Fight Club

Reading between the Lines of Violence in Baseball and America

By Scott M. Irwin, June 30, 2022

Basebrawl. The word elicits a chuckle from most sports fans and an Internet search for montages capturing the comical antics of baseball’s wannabe boxers.

We watch pitchers drill batters—as Andrew Wantz did to Jesse Winker on Sunday. We watch batters angrily threaten retaliation. We watch bullpens and benches clear, and much jawing and chest-thumping ensue. We watch players flip the bird to fans.

The Angels and Mariners engage in America’s most-revered tradition

Occasionally, we watch real violence erupt—and we are inspired.

“Man nothing gets my caveman juices flowing like an actual baseball fight with some knucks being chucked,” one fan tweeted.

Indeed, the lure of violence, perhaps even the necessity of it, is as old as human history. Cavemen killed in order to survive. The Romans and Ottomans erected great civilizations that ultimately were cut down by the spear and the sword.

And America? As Sunday’s debacle reminded us, violence pervades our culture. After watching Sunday’s melee, I flipped through the channels and, for the 1,000th time, saw policemen storming yet another high school terrorized by a teenaged shooter; reality TV shows starring America’s most notorious rapists and murderers; and rioters, posing as patriots, impaling fellow countrymen with the American flag.

Historian Richard Slotkin argues that violence is the key to understanding the American story. Colonists forged a new nation with the musket and bayonet. Daniel Boone tamed the American wilderness with the rifle and hunting knife. The U.S. Army won the West with the Gatling gun and cannon.

“After watching Sunday’s melee, I flipped through the channels and, for the 1,000th time, saw policemen storming yet another high school terrorized by a teenaged shooter; reality TV shows starring America’s most notorious rapists and murderers; and rioters, posing as patriots, impaling fellow countrymen with the American flag.”

Rugged individualism became intertwined with the valorization of violence, as heroes emerged from the haze of gun smoke: James Fenimore Cooper’s legendary Natty Bumppo, slayer of deer, Magua, and the French; Jim Bowie and Boone shooting the Spanish at the Alamo; Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday gunning down the Cowboys gang in Tombstone, Az.

“Regeneration ultimately became the means of violence, and the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience,” Slotkin writes.

Sport, of course, was no exception. In 1973, when Slotkin’s Regeneration through Violence was published, football was supplanting baseball as the national pastime. The entertainment value of violence—amplified by America’s built-up tolerance for it, after a decade of war in the jungles of Southeast Asia and our own city streets—fueled football’s popularity. The Super Bowl usurped the World Series as the sporting event of the year.

Baseball purists wrung their hands. “Football’s real problem is not that it glorifies violence, though it does, but that it offers no successful alternative to violence,” Washington Post columnist Thomas Boswell complained.

Violence was the key to football supplanting baseball as the national pastime

That superior attitude has survived in the 21st century. “At least no one at the ballpark wants anyone to get beaned in the line of fire 60 feet 6 inches between home and the mound,” Santa Barbara sportswriter Max McCumber states in an op-ed with the ominous title “Sport vs. Brutality—The Game of Football Is Simply Too Violent”.

“It scares the bejesus out of us,” McCumber continues. “To avoid such occurrences at all costs is part of baseball. In contrast, football gives us one too many scary moments. Blitz after blitz, concussion after concussion, it never ends. It comes as no surprise that many ex-gridironers have suffered impaired cognition and brain trauma once their playing days are over.”

McCumber is right to emphasize the afflictions of football players; however, like many baseball advocates, he views his favorite game as essentially peaceful. Truth be told, violence has always lurked on deck. And when it strides to the plate, it carries a big stick.

Nearly every baseball fan knows the legend of Casey at the bat, but few recall these lines from Ernest L. Thayer’s poem:

The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;

He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate

And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go

And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow…

Given Casey’s spectacular failure (he whiffs mightily), perhaps Thayer was being ironical when he described America as “this favored land” where “the sun is shining bright”—an allusion to the prevailing belief in Manifest Destiny at the time. Indeed, in 1888, Americans of good social standing were convinced that God had ordained America as conqueror of the continent. Just two years earlier, General George Custer’s order to slaughter the Lakota Sioux at Wounded Knee signaled the end of the Indian Wars and the ultimate “justification” of American violence.   

Paradoxically, then, baseball—the pastoral game with the nostalgic goal of returning “home”—came of age during America’ bloody rise to empire. Besides, the thousands of fans who converged upon sandlots from Cincinnati to Chicago admired the bare-knuckled ballers in those barnstorming days of the new National League.

