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Tuesday, June 24, 2003

Why I Hate Joe DiMaggio

Tom wonders about Major League Baseball’s refusal to create new legends.

The ball is juiced, Sammy Sosa’s bat is corked, pitching is watered down, Barry’s on steroids. All of these are ways of saying the game is not as good as it once was. If the “Decade in a Box” from the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract has taught us anything, it’s that retired baseball players from every era have insisted that the integrity of the game has been compromised since they played. Yet it’s not just the players. The David Halberstams and Roger Kuhns of the
world convinced me during my impressionable youth that the special players like Joe DiMaggio or Sandy Koufax could never be surpassed.

Today, I hate Joe DiMaggio, or to be more specific, I hate David Halberstam.  More than that, I resent Major League Baseball for allowing David Halberstam to determine who is great. When I was growing up, no one alerted me to the fact that Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker and Tim Raines and Eddie Murray and Ryne Sandberg are all-time great players. They couldn’t be that great, my memories of them aren’t the sepia-toned poetry of the mythmakers, complete with Homeric epithets. Instead these all-time greats struck me as perfectly ordinary ball players. They seemed to strikeout with the bases loaded as often as everyone else, not like Ruth, Cobb, Mays, or DiMaggio who, according to legend, never failed. Major League Baseball has allowed the mythmakers to influence how modern ballplayers for too long.

Since becoming Commissioner, Bud Selig has seemed intent on following the lead of the NBA and NFL in reshaping the divisional structure of baseball as well as adding layers to the playoffs. Whether these moves have been positive is certainly open to debate, but they reveal Selig as open to change. Unfortunately, Selig seems to miss one of the key lessons that the NBA and NFL: use media to influence the perceptions of your audience.

“On the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field…” begins the legendary invocation of John Facenda. And so NFL Films inducts Bart Starr and Tom Landry and Lombardi into the pantheon. The NFL is a league with a keen sense on its own history; however, they never let that history diminish the present. Kurt Warner, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, all are modern day greats whom the NFL refuses to allow the media to diminish through discussions of a league watered down through expansion. Those discussions never arise because, even though the game is increasingly becoming about the coach, it is presented as being about the players.

Meanwhile, in baseball, Barry Bonds had the bad taste to shatter the all-time homerun record too soon after it was set and so his achievements are dismissed as the result of anything but personal skill. Just as the great homerun chase of 1998 was dismissed by a handful of sepia-minded traditionalist. Oddly, the media have on the whole ignored the fact that
three great players have surpassed the record of a mediocrity. They also ignore the fact that, even in context, Barry Bond has in the last two years had two of the greatest seasons ever. According to Baseball Prospectus, even after one adjusts for the “rabbit ball” and smaller ballparks and stronger batters and watered down pitching, or whatever myriad other conjectures
serve to explain the recent offense upsurge, Bonds’s season was one of the greats ever. By most any comprehensive metric, Bonds is one of the five greatest players ever to play the sport. Sure he may be cocky, but he is great enough that his performances could fill weekday afternoon airtime on an all sports network during the offseason.

Most weekdays, on a Wednesday afternoon in December for instance, one can turn on ESPN and see a much younger, much less smug Dan Patrick sitting on a dated beige set. Amidst the tacky polystyrene set, the puffy-faced Patrick is interviewing basketball stars in between replays of NBA playoff games that took place back when it had to be difficult for basketball players to
prevent their scrotums from peeking out of their shorts. The replays are remarkable, not only because of the afros, but because they show how the game remains the same even as the league implements changes. NBA basketball was and is dominated by the players who managed to turn their immense athletic gifts into basketball skills. Even in a league that once contained as transcendent a player as Jordan, they tell us of a new breed of player, Nowitzki and Yao, tall, agile men who could with refinement dominate centers while also draining three-pointers. They tell us of that young man whose wondrous potential will illuminate the basketball world. Perhaps LeBron James won’t live up to the hype. Perhaps Mark Teixeira won’t live up to the hype either, but I suspect fewer people will notice if Tex fails. But, why are people talking about Tex? Why don’t the hopes of the Free World rest on his shoulders? Why isn’t baseball discussed more seriously?

Joe DiMaggio’s greatness never entirely showed up in stats. You had to see him play to truly appreciate his gifts. He had the “face”, the good Italian upbringing, the service time, and the bespectacled, mousy big-league brother. More than anything else, DiMaggio had an effortless grace in center that belied his speed. The man could also get a jump on the ball, it was as if he knew where it was going to be hit before it was pitched. And running the bases… you’d never seen a player go first to third like DiMaggio.

