Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Et Tu Olbermann?

Americans tend to attribute our nation's "loss of innocence" to some unfortunate event that just so happened to occur around the same time they themselves lost their baby fat. For my parents it was the JFK assassination; for me it was New Coke.

Likewise, sportswriters and broadcasters tend to pinpoint baseball's loss of all that is special and pure at almost exactly the same time they started having to write about it on a deadline. Though he is now something of a media renaissance man, Keith Olbermann is still, at heart, a sportscaster, and as is evidenced by this piece, he is no different in this regard.

In trying to expand one decent point -- record breaking has always been met with mixed feelings among baseball fans -- into something long enough to justify MSNBC reprinting it as though it were an actual column instead of a Countdown transcript, Olbermann unleashes a cranky broadside regarding the state of the game:

. . . the fans’ confidence in what the game means has been shaken. And not merely by steroids or human growth hormone. In just two decades: the gambling on baseball by, and banning from baseball of, Pete Rose; a strike that led to the cancellation of the World Series; and the decline of African-Americans like Bonds, in the first sport in which they became transcendent (there were more American blacks on the 1950 Dodgers than there are on the 2007 Dodgers).

On what, exactly, is Olbermann basing his view that the fans' "confidence in what the game means" has been shaken? By the objective measures -- attendance, profits, merchandise sales, hell, even TV ratings -- fans confidence has never been greater. Surely Olbermann is not disputing the numbers that seem to indicate that baseball's popularity is at an all time high.

No, Olbermann must mean something else. It's not popularity he's driving at; he's interested in subjective meaning. What the game means. That certain je ne sais quoi that it allegedly had a little over two decades ago, by his estimation. A time frame, it just so happens, that coincides nicely with the rise of Olbermann's own career as a sportscaster.

Olbermann would have us believe that baseball meant so much more before he was 30 -- not just to him but to everyone -- but beyond that curious time frame, doesn't offer even the most oblique hint regarding the meaning it supposedly held. We're therefore forced to either take him at his word that the game is now meaningless, or else dismiss him out of hand.

Before we do that, however, let's give Olbermann a homework assignment. Keith: here's about 150 or so essays about what baseball means. I'm guessing they don't all agree with each other. I'm also guessing that not all of them have been rendered moot by Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Bud Selig, and the other difficult baseball news you've had to report over the past two decades.

To some people the game still means everything and always will no matter how bad the news gets. To others it has never meant anything more than a fun diversion and thus nothing short of the game's total elimination will diminish it in their eyes. Still to others, baseball went off the rails when they outlawed pepper games, and nothing anyone says will change their mind. Like Garagiola said, baseball is a funny game.

As for Olbermann, well, I've always liked the guy, so it pains me to see him of all people join up with the hell-in-a-handbasket crowd. For his sake, it is my sincere hope that his sentiments about the game losing meaning were occasioned by a need to quickly provide some content with which to feed the gaping maw of a 24-hour news network, and not some truly-held belief that, to him, the game is but a shadow of what it once was.

If not, it is my sincere hope that he leaves baseball behind for a while and focuses instead on pursuits that hold at least a modicum of meaning for him.

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