According to Frank Keetz, a historian of 19th-century baseball, “The stereotypical baseball player was second-generation Irish or German, rough-hewed, uncouth and profane, a heavy drinker and brawler.”

Contrary to the sanitized Horatio Alger myth, perpetuated by pulp fiction, these Americans didn’t ascend from “rags to riches” by virtue of clean living and the Puritan work ethic. They succeeded by sharpening their spikes, and slashing players who dared to tag them while sliding.  They succeeded by wielding bats as clubs—even against grandstanding hecklers. They succeeded by hurling heaters intended not to “brush back” a hitter, but to harm him.

Ty Cobb’s combative play was fashioned on the rugged baseball of the 1800s

“Professional baseball during the 19th century was aggressive, intense, often harsh, at times bitter,” Keetz wrote. “Winning was the objective, the only objective.”

America’s incipient might-makes-right ethos, consecrated by a century stained by war, swept the nation. The Robber Barons of the Gilded Age used intimidation and violence to horde their ill-gotten gains. In 1892, goons hired by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie engaged in gun battle with striking workers. The steelworkers lost.

Meanwhile, baseball’s day laborers kept scratching and clawing each other for the few remaining crumbs of American pie. If blood had to be spilled, so be it.

Bluebloods like Harvard president Charles W. Eliot sniffed, “I think baseball is a wretched game. I call it one of the worst games, although I know it is called the American national game.”

But the hoi polloi—especially working-class immigrants and their second-generation American sons—hailed their common heroes. Simply put, they were winners.

Baltimore captured three straight National League pennants from 1894-96 with a rough-and-tumble group of men featuring Hall of Fame rogue John McGraw, twice-beaned Hughie Jennings, and Wilbert Robinson (who had part of a finger amputated).

Illegally shaved bats, used to bunt, helped the Orioles win games; but their fear tactics won championships. They stomped on catchers’ feet, threw masks at runners, yanked on jerseys and pants, put pebbles in opponents’ shoes. They even “out-jawed the umpires, who were cowed by the in-your-face antics of the Orioles, most of whom were about as short, and as combative, as [Hall of Fame manager] Earl Weaver,” Mike Kingman wrote for the Baltimore Sun.

No Oriole drew more wrath than McGraw. Poor son of an Irish immigrant (who abused him) and Union Army veteran of the Civil War, McGraw employed all kinds of skullduggery at third base to prevent runners from scoring.

One New Orleans sportswriter observed that McGraw “adopts every low and contemptible method that his erratic brain can conceive to win a play by a dirty trick.”

The roughnecks of Baltimore loved McGraw’s tough-guy tactics. He was one of them— a sweat-of-the-brow Everyman who would do anything to win. In Boston, against the Bean Counters, he started a fracas that spread to the wooden bleachers, where a mob of fans joined the fray and burned down the ballpark.

And you thought Red Sox fans were obnoxious.

All kidding aside, such antics rear their tribalistic heads every season; and when the rivalries run deep, as they have for decades between the Dodgers and Giants, so too does the blood. In 2013, Dodgers fan Jonathan Denver was stabbed to death by a Giants fan following a game in San Francisco. The murder apparently was an act of revenge. Two years earlier, on Opening Day in Los Angeles, Dodgers fans beat Giants fan Bryan Stow into a coma. Stow suffered permanent brain damage, and still remains under medical supervision at his parents’ home.

Fortunately, no Angels or Mariners fans engaged in felonious behavior on Sunday; and neither did the players, coaches or managers. Still, MLB suspended a dozen for a total of 47 games. Angels manager Phil Nevin got the harshest discipline: a 10-game suspension without appeal (because Wantz hit Winker after warnings were issued to both benches).

Blame baseball’s longtime eye-for-an-eye lunacy—or blame Nevin himself. Just two weeks earlier, the Los Angeles Times heralded Nevin’s hiring with the following headline: “How fiery Phil Nevin won over the Angels: ‘The energy he brings is contagious.’”

As American history continues to show us, so too is the seductive lure of violence.

Licensed to Ill

MLB’s Callous Attitude toward Pitchers’ Health

By Scott Irwin, June 17, 2022

These days, ESPN.com reads like a stack of charts written by an E.R. doctor working the weekend graveyard shift:

Buehler out 6-8 weeks with elbow strain

White Sox’ Kopech leaves game after 13 pitches

Mize to undergo Tommy John surgery, Tigers say

Rays’ Kittredge needs TJ surgery; season over

If it seems like pitchers are succumbing to more season-ending injuries, that’s because they are. On May 16, Baseball Prospectus reported that more than 50 pitchers had suffered elbow injuries through the first 38 games of this season, an increase of nearly 40 percent when compared to 2018.