Andruw Jones just appears cocky. With his physiognomy he can’t help but appear that way: Jones combines Rickey Henderson’s cheekbones with the youthfully soft and innocent features of Ernie Banks. Andruw Jones, even as his defensive prowess has diminished a little with age, blows the pompous and bloated memories of DiMaggio’s defense out of the water. By most statistical measures, DiMaggio was never as good as Jones. Never. You’ve never seen a flyball chased down until you’ve seen it done by Andruw Jones. Sure Erstad may get to more balls, but his hardscrabble broken-collarbone style doesn’t have that special Jones grace. Andruw Jones glides to the ball; his every movement is softened by a downy layer of clouds. As the leonine Andruw prowls the outfield grass, his easy manner conceals a deadly explosiveness.

Jones is a man whose skill should be exploited. He plays to be watched and so he should be put out there to be seen. Alas, Selig refuses to take marketing the sport to the next level: extended commercial programming whose only cost is in its production. The opportunities here are endless. Stealing from the NFL, they could compare Jones to a ballet dancer with Swan Lake playing in the background. Or perhaps, give his diving catches the Leni Refenstahl diving-sequence treatment. However they choose to market it, Jones’s defense should play an important role in the two-hour Braves season recap to air during the dullest part of the off-season. If ESPN doesn’t want it, (which I don’t see why they wouldn’t since they show the same Billiards Trick Shot Championship about 50 times) Major League Baseball can start its own network.

It’s easy to understand how sportswriters could have tricked me into thinking that players I’ve never seen are so much better than the ones I watch everyday on television. Through television, I’ve been exposed to Sammy Sosa’s failures, whereas Halberstam gives me DiMaggio’s success. That I can be so misled is ultimately a failure on the part of Major League Baseball. With all the video, bandwidth, film and radio waves expended on delivering me Major League Baseball during the season, it’s difficult to understand why they rely only on twenty second slices from episodes of Baseball Tonight to remind me of Barry Bonds offensive brilliance. A good production team could
easily make Bonds a compelling figure for dreary winter months.

Tom Nugent Posted: June 24, 2003 at 06:00 AM | 21 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. rich Posted: June 24, 2003 at 02:21 AM (#611808)
fwiw, I really enjoyed that, Tom, nice work.
   2. Loren F. Posted: June 24, 2003 at 02:21 AM (#611809)
MLB can't control what writers like David Halberstam write. Nor should it. Face it, the culture has changed so that "heroes" are recognized as having flaws -- remember the controversy over Michael Jordan going to casinos? And nowadays we know Joe D. was a cold, difficult man. We'll never go back to the way things were, and I don't know that an MLB-run cable channel could make much difference (particularly if it were run anything like MLB). But I also suspect that in time, as the vast Baby Boomer generation retires and the next generation becomes more prominent in the media, players from the 70s and 80s will start to become the object of new-found nostalgia.
   3. jmac Posted: June 24, 2003 at 02:21 AM (#611814)
I'm so sick of living in a world where everything focuses on the good old days when Moonchild was sucking on a bong whilst listening to the Strawberry Alarm Clock, and everything that's happened since is meaningless.

hey--I resemble that

but you're right--I just hope I live long enuff to read a generation of sportwriters who explain that the players that they write about couldn't carry Barry Bonds' jockstrap

(I preferred the Electric Prunes)
   4. Walt Davis Posted: June 24, 2003 at 02:21 AM (#611819)
MLB can't control what writers like David Halberstam write. Nor should it. Face it, the culture has changed so that "heroes" are recognized as having flaws -- remember the controversy over Michael Jordan going to casinos? And nowadays we know Joe D. was a cold, difficult man. We'll never go back to the way things were, and I don't know that an MLB-run cable channel could make much difference (particularly if it were run anything like MLB). But I also suspect that in time, as the vast Baby Boomer generation retires and the next generation becomes more prominent in the media, players from the 70s and 80s will start to become the object of new-found nostalgia.

I suspect this is probably wrong -- for a couple reasons. It's not a matter of whether the heroes have flaws or not, it's a matter of whether baseball is willing/able to let new heroes emerge.

