Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Great Moments in Rabble-Rousing

Quote of the Week

"For the good of baseball, we need to have cost-containment."

--Rangers' owner Tom Hicks, who, according to this article delivered these words while speaking from his yacht off San Diego. Sources close to Mr. Hicks, however, have stated that he got a good deal on the yacht.

Since I started writing this column, I've heard from a vocal minority of folks who like me enough to keep reading, but not so much that they feel they need to be nice. These good people have accused me of never actually watching baseball games. They claim that I’m all about steroids, labor negotiations, and big money contracts. They say that I and writers like me do baseball a great disservice by not reporting on the little things like bunts, shoestring catches, and triples to the gap.

They have a point. Looking back at the old archive, I’m shocked to see how little I write about the actual game, and to remedy this state of affairs, starting now, Chin Music promises to include Actual Baseball ContentTM. Say, every couple of weeks. That is, if something interesting occurs on the field and I don’t feel more like writing about whatever lurid scuttlebutt happens to be ruling the half-sheets.

For our first installment of Actual Baseball ContentTM, we turn to last Thursday night’s tilt between the Giants and the Braves. The Giants entered play that night well back of the Western Division-leading Diamondbacks, but only a half-game behind the Dodgers in the wild card race. The Braves are approximately 57 games ahead of their nearest competitor in the National League East, but since they will most likely play either the Giants or Dodgers in the first round of the playoffs, this game had Serious Playoff Implications.

It was a close game, characterized by good pitching. With the Giants up by two runs in the bottom of the ninth, Dusty Baker called on the intimidating Rob Nen to close the deal. With one out, Nen allowed Braves’ speedster Rafael Furcal to reach second on a double. Nen then bore down on Matt Franco, striking him out. Next Nen walked Gary Sheffield, leaving runners on first and second with two down and Chipper Jones at the plate.

The Giants' situation still was not desperate. Jones hadn’t looked good that evening, and given the two-run lead, it would have taken an extra base hit from Chipper to make a difference (no way Sheffield scores from first on a single). Nen went right after Jones, putting him in an 0-2 hole, and the Giants one strike from victory.

Unfortunately for Giants fans, however, Nen got lazy and failed to keep an eye on the runners on base. He let them steal second and third without even a throw, putting the tying run in scoring position. Now instead of extra bases, Chipper only needed to poke a single through the infield to tie the game. And that he did, driving in both Furcal and Sheffield, and forcing into extra innings a game the Giants had all but won.

Only a torrential downpour in the top of the tenth kept the Giants from snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. For now the game is booked as a tie. (Since the Braves and Giants aren’t scheduled to meet again this season, no makeup game has been scheduled; if the game turns out to have playoff implications, it will be replayed.) Even though Nen’s gaffe didn’t technically cost the Giants the game, it may have caused some psychological damage. Entering Thursday night, the Giants had won seven of ten; at this writing they’ve dropped three of four.

If the Giants are forced to fight tooth and nail for a playoff spot through September only to end up having to fly across the continent to play a one-game makeup against a rested Braves team at the end of the season, maybe then they will have learned that little things like holding runners on base make a difference, even on lazy, rainy weeknights in Atlanta in the middle of August.

Great Moments in Rabble-Rousing

Ten years ago Slate blogger and former New Republic editor Mickey Kaus wrote a book called The End of Equality. He claimed that the most serious threat to democracy is not so much the gap between rich and poor, but the decay of public institutions where citizens can meet as equals. In other words, our problem is not simply that the rich have too much money, but that their money insulates them more than it used to from the lives of their fellow citizens.

In his latest column the Miami Herald’s Dan Le Batard has applied this same argument to the world of baseball. He blames the "coddled cocoon" of the pro baseballer's life for the current labor disputes. Players, he writes, are insulated from the fans who "squeal" and "clamor" to worship them, and from the media that goes "begging for a morsel of valuable thought." He claims that this detachment from the everyday concerns of Johnny Punchclock and Sally Housecoat is the reason why baseball "deteriorates by the dollar, by the threat, by the empty seat."

At least I think that’s what he means. Maybe he's just hungry:

Baby Ruth. Mars bars. Butterfingers. Twix. Mounds. Almond Joy. Hershey bars. Starburst. Snickers. Milky Way. Kit Kats. Blow Pops. Nerds. 3 Musketeers. Boxes and boxes are stacked atop one another in this lounge, all free, all you can eat. They live and work in a candy store, baseball players do, playing a game for a living in a little kid's fantasy world.

Yep, rather than the exorbitant salaries, the unimaginable pressure of competition, or the fame and adulation that come from being a Major League ballplayer, it turns out that access to free candy is really what separates ballplayers from the rest of us. Sure, Le Batard mentions in passing that ballplayers don’t fly coach or carry their own luggage. But he spends far more time talking about candy, chips and sodas. It’s the Butterfingers, stupid.

What’s going on here? Does Le Batard really think that free junk food is ruining the game? That the players will only give up their Snickers bars when they’re pried from their cold, dead fingers? Of course not. He's just trying to rile up the fans. Digging into the details of a labor negotiation is hard work. Making it interesting to a general readership is even harder. It's much simpler just to bang out 750 words about the unfairness of a system that distributes candy unequally. And of course it doesn't hurt that inflammatory columns tend to bring TV appearances, syndication deals, and more money.

Contrary to what most wags are saying these days, populism isn't a bad thing in and of itself. Cynical populism like Le Batard’s, however, is divisive and destructive. It’s the journalistic equivalent of junk food.