There is a wonderful pair of scenes in the second episode of Aaron Sorkin’s criminally underappreciated TV series Sports Night, a fictionalized rendering of the production of nightly sports shows like ESPN’s SportsCenter. A young, newly hired producer, Jeremy Goodwin (played by Joshua Malina), is tasked with cutting his first highlight reel: he has to take a baseball game, fish out the best moments for that night’s show, and put them together in a reel of about thirty to forty seconds. On his first try, he hands in an eight-and-a-half minute reel. His explanation for it is one of the best expressions of what’s great about baseball, and the first riposte that comes to mind reading today’s somber knock on baseball’s future from the New Yorker’s Ben McGrath.
More specifically, Jeremy’s defense of his highlight reel is a concise rendering of the fact that what casual fans or non-fans hate about baseball, fans love. Casey McCall, one of the program’s co-anchors, tells Jeremy he needs to cut it. “I can’t imagine what I’d cut,” Jeremy says. Casey points out that Jeremy’s reel begins with the first batter in the first inning of the game–a player who grounded out. Casey tells Jeremy that they call such plays “routine ground balls” for a reason: when putting together a highlight reel, “let the word ‘routine’ serve as a danger sign.”
They then have the following exchange:
Jeremy: There’s nothing routine about it. Casey, the guy’s hitting .327 since the All-Star break, he’s drawn 22 walks in the leadoff position and he’s a threat to steal second every time you put him on. He fouled off seven pitches.
Casey: And you show each and every one of them.
Jeremy: You bet I do.
Casey: We usually just show the pitch that puts the ball into play.
Jeremy: But then you miss the battle.
But the real gem, for lifelong baseball fans, comes a couple of scenes later. Casey is going over the tape with Jeremy, trying to help him cut it down for the broadcast. They have this exchange, which sounds crazy to anybody who isn’t a baseball fan:
Casey: Okay this section here where the batter taps dirt off his shoe and spits four times…
Jeremy: We can’t cut that!
Jeremy: No, the storm clouds are gathering.
Casey: (sighs) All right just out of curiosity, what voiceover would you have me write for this?
Jeremy: What’s wrong with ‘the storm clouds are gathering?’
Casey: The storm clouds aren’t gathering, he’s cleaning his shoe!
Jeremy: He’s breaking Carrera’s pitching rhythm.
Casey: The battle?
Jeremy: The battle.
“The storm clouds are gathering” remains the line that plays in my head any time someone complains about how long the game takes, how slow the action is. The mental chess match between pitcher and batter before every single pitch is where the game can be its most dramatic.
Just as what non-fans hate about baseball can be among the most engrossing aspects of the game for fans, so too what would seem to doom baseball’s popularity can be, for its many fans, what helps make the game so watchable. McGrath begins his dirge on “The Twilight of Baseball” by asking a simple question:
If Mike Trout walked into your neighborhood bar, would you recognize him? Let me rephrase: If the baseball player who is widely considered the best in the world—a once-in-a-generation talent, the greatest outfielder since Barry Bonds, the most accomplished twenty-two-year-old that the activity formerly known as the national pastime has ever known—bent elbows over a stool and ordered an I.P.A., would anyone notice?
McGrath goes on to paint a picture of a league of fading stars. League attendance appears to be doing fine, he says, but delve deeper into the numbers and you see a few teams carrying the revenue stream for the league. But that’s not really an accurate picture. Kansas City’s team has a winning record this year and attendance is up. Same is true of Seattle and Oakland. Houston’s having a terrible season and their attendance is up anyway. Additionally, revenue sharing means the success of some big-market teams benefits others, and so does their spending. Their success means mammoth television contracts and playoff revenue. The worst baseball teams as far as attendance still draw more fans per game than the majority of basketball teams despite playing twice as many games. Yes, that has to do with larger stadiums. But they have larger stadiums for a reason. And the popularity of minor league baseball is unlike that of any other sport, showing the game thrives away from the big cities and markets.
McGrath is a fan of baseball but also of hockey, so he is somewhat inured, he says, to the taunts of those who disdain a sport he loves. And yet, the pessimism presses on:
But the Trout conundrum strikes me as a significant milestone in baseball doomsaying—more problematic, say, than the demise of corporate slow-pitch leagues, which the Wall Street Journal recently foretold. When was the last time baseball’s reigning king was a cultural nonentity, someone you can’t even name-drop without a non-fan giving you a patronizing smile?
McGrath isn’t condemning baseball himself here; he’s a fan. But I am tempted to see this particular sign of decline as actually something to brag about–something, in fact, that is in baseball’s DNA. It’s true that the best players in a sport, especially of Trout’s quality, tend to be famous. They are superstars. But in baseball, that just strikes me as out of place.
Of the major sports, baseball is the one where a great player can thrive on a consistently mediocre team and it won’t seem out of place. You just can’t carry a team as an individual. There are nine batters, and nine fielders. One man can only do so much.
In basketball, one man can dominate; there are only five guys on the court on each side at a time. In hockey, a goalie can make all the difference. In football, everything revolves around the quarterback.
But baseball is the ultimate team game. Sure, a dominating pitcher can shut down the opposing team–but that’s only once every five games. The rest of the season he’s not even on the field.
And there’s another aspect to Trout’s ability to blend in at the bar that speaks to baseball’s uniqueness. Hockey players have a look: the toothless grin under the long hair on a hulking frame (though toothlessness has dropped somewhat since the advent of the face mask). Basketball players tend to be a head taller than the rest of the population–easily recognizable. As for football, we say someone is “built like a linebacker” for a reason.
But baseball players are so … normal. At least in comparison to the other sports. No one “looks like a baseball player.” That’s not really true for the other major sports.
I won’t turn this into a rambling ode to What’s Great About Baseball (though I suspect it might be too late). But I thought it worthwhile to point out that Mike Trout’s relative anonymity speaks to the normalcy and humility that characterizes baseball more than any other major sport. It may not sell jerseys or even enough tickets for the league’s bottom line, but it’s a reason to love baseball and an indication not of the sport’s identity crisis but of its potential.
Is baseball in trouble? Perhaps the storm clouds are gathering. But that’s the best part.