1) the baby boom generation is huge and they're a long way from dying off. They will continue to dominate the baseball media for some time, by which time it will likely be too late to lionize the players of the 70s-90s.

2) let me wander into my other love -- jazz. Jazz, like baseball, has spent the last 30 years marketing its tradition more than its present. Jazz, like baseball, has moved farther and farther away from the notion that people will turn out for the music (the game) and think the only way to get people to come out is to give them everything but jazz (look at the lineup of almost any jazz festival and you're lucky if it's 50% jazz).

And jazz, like baseball, has created a pantheon of greats at such a high level that's there's no way that a player of today can possibly reach those heights -- or at least there's no way that they'll ever be recognized as reaching those heights.

And contrary to the above assertion, in jazz, we haven't seen this change dramatically as older critics are replaced by younger ones. There hasn't been a consensus jazz "great" in 35-40 years. The younger generation (of critics and fans) is mostly still listening to that music of 40+ years ago ... with the unavoidable consequence that the audience for today's musicians continues to get smaller.

And baseball, like jazz, is in a bit of a bind. Its tradition is obviously a huge part of its attraction and has been the primary means of its marketing, but it also seems clear that a better job of marketing the game of today is necessary. You can't junk the past, but you have to find a way to make it subordinate to the present and future.

So if that means writing about Bonds in Ruthian terms, then by all means let's start doing so.

On a related, but side note, it's interesting that writers have been much kinder to the pitchers of recent years. Most of the pantheon of great pitchers are of recent vintage (Seaver, Carlton, Ryan); today's greats like Clemens and Maddux are seen as measuring up. It's just the hitters that are getting the short end of the stick.
   5. jimd Posted: June 24, 2003 at 02:21 AM (#611821)
Unfortunately, Selig seems to miss one of the key lessons that the NBA and NFL: use media to influence the perceptions of your audience.

Unfortunately, I really don't think he has missed this. I think the current strategy is deliberate. To puff these players, mythologize them into heroes, implies they must be paid accordingly when the next contract comes due. MLB shut down their myth-making about active players sometime after the reserve clause died in the 1970's.

Nowadays, MLB marketing promotes everything except the active players; it's all about the mallpark experience, the history of the game and the great retired players of the past, with as much merchandise and advertiser tie-in as possible. The only active player I remember being seen prominently in MLB promos in the last few years was Mark McGuire, post-record, who was obviously on his last contract. Bonds might be a good candidate now if only he was more "loveable".

Just my opinion.
   6. Joey B.: posting for the kids of northeast Ohio Posted: June 24, 2003 at 02:21 AM (#611828)
Using "sepia" as a description once in a piece like this is colorful, using it twice is just a tad excessive.
   7. Greg Luzinski's #1 fan (Chris M.) Posted: June 24, 2003 at 02:21 AM (#611840)
Walt, as usual, hits it right on the head. The legend of baseball in the post-war 40s, 50s and early 60s as perpetuated by Kahn, Halberstam, et al. has made it so I feel guilty when I watch a baseball game and don't feel some deep, emotiotionally-stirring passion. Nothing that the stars of today or the last generation could do would surpass the achievements of Joe D, Ted Williams, Stan Musial and the rest.

The romanticism surrounding that era isn't limited to baseball (see Tom Brokaw's "The Greatest Generation"). In some ways it seems true; 1945-1963 was a period of great change and advancement in America that saw more people prospering (at least ecomnomically) than ever before. Naturally, their heroes (such as DiMaggio) would be placed on a higher-than-usual pedestal. Today, we see these heroes as the clay-footed individuals they were, and we expect that all those who are celebrated have similar flaws and are thus less deserving of our undying, undiluted adulation.

I don't see how baseball or any other sport could achieve such status for it's stars ever again. More importantly, I don't think it would be good if such a thing were to occur.
   8. The Spanish Inquisition Posted: June 24, 2003 at 02:21 AM (#611841)
Nothing wrong with sepia, I was expecting a gossamer cloud or two.
   9. CFiJ Posted: June 24, 2003 at 02:21 AM (#611842)
I think it's important to look at the state of baseball and the media at the time. In general, the mythmaking machine is in prime condition: see the NFL and the NBA. Back in the 40's-70's, baseball was really the only thing there was. Now, there are many targets to mythologize.

Also, I have long felt that while the NFL (especially) and the NBA (to some extent) are TV sports, baseball is a newspaper sport. It lent itself very well to verbose and/or poetic prose; it was a sport you followed over the course of the summer in the newspaper, checking the standings, reading the box score. Or you listened to it on the radio. Baseball as played was as boundless as your imagination.

