts than you’ve had hot dinners, and a television schedule, particularly for the showcase World Series, that all but rules out any kid under the age of 14 seeing the final outs of a game. 

As just a quick popularity/recognition/status litmus test, how many major league players do you see doing TV commercials these days?  Compare with NFL stars, or even identifiable NBA faces, even if you count Shaquille O’Neal as only one, given his raft of sponsorship deals. 

The NFL has steamrolled baseball as our National Pastime. 

Pro football betting pools are now legion, and if you don’t at least know the result of the Sunday Pats game at work on Monday you are a pariah, or at least viewed as a clueless idiot. And the same goes for the residents of any city and its suburbs across the country that has an NFL team.

What draws the eye and the fan base are guys who can throw a football into a trash can forty yards away, and to a bevvy of freakishly fast, athletic and glue-fingered running backs and receivers. Add in the allure of a NASCAR pile-up, being able to see one of them − or even better, the quarterback − get blown up by some 250-lb. monster of a linebacker, safety or defensive end at least once per contest. That what we’re waiting for!

So while baseball may still have a place in our hearts, our minds have turned elsewhere. And we’ll check on the score in the World Series by flipping back and forth to it while watching some trash comedy on the tube. Sorry, Monsieur Barzun.