The hard truth is that the game has been slipping for a while now, especially among younger fans. Is it possible that it could slip into irrelevance? It's foolhardy to say that it can't happen here.
"Alright Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close up now."
With that, Norma Desmond, an over-the-hill, delusional former movie queen, slithers toward the camera in what she assumes is her most irresistible and alluring manner, but which is in fact pathetic and deranged.
So ends the final scene of "Sunset Boulevard," starring Gloria Swanson, one of Hollywood's most iconic films. It's a scene that I can't get out of my mind these days, because it seems to be a metaphor for the self-destructive behavior of baseball and the forces that run it.
Back in March, when all sports were shut down, baseball appeared to be in a better position than either basketball or hockey; those other sports were building to the climax of their seasons, while baseball, yet to officially get under way, had plenty of time to regroup. But basketball and hockey both seemed to find a way to get their acts together, while baseball got into a deathmatch with itself over whether or not to even have a season.
This is not to assign blame to either the owners or the players' union. After all, there are billions of dollars at stake and both sides were fighting for their own best interests. One wishes, though, that someone would put in word for the best interests of the game.
Both sides were pointing fingers at one another -- and not necessarily the index fingers, either -- in an increasingly bitter dispute. The mere fact that a schedule for playing at least some games has finally been set does not mean that the sides have settled their differences. It just means that those differences are being allowed to marinate and grow more poisonous. That does not bode well for 18 months from now, when the combatants will square off to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement. Besides, with the coronavirus spiking in so many states, there is still no guarantee that any games will be played this year.
The months of headlines about how many millions of dollars people get paid for playing a game did not win any new followers -- not by a longshot. Baseball fans, "those wonderful people in the darkness out there," as Swanson's character in the movie melodramatically referred to her following, are turned off. That's not a good thing.
Baseball doesn't have to worry about me. I'm in for life, and as soon as the games start up again -- if they do -- I'll be right there, as will most all of those like me -- old dogs' habits are hard to break. But what about my 12-year-old grandson? He loves baseball -- or at least he did until the recent squabbling drowned out any talk of running, hitting, or throwing -- but he's still a work in progress. What if he's given a choice of sports to follow in the summer months? What if basketball, for example, decides to reconfigure future seasons to cover July and August, and baseball no longer has the summertime to itself? That would be a massive problem.
The hard truth is that the game has been slipping for a while now, especially among younger fans. Is it possible that it could slip into irrelevance? It's foolhardy to say that it can't happen here. Up until a few months ago, we didn't think that a global pandemic could happen here, either -- oh, we thought, maybe in some third world country, but not here. But it did happen here. In fact we've been hit harder than any place else.
I, and those like me, remember a time when two of the biggest names in sports were Eddie Arcaro and Willie Shoemaker, a couple of jockeys. Everyone knew who they were. Does anyone, outside of a few hardened horseplayers, have any idea what the name of any jockey of today is? The heavyweight champion of the world, whether it was Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, or any of the others from their day, was once the most famous person in all of sports. If you were to go out into the street and ask the first 10 people you saw who the heavyweight champion is today, how many do you think would be able to tell you? And would you even know if they were right or wrong? Will baseball suffer the same fate as horse racing and boxing -- still around, but no longer anything near the influence it once was?
Times change, and sports do, too. We live in the 21st century, when the world -- at least until the coronavirus forced us to hit the pause button -- seems to spin around faster than ever. Apparently, though, baseball didn't get the memo. While the rest of the world has been speeding up, baseball has been slowing down. The games are longer than ever; the pace is slower; fewer balls are being put into play; strike outs now outnumber base hits. Games of 50 or 60 years ago were played at lightning speed compared to today. The powers that have been tinkering around the edges for some time now, but real, enlightened change is needed. How does that get done with the owners and the players' union locked into their own special interests? Everyone cares about the good of the game, but who is looking after it?
It's a great game -- the best, as far as I'm concerned -- but everything needs updating from time to time. Even the U.S. Constitution has been amended 27 times. But baseball's powerful interests can't seem to agree on anything, to say nothing of making meaningful changes. Meanwhile, the fan base keeps shrinking -- and aging.
It brings us back to the metaphor of "Sunset Boulevard." When Norma Desmond's public had shrunk to the character of Joe Gillis, portrayed in the movie by William Holden, the aging film ingenue -- whose character, for our metaphorical purposes, represents the game of baseball -- is making her delusional attempt at seduction, Gillis, the last of the fans, is lying face down in the swimming pool, having been killed by the crazed old diva herself.
And we are left to repeat a line once uttered by another disillusioned fan: "Say it ain't so, Joe."
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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