Greed and networks’ insistence on treating the national pastime as just another program — and one airing at hours that make it impossible for kids to see — is squeezing the joy out of prime-time games
Yes, it’s a column about baseball. But before you click away (grumbling, ”If I wanted to read about sports, I’d subscribe to Sports Illustrated), let me add it’s also about TV and greed. Have you ever noticed that those two simply go together like peanut butter and jelly, or ”Cheech?
This subject has been on my mind since 2004, when the ”Red won the World Series for the first time in 86 years, finally put the Curse of the Bambino behind them…and my baseball-mad oldest grandson missed the game because it was on way past his bedtime (his dad woke him for the postgame celebration, and good for him).
I tabled the subject then, even though ”event” baseball games regularly appear in EW’s ratings box, but my disgust with Major League Baseball has continued to grow, and finally came to a head during my last visit to Fenway Park, when the PA announcer informed us that the seventh-inning stretch was being sponsored by Coke. And that’s not the worst. In 2004, MLB okayed a plan to put advertising for Spider-Man 2 on the bases during interleague play. Fan outrage killed the idea, but that it should have been raised at all is depressing. Sometimes you just want to say to the suits running America’s pastime, ”Have you no shame? Is there nothing you won’t sell? No disgrace you will not visit on this wonderful game in order to turn a buck?”
When I was a kid (the sort of line that invariably indicates your correspondent is growing old and curmudgeonly), children could still watch baseball on TV. I saw Don Larsen’s perfect World Series game after school and danced for joy around our apartment even though Larsen was a hated Yankee. In the years that followed, more and more teams began to play more and more night games. The reasoning was simple: Lots of working guys couldn’t go to day games. What the reasoning ignored was the ever greater emphasis on televised baseball. Yet those early TV pioneers were pikers compared with those selling the game today, with whole cable networks like YES and NESN pretty much devoted to the idea that baseball is just another prime-time TV series.
But at least regular-season games are telecast at regular hours — most start at seven or seven-thirty. You can even take a kid to a 7 p.m. game on a weeknight, although he or she is apt to fall asleep in the car on the way home.
But thanks to the unholy alliance of Fox and MLB, most ”event” TV baseball might as well come with an Adults Only tag. And the fans in the stadium? They’re likely to find themselves shivering in their seats until midnight or later, due not only to late starting times but also to extra-long inning breaks, stretched so the network can sell more beer and deodorant. The spectators are in effect reduced to cheering extras, with this added kick in the butt: They pay for the privilege instead of getting paid. Oy, such a deal for the network. And the kids who buy the posters, T-shirts, and trading cards get warmed-over TiVo in the morning. Too bad, of course, but Fox has to sell lawn tractors and the latest big-bang Guy Flick. Sorry, kids, but when money talks, you guys have to take a walk.
This year’s All-Star Game is a particularly disgusting case of how the game has been pimped out by the very people who pretend to care about its traditions. Fox came on air at 8 p.m. on July 15, and bingo, there go the 6- and 7-year-olds: Sleep tight, kiddies. The game actually started around quarter of nine (there go the 8-year-olds). It rolled past midnight with the score tied (there go the teen-agers and working stiffs) and finally ended at 1:38 a.m. on July 16. Duration of game: almost five hours. At 15 innings, it would have ended late no matter what, but if the first pitch had been thrown at 7 p.m., the game still would have been over before midnight. But hey, the kids don’t buy Bud or lawn tractors, so to hell with them.
I tell myself I’m cynical — hardened to all this — and mostly I am, but I’m still amazed at how corrupting television can be…although there’s no doubt MLB has loved being corrupted. Someone ought to give them a pants-down butt whippin’. Except I’m afraid it’s already too late. As one ESPN commentator put it recently, ”Commerce trumps conscience every time.”