Former pitcher Tommy John, the namesake for baseball’s most common surgery

The causes for this spate of surgeries are many. First, throwing a baseball with great velocity and significant spin is inherently risky business. As Buck Showalter said, “The Good Lord did not create man to throw a baseball 100 miles per hour.”

Showalter, the New York Mets’ manager, is surely feeling that pain now. Jacob deGrom, the team’s longtime ace, has been shelved since spring training with a stress reaction in his right shoulder—yet another serious pitching injury that has become commonplace.

But the physical stress of hurling isn’t the only thing making pitchers an endangered species. Covid-19 has wreaked havoc on baseball, disrupting pitchers’ routines (which are crucial to maintaining health) and curtailing innings pitched (which adversely affects durability).

The media have wrung their hands over the coronavirus, yet they have ignored the elephant convalescing in the living room: the lockout. Just when players were returning to the rigors of a full-season workload—and dealing with the injuries that come with it—the owners shut them down last December.

With the snap of a CEO’s finger, pitchers with injury concerns were forbidden from communicating with team doctors. Since no one knew when, or if, spring training would start, a cloud of uncertainty hung over the health of the sport and its players.

Ballplayers found themselves facing a new threat: the loss of their identity as workers. In one particularly cynical move, the owners made the players faceless on the MLB website—scrubbing heads shots and replacing them with creepy gray silhouettes.

With the snap of a CEO’s finger, pitchers with injury concerns were prevented from communicating with team doctors. Since no one knew when, or if, spring training would start, a cloud of uncertainty hung over the health of the sport and its players.

As it turned out, the scrubbing done by MLB’s website managers was a foreshadow of much more to come—only this time the scrubbing would be done by surgeons. As of last week, 36 pitchers had already undergone the procedure, and the numbers continue to rise. Just yesterday, the Toronto Blue Jays announced that Hyun Jin-Ryu had undergone Tommy John surgery.

Of Lockouts and Labor Pains

When the owners voted unanimously to lock out the players, their motive was obvious to anybody savvy about labor history. For decades now, major corporations (MLB included) have sought to curtail—or eliminate—the power of organized labor. Central to their strategy is the policy of outsourcing labor to replacements, willing to work temporarily for much cheaper wages.

To that end, MLB has embraced sabermetrics. Armed with the knowledge provided for them by staff economists, owners now have a blueprint for getting the job done for much less money. Hence, their attempt to break the players’ union.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the bank. As the lockout stretched into its fourth month, the union refused to blink. Suddenly, the impasse threatened the season, ironically at a time when owners were flush with money from their new television contract.

Faced with the possibility of losing hundreds of millions of dollars for the second time in three years (this time due their own hubris, instead of a pandemic) the owners capitulated to significantly raising the minimum wage and slowing down the shuttle that taxied players between Triple-A and MLB (and back again).

But here’s the bitter irony: Owners, in their dogged pursuit of crippling the players’ union, ended up crippling more pitchers. Sure, the risk of pitching remained, as did the disruptions caused by the pandemic. But the extended lockout abbreviated spring training, reduced rest days, and rescheduled postponements as doubleheaders.   

Chris Paddack knows Tommy John surgery like the back of his glove hand

Did the chaos caused by so many season-ending surgeries weigh on the owners’ consciences? Do those owners (most of them billionaires) even have consciences?

Well, consider the curious case of pitcher Chris Paddack. During his injury-plagued career, Paddack has been traded as easily as a Topps playing card.

Drafted in 2015 by the Miami Marlins, Paddack initially enjoyed success in the low minors. He drew such rave reviews from scouts that the Padres dealt two-time All-Star closer Fernando Rodney for him at the 2016 trading deadline.

“[The Marlins] were willing to put in good pieces to get good pieces,” Padres manager A.J. Preller said at the time.

But were they … or did they just deal in bad faith? Shortly after the trade, Paddack went under the knife for Tommy John surgery.

Cast off by the Marlins—when the front office arguably knew he was damaged goods—Paddack trudged ahead. For a year and a half, he rehabilitated his surgically reconstructed right elbow, until finally he could return to work.

Paddack dominated again, and steadily worked his way up the ladder. Finally, in 2019, he realized his longtime dream of pitching in the major leagues. After making 26 starts for the Padres, and posting a 3.33 ERA, Paddack’s problems seemed to be behind him.