As a TV sport, though, baseball leaves something to be desired. For one, the action is not fluid. Every other sport can seamlessly follow the ball. Baseball is the only sport that requires a cut to follow the ball, and on long flies and home runs, the ball isn't even on the screen for the majority of the time. What this means is that the images we have of baseball now is very uniform. Let's face it, the vast majority of homeruns all look exactly the same on TV. The distinctive arc of a homerun is completely lost on TV. It's not just home runs, but defense, too. I am always struck when I go to see games just how nerve wracking a grounder to shortstop can be. When you are at the game, you can see the runner racing up the line, and even though the shortstop beats him by three or four steps, it looks a lot closer than it is presented on TV. On TV you don't even see the runner until the out is made, and the announcer takes an almost blase attitude. At the game, every ball hit to anyone in the infield is a jolt, a sudden anticipation: you may know the batter is probably going to be out, but there always seems to be the off-chance he'll beat it out, or the ball will be thrown wild. But on TV the play is so routine as to actually be boring.

Singles, doubles, home runs, diving plays in the infield, running/diving catches, double plays, after while it all looks the same on TV. We see these things so often that they lose their sense of distinctiveness. I believe that if Willie Mays made The Catch today, it would end up on "Web Gems" but it would not be as legendary as it is now. Because we have seen other catches like it in terms of form (over the shoulder on a dead run), and certainly if there was still a park as deep as the Polo Grounds were some centerfielder would have the speed and skill to make similar catches like it in terms of distance. Heck, Mays always thought his throw after the catch was better than the actual catch, and that's because he'd seen so many great catches like that, had probably made so many other great catches like that that it was just the same. And we are now just like that. We so much baseball in the same way that while we appreciate the act, we lose the poetry.

I'm starting to ramble, but let me finish the thought: football and basketball doesn't have this problem because the nature of the game allows the camera to capture that sense of beauty in grace when Marshall Faulk dodges through a sea of opposing players for a big run, or Brian Urlacher goes shoots across the screen to tackle a player who had been 20 yards away from him. Or when Kobe drives through the paint and makes a spectacular windmill dunk.

Television has pedestrianized baseball, and that has a direct effect on the mythmaking because in this day and age everything is visual. Sports reporters now, in print and on camera, need only let the pictures tell their own story. In the 40s and 50s, and even in the 60s and 70s before cable and national sports channels gave us the glut of sports viewing opportunities we have now, the David Halberstams and the Leonard Koppetts (rest in peace), and the Jimmy Cannons had to supply the poetry. They had to describe how fantastic something was, they had to take the incredible emotion the play on the field inspired in them, and translate it into words to pass on the inspiration. Now, they don't need to do that because people can see it for themselves. If not live, then on replay, in highlights, sometimes played over and over again. And this puts baseball at a disadvantage because the structure of the game is such a pain in the butt to present on TV.

Of course, older people always talk about how it was better "back then." And certainly David Halberstam is perfectly happy to mythologize the grumpy and media-mistrusting Ted Williams while slamming the grumpy and media-mistrusting Barry Bonds (I expected so much better of you, Mr. Halberstam). And yes, MLB really needs to start marketing the game and the players better. But at the same time, this has been the same for as long as baseball has been around. I don't think that's to blame for why our modern day players may seem, on the face of it, less legendary. First, I do think the perspective of time is needed. The players of the 70s are passing into legend now, and in another decade the players of the 80s will follow. Our relative closeness

But more importantly, I think there needs to be a paradigm shift in the conception of how to televise a baseball game. The cameras now are always trying to get closer. That's good, there's a place for that. But I think producers and directors should consider pulling back a bit. The more you zero in on one point in the field, the more you miss. I think they need to cover the game more with the overhead shot popular in the early days of television coverage, the one you see sometimes for spring training highlights. Pull back and lets see both the runner run and the shortstop throw on that routine grounder. I'm not suggesting abandoning the centerfield camera, or the shots we see commonly these days. I'd just like to see some seamlessness brought to baseball coverage. And attempt to translate some of that poetry and grace onto the screen. Because as I see it now, TV doesn't capture the speed of the game at all.
   10. CFiJ Posted: June 24, 2003 at 02:21 AM (#611847)
Wow, that is my crappiest writing ever! No structure! Rambling on pointlessly! It's so easy to fall into bad habits with blog comments. For the sake of clarity, let me sum up my points:

1. Mythmaking is as prevelant today as it ever was.

2. Baseball mythmaking is hampered by two things:
- 2a. More competition from other sports.
- 2b. Mythmaking in baseball's glory days was very verbal.
- 2c. Mythmaking today is very visual, which hurts baseball because it doesn't translate as well to TV as other sports.

