Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Rootless and Impersonal

[Editor’s note:  Despite the introductory paragraphs, this is not another post about Barry Bonds.  Like the game itself, the issues are bigger than Bonds.]

Remember Barry Bonds?  Of course you do.  The strange thing is that without any home runs to date, Bonds has temporarily receded from our consciousness, especially among Phillies faithful who have a lot more on their minds at the moment.

No doubt Bonds will resurface when he hits the first ball into McCovey Cove and the chase for 714 and 755 resumes.  But even when he does and inevitably passes the first of these milestones at the very least, the record won’t mean much to us anymore.  That’s the real fallout from the steroids era, a sabremetric shift if you will, away from traditional strongman records to park factors and Win Shares and the like.

Whatever your perspective, it’s especially hard to care for statistics that seem tainted or, at the very least, suspect.  Ho hum, another fifty home run season by so-and-so.  We can largely thank Mssrs. McGwire, Bonds, Sosa et al for this transformation.  Until they arrived and cast doubt on power numbers, succeeding generations cared deeply about the relative performances of their contemporary heroes compared with those of the legends of the game.  Now, as in so much else within American life, statistics have become even more impersonal and rootless.

This notion has slowly occurred to me for some time as I witnessed and lamented the fungibility of rosters and wholesale migration of players from one team to another, often in successive seasons.  We still root for the home team but less so for the individual players who will be here today and more than likely gone tomorrow or the next day.   It’s only natural to hold back.  The uniform, not the individual inside it, must be the object of our desire if we are to preserve our dignity if not our mental health.

Somehow the new statistics emphasize the universal not the individual.  Home run statistics are individual, win shares are not by definition.   Go ahead, name the all-time leaders in win shares in each league.

Something has been lost in the one sport where the numbers matter most.  For all the Pythagorean calculations applied to bat and ball today, things simply don’t add up for me.  You can assemble a team based on money ball theories or old-fashioned scouting or some combination of the two, but in the end the players are merely rented for a few seasons.  Bring in a new guy and give him so-and-so’s old number.  Don’t fall in love with Chase Utley; he’s going to leave at the first opportunity.  And what does it matter anyway if he doesn’t have a high enough relative range factor.

This notion was brought home to me forcibly  in another way only last week when Ken Griffey passed Mickey Mantle on the All-Time Home Run List.  (For once, a home run did not immediately evoke steroids; Griffey has always been seen as clean.)

That news item affected me far more than the bigger milestones Bonds threatens to pass shortly.  The reasons are many and in some respects personal.   Mantle was a prominent baseball figure during my youth, a palpable presence made very real when I saw him play against my hometown Orioles.  Every year Mantle began the season a threat to overtake Ruth’s single-season record for homeruns that stood until his teammate Roger Maris barely superseded it in his asterisk fashion and McGwire, Sosa and Bonds positively brushed both aside as they leapfrogged to new enhanced heights.

Mantle played his entire career for the Yankees, indeed became the symbol of the franchise for many years.  Each season began with Mantle a fixture in centerfield for New York like DiMaggio before for him and Ruth and Gehrig before him.  Those days are gone and in some respects it is a good thing.   Baseball players are no longer indentured servants albeit well-paid ones, free to sell their services after at a certain stage of their careers to the highest bidders.  Still I remain convinced the continuity and commitment were good for the game because as Roger Angell put it so aptly many years ago, where else in life but baseball can we watch the individual fortunes of our heroes ebb and flow daily and permit us to care so deeply?


Tom G said...

"Don’t fall in love with Chase Utley; he’s going to leave at the first opportunity."

You make me want to run upstairs and cry into my pillow.

George S said...

That's a great post.

Although they are fewer now, there are still players that are identified as the face of a franchise. They play the bulk if not all of their careers with the same team. Smoltz, Chipper Jones, Jeter, Frank Thomas, Bagwell to name a few. Guys like David Ortiz, Albert Pujols and a few others have that chance as well. But there are not many.

You have to ask yourself, though, which is healthier for a sport, building fan allegiance to teams or to individual players? Is it better for baseball if fans are attached to the Red Sox no matter how much their roster shuffles, or is it better if fans are attached to Pedro Martinez or ARod no matter where they play? I think the former.

The NBA has promoted players over teams for some time. When they advertised upcoming games, they would often not even mention the teams that are playing, instead emphasizing only the individual matchup between two 'stars'. Yao Ming vs Shaq, AI vs Kobe, Lebron vs Vince Carter and so on. As far as the NBA was concerned, they couldn't care less if Shaq played in Orlando, LA or Miami. If you live in Orlando, come and root for Shaq and Penny, not the Magic.
I consider this very risky. If you have no team attachment, then you have no support when there are no stars on the team. Who roots for the Atlanta Hawks?
The Sixers (I believe) are so heavily dependent on this type of fan loyalty that they cannot afford to trade AI even if it made the team better. Very few fans are attached to the Sixers as a team anymore. The game is not marketed that way.