However, Paddack’s horror story had just reached intermission. Thrown off-balance by the coronavirus in 2020, Paddack’s ERA soared from 3.33 to 4.79, and his innings were cut drastically from 140 to 59—a red flag for any pitcher with a history of injuries.

Sure enough, the abbreviated season led to a variety of ailments last year. First, Paddack suffered what was mysteriously termed an “undisclosed injury”. Then he strained an oblique muscle. Finally, with the season’s end in sight, Paddack got the news he most feared: doctors informed him that he had a slight tear in his ulnar collateral ligament, the same one that had been repaired in 2016.

Reluctant to endure Tommy John surgery for the second time in six years, and grind through another 18-month rehabilitation, Paddack opted to receive a stem-cell injection with the hope of pitching the following spring.

Initially, it appeared he had dodged calamity.

“[Paddack] looks okay this spring and I assume [the] Twins did their due diligence…” Nate Nelson of TwinsDaily.com tweeted.

As it turned out, the Twins, who acquired Paddack during a tornado of transactions after the owners’ lockout, did not do their due diligence. Paddack, in fact, was injured; but because there were no up-to-date records (the lockout prevented that) Paddack’s medical report raised more questions than it answered.

As MLB insider Jon Heyman wrote in mid-May, shortly after Paddack’s second Tommy John surgery: “Now it can be told. The Mets-Padres deal was canceled after Mets doctors raised a red flag over right-hander Chris Paddack’s medicals.”

That’s right. The Padres’ front office apparently used the same cynical strategy that the Marlins had used against them six years earlier, when they dealt Paddack to the Padres. The ploy failed with the Mets, but it worked to a “T” with the Twins, whose general managers were so busy flipping players that they didn’t realize Paddack was damaged goods.

Paddack used humor to cope with his predicament.

“Looks fairly good to me,” he said after getting shipped to the Twins. “Better than the gold and brown (of San Diego). I looked like UPS.”

Actually, he looked like one of those parcels labeled “Fragile: Handle with Care”. You know, the ones that rattle when you pick them up.

Nonetheless, MLB executives continue to send pitchers like Paddack packing—leaving some other franchise to foot the doctors’ bills, and some other pitcher fearing the end of his career.

In other words, business as usual in America.

Sisyphus and the Heroic Act of Hitting

By Scott M. Irwin, June 4, 2022

For a philosopher apparently indifferent to sports, Albert Camus sure had a lot to say about the heroic act of hitting a baseball.

At first, such a thought might seem absurd, yet explaining the absurd was Camus’ bailiwick. And what could be more absurd than trying to hit a dancing sphere with a wooden stick?

“[T]o see one’s work destroyed in a day while being aware that fundamentally this
has no more importance than building for centuries—this is the difficult wisdom that absurd thought sanctions,” Camus wrote.

Sounds like 0-for-4 with three punchouts to me.

To illustrate the absurd, Camus turned to the Greek myth of Sisyphus, who endlessly sweats and strains to roll a boulder up a hill, watches helplessly as it tumbles down to earth, and then repeats his futility over and over and over.

That’s what you get when you piss off Zeus.

Sisyphus: Finding success through failure in Ancient Greek mythology

It’s also what you get as a hitter. I was reminded of that when George Brett—who once flirted with a .400 batting average—welcomed Miguel Cabrera to the 3,000 Hit Club in a video tribute featuring all living members of that exclusive fraternity.

“On top of that … on top of that,” Brett emphasized, “it’s another great club to be able to say you made 7,000 outs.”

I was floored. Rolled over by a boulder, you might say.

Camus, an Algeria-born writer who probably never saw a bat or baseball in his life, understood repeated failure like no other; and dealing with repeated failure is the inescapable condition of every hitter—even the great ones.

“Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined.”

– French philosopher Albert Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus

Not having read Camus’ essay on Sisyphus since my undergraduate days, I retreated to my library, dug out my tattered paperback of The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, and began to reread the annotations.

The findings astounded me. It was as if Camus were a batting guru like Doug Latta or a sports psychologist like Harvey Dorfman, hired to help a struggling slugger out of a long slump.

“Beginning to think is beginning to be undermined,” Camus posited.

What sage instruction! Philosophers and novelists might delve into deep thought, but to a hitter, thinking can be as fatal as a back-door slider. Crash Davis, hero of the classic comedy Bull Durham, hilariously demonstrated the hitter’s battle with the mind:

“Relax. Relax. Quick bat. Pop the clubhead,” he says. “Open the hips. Relax. You’re thinkin’ too much. Get outta your fucking head, Crash!