3. More innovative ways of presenting baseball on TV are needed.
- 3a. Pulling back the camera to show more of the field would be a good idea.

Hope that helps!
   11. Scott Posted: June 24, 2003 at 02:22 AM (#611851)
I'm so sick of living in a world where everything focuses on the good old days when Moonchild was sucking on a bong whilst listening to the Strawberry Alarm Clock, and everything that's happened since is meaningless

Witty (I'll have to use the "Strawberry Alarm Clock" reference sometime), but pointless. The baby boomers came after Dimaggio (who retired in 1951, when boomers were 0 to 5 years old), and the most mythologized "best player ever" was a fat man named Ruth who came long before any boomers. The worst mythologizing was that of the generation before the boomers. So a tirade against late 60s culture, while endlessly amusing to the Bill O'Reilly crowd, has nothing to do with anything.
   12. Scott Posted: June 24, 2003 at 02:22 AM (#611858)
If any "era inequity" is screwing the Trammels, Whittakers, and Sandbergs, it's a focus on PRESENT talent, not a focus on PAST talent. The presence of so much post-80s SS/2B talent (Alomar in his prime, Soriano, Biggio, Jeter, Garciaparra, Tejada, A-Rod), in an era of higher offense generally, makes the Trammel/Wihttaker,Wandberg offensive numbers look puny. In short: yes, Tram/Whit/Sand are getting shortchanged by comparison to the players of a different era -- but that era is the present, not the 50s.
   13. Tom Nugent Posted: June 25, 2003 at 02:22 AM (#611864)
Thank you all, for the responses. It's amazing to imagine that many people reading my work, let alone finding in it something to discuss.

In general, I find most of the criticism above warranted. David Halverstam, in mythologizing an already somewhat iconic and sepia-drenched figure in Joe DiMaggio, succeeded in manipulating the perception of a baseball figure in a way that baseball itself hasn't done in a long time. Ford Frick's autobiography of the sepia-drenched Babe Ruth is the benchmark for baseball's marketing its players. Great players of the sepia era, the '50's and '60's, get similar treatment from writers. For instance, the sepia-bathed myths surrounding Koufax and his dominance have been a significant factor in arguments for using peak performance in making HOF cases.

Unfortunately, baseball's insepiated Golden Age, like Brokaw's "greatest generation" (good point, Chris M), is portrayed as the pinnacle of achievement. That's why today's sales pitch has to be different. In fact, it has to be willing to contradict those creaky writers with papery, sepia skin who insist that baseball will be mediocre until the Renaissance.

Which is where media comes into play in shaping how todays players are sold. CFiJ makes some extremely good points concerning how baseball should be presented. The increasingly incompetent print media are no longer in a position to market baseball. Sabremetric writers, for all the good writing they give us, are too busy convincing and cajoling to sell baseball--Bill James being a notable exception. For marketing purposes, I'd like to see some film students given some money, some digital recording equipment (or perhaps it could be done on film with "Sepiatone" tinting) and some access and set loose. The hope would be that baseball productions could be NFL Films meets Woodstock. One point I'd like to mention, apropos of not much, is that NFL Films have impeccable production values, great graphic and cinematographic skill and a literariness and wit.

My point concerning Whitaker, Trammell, Murray, etc. is that they were mismarketed at the time. That contributes as much to their not standing up well to posterity as modern middle infielders. Although i hinted that the cause of their mismarketing is the hero worship of the sixties, that's only part of the problem. Whatever the cause, what strkes me as strange is the unwillingness of baseball to sell many of its players' best selling points: greatness. (jimd provides a plausible explanation of why this might be.) It seems that the greatness of modern players is an easier selling point than its increasingly distant past. Which is basically what Chris M. and Walt Davis said.