The NFL has gone the opposite way. They promote individual stars somewhat, but not anywhere near as much as they promote team rivalries. It's Colts vs Patriots much more than it's Manning vs Brady. Part of this is because there is relatively less movement of key players in the NFL. But the end result is fierce team loyalty among fans.

I should also note that I believe the NBA and NFL take the same approach to the players. The NFL builds team identity (more of a team game anyway) and new players quickly learn what teams are on the 'hate' list. Their teammates tell them and the fans tell them. The NBA, on the other hand, tells the players they are bigger than the team. That's why the league is overtly and plainly happy if a player like Lebron wants to jump from a small market team like the Cavs to a team like the Knicks. The league itself wants what's best for it's star players more than it wants what's best for it's individual teams.

I think baseball is therefore better off promoting team loyalties rather than individual players. Of course, you do not ignore your stars, but you promote in the team context and except for the biggest superstars, you promote them locally. This is what baseball has always done and it's why fans will be loyal to the Cubs or the Rangers (or Phillies) even when they suck year after year.

As a fan, I want to associate with certain players on my favorite team. I want to make the emotional investment in how they do as individuals, and therefore I prefer some stability and continuity in the roster. But at the end of the day I'm a baseball fan and a Phillies fan. I cannot think of any former Phillies that I have actually rooted for after they left the team, including ones that I was fairly passionate about when they were with the team.
And so if Chase Utley was traded tomorrow I would not have that much further interest in his career (after an appropriate period of mourning, of course), although he is right now one of my favorite players.

RickSchuBlues said...

Doing some crossover work here...

Valid points all, to be sure. Only consider two of the guys the Philadelphia fans are villifying the most these days: Abreu and Liberthal, the players with the most seniority on the club. In the case of Lieberthal, he's been on the Phils his entire career, and people are just sick of him. It took a third MVP in 1986 for people to finally warm to Mike Schmidt. And yet Pete Rose was instantly popular, and despite only playing for five years in Philly, is still revered here. Same with John Kruk and Jim Eisenreich. I don't think longevity in one uniform counts so much in determining popularity or allegiance. The Phillies consciously have been trying to keep a marketable core together for years, and it hasn't exactly been an identity people have embraced.

I also believe it's somewhat of a myth that players move around more today than they used to. Take a look at Bobo Newsom's lodger, for one. Or Frank Robinson's. Robin Yount, Schmidt, Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn, Ryne Sandberg, and George Brett were among very recent HOFers who played during the free agent era, and all played with one team. Today, you have people like Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones, Bagwell and Biggio. Even Bonds has been with the same team for fourteen years.

The only sense in which baseball is more impersonal compared to earlier times is the stratospheric financial difference between players and fans. Players were always celebrities, but only recently have fans felt so distanced toward them. Perhaps no one is really aware of how much money a given player is earning while watching them in a game, but usually the deepest antipathy is reserved for the unproductive player with the big contract.

Tom Goodman said...


After I wrote this post I wondered whether or not it was too gloomy.

As I pondered that question, I was reminded of statements I've read in many places over many years that while people tend to dislike politicians in general, they are favorably disposed to their local representatives. A variation on that theme is that while people generally complain about many in the medical profession, when they are in the examining room one-on-one with their own doctor they are far more favorably disposed to them.

All experience, not just politics, is local. Baseball may be a great example and as you both point out it is the game not the individuals that continues to attract us. But I still have doubts it is really that abstract or "impersonal".

George's point regarding the relative stability of NFL rosters may be changing literally as we debate the issue. Though there has been far less movement among star players historically, much more movement is underway in the NFL than ever before. Indeed, in Philadelphia the chief complaints by fans over the past off-season and belated free agent season is that the team did not do enough to bring in top players. Still, there is much more movement in baseball...for now. The point about how the NBA markets itself (player vs. franchise) is very well taken and the pitfalls, as George points out, are considerable.

As for the RichSchu's point about permanency vs. movement, for every Cal Ripken (a dwindling number as the Jeter's of baseball age) you have the Kenny Lofton's, who play for six or seven teams. Jim Thome is another example of the contemporary player, now with his third team in four years. There are dozens of big league ballplayers of note (Sheffield, Renteria, Billy Wagner, etc.) who will play for three or more teams before they are done. We have to discount to some extent guys like Frank Robinson, who really played for two teams (Reds and O's)but hung on (too long) with at least one or two more. Those last stops are ones of desperation, like Lefty hanging on after leaving the Phils. He really played for two teams. I cannot even remember his last club unless I look it up, which I won't bother doing. Minnesota???

The Roger Angell point remains with me since the day I read it 20 years ago or more. He spoke of the box score, a daily ledger of credits and debits, that showed the changing fortunes of our baseball heroes on a daily basis. Where we might answer the question "What's new" with a simple "Not much", the players could say "I struck out three times against Carlton and was glad to do that well" or "I raised my average to .280" or whatever. And that reality, constant change, affects all of us quite profoundly, I believe, both relatively and in itself, given how strong is the desire to care deeply about the fortunes of those we admire or value in our daily lives.