Out of the park

The US dubs the sum­mit of its do­mes­tic base­ball com­pe­ti­tion the World Se­ries, which says it all about the sport’s im­por­tance to Amer­i­cans.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by Joanne Black

The US dubs the sum­mit of its do­mes­tic base­ball com­pe­ti­tion the World Se­ries, which speaks vol­umes about the sport’s im­por­tance to Amer­i­cans.

Abest-of-seven base­ball se­ries be­ing played be­tween Amer­i­can League cham­pi­ons the Hous­ton Astros and Na­tional League cham­pi­ons the Los An­ge­les Dodgers will de­ter­mine which team will hold the World Se­ries ti­tle for the next 12 months. Only a pedant and a non-Amer­i­can would note the hubris of declar­ing a ­com­pe­ti­tion that is do­mes­tic (other than the in­clu­sion of Canada’s Toronto Blue Jays) a “World Se­ries”. Amer­i­can fans will as­sure you that if other coun­tries com­peted, the US would win any­way. There is cer­tainly no big­ger base­ball com­pe­ti­tion in the world, none more pres­ti­gious or ex­pen­sive and none with more fol­low­ers. The “world” claim may not be too far-fetched af­ter all.

Without ques­tion, the ti­tle­hold­ers will have earned their place at the top of the US 30-fran­chise pile. This year, base­ball’s reg­u­lar sea­son be­gan on April 2 and ended 2430 games later on Oc­to­ber 1. By then, the 15 teams in the Na­tional League and the 15 in the Amer­i­can League had each played 162 games. If all seven games are re­quired in the best-of-seven 2017 World Se­ries – the fi­nale of base­ball’s an­nual cal­en­dar – there will have been only a hand­ful of nights in eight months in which there has been no ma­jor league base­ball on TV. Base­ball author­i­ties seem to fear that if pub­lic at­ten­tion wanes for longer than it takes to get from Hal­loween to spring, when the fields thaw out, the

“A lot of peo­ple see it as a very cere­bral game. I think that’s bull­shit, but it makes them feel bet­ter.”

au­di­ence might go else­where.

“There isn’t an­other [Amer­i­can] sport with a sea­son like base­ball has,” says ­Jonathan Kron­stadt, a for­mer se­nior editor of The World of Base­ball and co-au­thor, with Larry Moffi, of Cross­ing the Line. The book is a col­lec­tion of bi­ogra­phies of ev­ery ma­jor African-Amer­i­can base­baller from 1947, when Jackie Robin­son was the first black player to break from the Ne­gro leagues to sign with the Dodgers, un­til 1961, when the Bos­ton Red Sox be­came the last ma­jor league team to racially in­te­grate.

The World Se­ries used to di­rectly fol­low the reg­u­lar sea­son, but to

­max­imise ­au­di­ences and in­come, base­ball ­author­i­ties are loath to have one se­ries when they can in­stead have a se­ries of se­ries. This means that af­ter the reg­u­lar sea­son, there are ­wild­card games, then the best-of-five play-offs to de­ter­mine the two top teams in each league, which then play a best-of-seven se­ries to de­ter­mine the league cham­pi­ons.

That saw the Dodgers de­feat the ­Chicago Cubs and the Hous­ton Astros beat the New York ­Yan­kees. The sched­ule ­po­ten­tially pushes the sea­son into early Novem­ber, risk­ing some games be­ing played in win­try con­di­tions, though with home games this year in LA and Hous­ton, that risk is averted. “It’s ironic to me that to make more money they play the most ­im­por­tant games of the year un­der ­con­di­tions that are far from ideal,” Kron­stadt says. “Last year, the ­Cleve­land In­di­ans played the Chicago Cubs. ­For­tu­nately they struck good weather or they could have been play­ing in 40 de­grees Fahren­heit [4°C].”

How­ever, the long sea­son may also be part of base­ball’s at­trac­tion. The game is known in the US as “the na­tion’s pas­time” – a nos­tal­gic phrase evok­ing fa­thers in the park play­ing catch with their kids. “For a lot of peo­ple, base­ball is there on TV ev­ery day for them,” Kron­stadt, 60, says. “If they’re fight­ing with their wife or their hus­band and their kids are be­ing an­noy­ing and the boss is a pain, they know they can dis­ap­pear into the minu­tiae of base­ball. For a lot of peo­ple, there are not many things any more that are the same as they were when they were kids. For a lot of Amer­i­cans, men in par­tic­u­lar, base­ball is some­thing they can rely on, es­pe­cially given the pace of change that peo­ple of my gen­er­a­tion have gone through. A box score [score­card] is still the same and that, I think, is com­fort­ing for a lot of peo­ple.”

Orig­i­nat­ing in the US, base­ball is as quintessen­tially Amer­i­can as Mom, ap­ple pie and de­bates about gun con­trol. But as in many sports, base­ball fol­low­ers are drift­ing away and not be­ing re­placed by a younger gen­er­a­tion. Last year’s World Se­ries clash be­tween the Cubs, who had en­dured a 108-year drought since last hold­ing the ti­tle, and the In­di­ans, who hadn’t won since 1948, pro­vided a fil­lip. The best-of-seven se­ries was drawn 3-3 af­ter six games, ­height­en­ing in­ter­est in the fi­nal. It was tied 7-7 af­ter nine in­nings apiece – the length of a stan­dard game – then en­dured a rain break be­fore the Cubs pre­vailed 8-7 in the 10th in­nings. In do­ing so, the teams pulled in 40.3 mil­lion ­view­ers, ­ac­cord­ing to Nielsen fig­ures, the third-high­est view­er­ship for a sin­gle tele­cast on US TV last year. It was beaten only by the Su­per Bowl (112.6 mil­lion view­ers) and the Su­per Bowl post-game (70.3 mil­lion). The Os­cars was the only top-10 event in 2016 that was not a sport.

The long sea­son means each team needs a large squad of play­ers who are in­creas­ingly spe­cialised. The ­anal­y­sis of field plac­ings, the swing of the ball and pitcher se­lec­tion, com­bined with ­end­lessly por­ing over sta­tis­tics, make ­base­ball afi­ciona­dos sim­i­lar to their crick­et­ing coun­ter­parts. One dif­fer­ence is that ma­jor league base­ballers at­tract ­eye-wa­ter­ing salaries, which bother some fans, but the spe­cial­ist roles sim­ply add to the pieces on the so-called “emer­ald ­chess­board”. “A lot of peo­ple see it as a very cere­bral game. I think that’s bull­shit, but it makes them feel bet­ter,” Kron­stadt says.

One role, for ex­am­ple, is “the closer”, a pitcher who comes on for only the fi­nal in­nings to try to stop the bat­ting side from scor­ing. This sea­son, the New York Yan­kees set a record closer’s salary, sign­ing Aroldis Chap­man from Cuba for US$86 mil­lion ($123 mil­lion) over five years. Ma­jor league base­ball is ma­jor-league ­busi­ness. More than pres­tige will ac­crue to the 2017 World Se­ries win­ners.

Emer­ald chess­board: Cleve­land’s Pro­gres­sive Field be­fore the start of game one of the 2016 World Se­ries be­tween the Chicago Cubs and Cleve­land In­di­ans. This year’s con­test is in the warmer climes of Hous­ton and Los An­ge­les.

Aroldis Chap­man: on US$86 mil­lion over five years.

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