Kill all the lawyers is from Henry VI part 2. Thanks again for all the comments.
   14. Matt Garza smells it deep (Mr. Tapeworm) Posted: June 25, 2003 at 02:22 AM (#611865)
All in all, a good piece, but I do take issue with Roger Maris' description as a "mediocrity." He did win *two* MVP awards and a gold glove. His lifetime OPS+ was 127. (He had only one season with an OPS+ under 100). He was top 10 in the AL in home runs four times; runs, slugging percentage, OPS and home runs three times. The hitters most similar to him are Bobby Allison, Hank Sauer and Jay Buhner. Not Hall of Fame quality. Not Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa or Mark McGwire. Not great. But certainly not mediocre.
   15. Jeff M Posted: June 25, 2003 at 02:22 AM (#611869)
Seems silly to hate David Halberstam. He's like 70 years old. He loves his boyhood heroes, just like we do, and he writes about them. Maybe the thing to do is to write a book that glorifies YOUR boyhood heroes, despite their faults. MLB can't stop you from getting it published.

This isn't limited to baseball. Presumably every generation does this, and every "current" generation complains about the old guys glorifying the old days. Baseball isn't exempt.

Part of the trouble is the media generally; primarily television. They sell scandals. Part of the trouble is the players; they KNOW they are television when they're playing, but they forget they're on television when they aren't playing. They dive for balls they don't need to dive for so they can make ESPN's Top Ten, and they rack up stats less to win and more so that Gammons can talk about their OPS (as if it's some new stat he discovered when really it was developed 20 years ago and has subsequently been left in the dust). But they go to strip clubs or start fights or beat their wives under the same scrutiny.

The media shouldn't be following these guys around in their personal lives, but you know why they do it? Because people love it. They watch the news to see this kind of crap. And advertisers know it. And advertisers fund the media. And it goes round and round. The media doesn't do it for kicks. They do it because it sells, and every one of us buys it.

Halberstam is an old school quality journalist who occasionally writes a "soft news" memoir that romanticizes baseball. So what?



   16. CFiJ Posted: June 25, 2003 at 02:22 AM (#611875)
I have to say one of the things that really irked me was when Sports Illustrated was selling their collection of color home movies of old baseball players. The idea I really liked, but the title bugged me: "When It Was A Game". Don't they realize that a title like that devalues the modern game? It's still a game now. It was still a business back then. It's good for baseball to market its history and tradition, but it sucks when the modern game is run down to do it.
   17. Jolly Old St. Nick Still Gags in October Posted: June 26, 2003 at 02:22 AM (#611902)
A pointless article. Straw men, half truths, and non sequiturs. Nobody other than his publishers and his reading public "allows" David Halberstam to write his books. Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker and Ryne Sandberg weren't called "all-time great players" during their careers any more than Luis Aparicio or George Kell were, for the simple reason than they weren't. On the other hand, I read and heard many references to Eddie Murray along those lines, and more than a few about Tim Raines until his drug problem, also for the simple reason that they WERE among the all-time greats. Only a few morons like Rick Reilly have "ignored" Barry Bonds' amazing, all-time feats. He is routinely mentioned in a very short list of all-time great players, and not just by SABR members and followers. (I'd put him second to Ruth, and that's only because Ruth could pitch.) Plenty of people don't "like" him, but so what? Like he cares. Andrew Jones is undoubtedly every bit as good or better a fielder than Dimaggio, but the reason that this isn't routinely accepted is that (a) there are far more great CFers now than in the 1940's, and (b)when they show thousands of great catches a year on Sportscenter they DO tend to blend into one another. Plus you do have the Yankee factor, which will always be with us until either Atlanta stops folding in the postseason or the city of Atlanta grows to about five times its current size and gets rid of its backwater aura (Tomahawk chop, etc.).

But the silliest thing in this piece is the quaint conceit that "sportswriters...have tricked me into thinking that players I've never seen are so much better than the ones I watch every day on television....," when his whole point is that he doesn't think that they are! Those must have been some real convincing sportswriters.

And what does it matter, anyway, that baseball trails the NFL and the NBA in the popular imagination? Three great sports, superstars in all of them. Do you really worry about the fact that kids seem to like Allen Iverson more than Barry Bonds? Kids are kids. They love flash and they love those who talk trash. That's all that it means, sir. That, and the fact that most of Barry's games end well after midnight east of the Mississippi, which ensures that most of his career has been effectively seen only in highlight films and read about mostly in two day old newspapers.
   18. Jolly Old St. Nick Still Gags in October Posted: June 27, 2003 at 02:22 AM (#611909)
Tom, just look at what you're saying. First you say that the sportswriters "made" you think a certain way when you were growing up, but now, thanks to Bill James & Co., you've seen the error of your ways. In other words, I was blind, but now I can see, and pity those poor, benighted fools left behind who still think that Joe Dimaggio was better than Barry Bonds---curse those sportswriters like Halberstam for brainwashing us (meaning not "us," of course, but "those of us who haven't seen the light, such as the former me"), and even more, curse "baseball" for "letting Halberstam have the last word."

Geez, Tom, you seem to think you're Churchill shaking his fists at the Germans after Dunkirk, but you're more like King Canute cursing the shallowness of public opinion. The Dimaggios played in an era where muckraking was relegated to the marginal media rather than the entire media, and so his legacy was naturally "sepia," as you succinctly phrase it. The modern players don't have that advantage, and they also compete with an enormously expanded athletic world for attention. If baseball tried to "make" its greatest player (Barry Bonds) into the public mind's equivalent of Michael Jordan, just exactly how would they go about it? This is a fair question, since the two are roughly equivalent in their individual accomplishments relative to their sport.

First, you'd have (or would have had---it's much too late now) to put Barry in the hands of a handler, who would completely remake his public persona, so that he'd be accessible to the media, and seen as, say, a Puckett or a Gwynn rather than as a "Barry Bonds." Then you'd have to arrange for him to excel in the postseason every year the way Jordan did, so that when his team flopped (as the Bulls did before '91) it wouldn't rub off on him. Put these two "strategies" together and we'd be getting somewhere. The problem is, though, that Barry IS Barry, for better or worse (and I have no problem with the way he is), and Barry DIDN'T perform in postseason until last year---and please, spare the SABR nitpicking on that latter observation: Michael Jordan's deifiers had more than "secondary" statistics to demonstrate their man's postseason greatness. They didn't need "small sample size" excuses.

And a further problem with trying to "bad-boy" baseball's image is that it would be such a pitiful imitation of the NBA that every commentator on earth would notice it and just snicker at the idea. It's just too obvious and too copycat a strategy.

But if you really like "bad boy," here would have been one small but significant way to market the game in a way which is consistent with every value you can name, and it would be both original and substantive:

Throw out the fan voting for the All-Star game. With all the ballot stuffing, it doesn't mean squat anyway. Let Sciosia and Baker name the entire rosters, including the starting lineup and pitchers. Let them manage the game governed by regular season rules. None of this Little League mentality bullshit about letting everyone play, as if the purpose of the game was not to offend the mother of the worst player on the team. Let them use their best players (and pitchers) for as long as they want, or as little as they want---it would be totally their choice.

In short, make it a game where both sides really play to win.

And give the managers and their players real incentives to do so: A multi-million dollar pot, winner take all, to be divided among all the players on the winning roster, plus a half million to the winning manager. This should assuage any hurt feelings about not playing, and it would also give the managers a real incentive not to play politics in their selection and use of players.

Oh, and give the home field advantage in the World Series to the winning team. (I know they have this now.)

And market the hell out of it, as "the grudge match of the century" between two teams who "hate each other" (okay, slight exaggeration) and with "all the incentive in the world" to do "anything" to win, with "millions of dollars" (not to mention home field advantage) "riding on the outcome." You can even goose a few of the players with a WWF sense of promotion to imply that the other league had "better watch out" for "unusual strategies," or something like that.

Of course it would be more than a little cynical. But it sure would be fun. It sure would make for the best All-Star game ever, at least in the anticipation. And if nothing else, it would produce the biggest buzz baseball has seen since Mac and Sammy slugged it out. And since the only thing being messed with is the most crashingly boring exhibition game this side of the Pro Bowl, what is there to lose? Nothing.

Halberstam might huff and puff (though I doubt it), but I'd bet the overall public reaction would be overwhelmingly curious at worst. And I'd bet my life savings that you'd have the biggest All-Star ratings ever.

And since the only ones who could make this happen, orprevent this from happening, is "baseball," there would be no question about responsibility one way or the other.

Just don't let them ever say they never get any constructive suggestions.
   19. Jolly Old St. Nick Still Gags in October Posted: June 27, 2003 at 02:23 AM (#611928)
Tom....

Can't really disagree with anything you're saying about marketing today's stars, which is clearly a better strategy than re-running the same old clips from the black & white era. I grew up in the 50's and just about the only things "Golden" about baseball then from a non-New Yorker's point of view were the ballparks, the admission prices, and a handful of star players. The game on the field today is so much better than it was then (overall) that there's no comparison. But again, the reason for the "sepia" we got then as opposed to the "dirt" we get now is simply that it's a different age. Mantle and Williams were sniped at all the time in the press---at least as much as Barry Bonds is today, believe it or not---but this was pretty much on a local, newspaper level, not the 24/7 instant pundit ESPN culture of today. And for a "hero" image to stick in a Ruthian or Jordanian sense, a player must either have (or acquire) a larger than life personality, rise consistently in the postseason, or acquire the charisma of anti-charisma, like Ripken. Bonds has the last of these, at least to hardcore fans, but the sour undertone of his media relations pretty much kills any hopes of the general public ever seeing it that way. Good luck to Guerrero, Pujols and Soriano until they put up Sosa-like numbers. I'd rather watch Soriano play right now than almost anyone else in the game, but that's mostly because I'm a Yankee fan. It's hard to imagine huge numbers of fans outside New York falling in love with a Yankee who speaks better Japanese than he does English. Besides my All-Star idea, I'd think one of the better uses of baseball's marketing dollar would be to invest it heavily in the New York and Sunbelt Spanish-speaking media outlets. That's by far the biggest (relatively) untapped potential market I see right now. What do you think?
   20. fracas' hope springs eternal Posted: June 30, 2003 at 02:23 AM (#611959)
The fact is that during his career Sandberg was widely regarded as one of the all-time great second basemen and a sure first ballot HoFer

Absolutely.

and the reason for that is that he WAS one of the all-time great second basemen and he DID deserve to be a first ballot HoFer.

Absolutely not.

The reason folks expected him to be a sure first ballot HOFer is that they expected him to continue the career path we all thought he was on. He didn't. He turned in a mediocre 1993, a lousy start to 1994, retired for more than 1.5 seasons, then came back for 2 mediocre ones.

The same guy who averaged 31 win shares per year from 1988 to 1992 only totaled 51 win shares from 1993 to 1997. That's why he didn't make it first ballot. He still deserves to make it (and certainly will, having received votes on 50% of the ballots in his first year), but he's just not the slam dunk we all expected him to be.
   21. Paul Posted: July 01, 2003 at 02:24 AM (#611990)
I agree with most of what was written. But at the same time, the reference to Michael Jordan brought up memories I don't want to remember. I know he was arguably the greatest player ever. I know he played baseball at AA, I know he used to be into golf and was featured on Sport's Illustrated cover page golfing, etc.... In other words, I know more about Michael Jordan than he probably knows about himself. And to tell you the truth, I don't want Major League Baseball to market a guy like the NBA marketed Jordan. It cheapens the sport itself. And focusing on just one guy, no matter how great he may be, is not good for future generations. I mean how many times have we heard, "Who is going to carry the torch when Jordan retires?" What? Carry the torch? I mean it sounds like a superheroes cartoon. Ten to twelve years straight of Michael Jordan being dietized every day on "Sports Center" was just too much to take. I don't need to see the same treatment of Barry Bonds. I mean I like that he is the highlight when a Giants game is being shown, but I also like the fact he is not thought of as something bigger than the sport itself.
So as I said, I initially was in agreement with the article, but as I read on I realized that as much as I hate the way MLB is run today, running it like the frivolous NBA, which appeals to the fake "on the fence" fans with large pocketbooks and little basketball knowledge would be a mistake(Although the Andrew Jones example was excellent). I believe things will get better for the sport. And I really dont mind that the old-timers can tell me about how great Joe D. was. I like telling the younger pepople how great George Brett or Kirby Puckett were.
As for sportswriters? Well the media is intent on finding stories that sell. They are doing they're job. And if they can find dirt or bring up controversial topics such as watered down pitching or steroids, they will. They are not intent on bringing a guy down from sheer sadistic motives. But stories of the fall of a great hero sell newpapers and TV commercial time. That's just the way things are. In time the bad will be forgotten, and only the good will be remembered. In 40 years Manny Ramirez will be known as being as close to the perfect ballplayer that ever there ever was. But as for now, he is a great hitter who may be the worst baserunner ever, and a little above average fielder. I'm sure many people in the 1940's were telling Joe Dimaggio fans how he couldn't compare to the great ones like Ty Cobb or Nap Lajoie.

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