“You’re thinking too much. Get out of your fucking head, Crash!

– Minor-league hitter Crash Davis, Bull Durham

Like Sisyphus, Crash is locked in perpetual struggle—with his opponent, yes; but primarily with himself. Staring into the face of adversity, he knows he will succeed only occasionally. The monumental challenge of his endeavors fuels his desire to break the record for career home runs in the minor leagues—a dubious honor at best. For this, he solicits the trainer for “the shit that don’t smell” to soothe his aging and ailing body, so he can crouch behind home plate one more night.

That’s absurd.

“[A] day comes when a man notices or says that he is thirty,” Camus observed. “Thus he asserts his youth. But simultaneously he situates himself in relation to time. He takes his place in it. He admits that he stands at a certain point on a curve that he acknowledges having to travel to its end. He belongs to time, and by the horror that seizes him, he recognizes his worst enemy. Tomorrow, he was longing for tomorrow, whereas everything in him ought to reject it.”

Miguel Cabrera has achieved balance between 3,000 hits and 7,000 outs

Cabrera knows that feeling. At age 20, the Venezuelan hitting prodigy homered in his big-league debut. He homered for his 1,000th and 2,000th hits, too.

At the apex of his career—the MVP and Triple Crown years of 2011 and 2012—Miggy waved a bat like a magician conjuring all kinds of sorcery.

In 2012, I watched in awe as Miggy reached the seats in left field one night, then right field the next night. Some starstruck fans in the field-level boxes stood and bowed, as he salsa-danced around third on his way home.

I was one of those worshippers, paying respects to the High Priest of Hitting. At the time, it seemed as if Miggy had to pick the direction of his homers just to keep the game interesting. Hitting a baseball, the hardest task in all of sports, looked laughably easy to him.

Of course, Miggy always knew it wasn’t. In order to reach the summit, he had spent thousands of hours taking batting practice – on the dusty fields of Maracay, Venezuela and in hitting cages from Miami to Detroit.

“Hitting is hard,” Miggy recently whispered, shy of the swirl of reporters documenting his march to 3,000 for fans from Saitama to Santo Domingo.

Ljke Miggy, Camus knew that greatness is sculpted out of the hard clay of constant failure.

“The best are led to make greater demands upon themselves,” Camus wrote. “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Miggy smiles often these days, even after fanning on yet another belt-high fastball that he used to destroy. He is 39. He is fat. He moves slower than a refrigerator on a dolly. Still, he smiles, because he has finally embraced those 7,000 outs.

“Living an experience, a particular fate, is accepting it fully,” Camus wrote.

Miggy has recorded 3,000 hits, 500 homers, and 600 doubles, becoming only the third person in history to accomplish that trifecta. But he knows there won’t be many hits to come (and rarely doubles and homers at that).

But even though the power has sapped from his colossal 6-foot-4, 267-pound frame, Cabrera evinces the joy of staying present in each game. There are moments, when the shadow of dusk crawls across the field, that Cabrera, still playing a game without a clock, seems to suspend in time.

The soft light bathes his baby face, and he looks up to the heavens, at peace with the inevitable end. Finally, like Crash swinging on Annie Savoy’s front porch after retiring, Miggy can allow himself to reflect.

“I know that the sky will last longer than I,” Camus said.

But the legends will live forever.

The Young and the Restless

MLB’s Awkward Courtship of Millennials and Generation Z

By Scott M. Irwin, 5/16/2022

If ever there were a sport that qualified as a cherished American institution, it would be baseball. The sport is so deeply woven into the country’s history that it once earned the nickname “the National Pastime”.

But baseball’s Golden Age expired a half-century ago, and the sport now finds itself creaking and groaning to catch up with faster, livelier sports like football, basketball and hockey. Magnifying the problem, baseball has resisted the implementation of change—a pitch clock, elimination of the shift, a limit on pitching changes—that would attract more interest from young fans.

Off Base, an afternoon talk show on MLB Network that targets Millennials and Gen-Z members, attempts to remedy baseball’s bland image with a panel sporting trendy haircuts and splashy clothes. But the show amounts to little more than hipster window dressing.

The show’s tagline boasts that “Lauren Gardner and a panel of experts celebrate baseball culture while giving a fun and unique spin.” But the pitch, like the show itself, is mere snake oil. Not only does the show lack experts, it largely ignores baseball’s rich culture.

Worse yet, it undeservedly promotes itself as a show committed to the good cause of advancing the careers of women and black broadcasters in sports.

Gardner, the host who came to MLB Network in 2019, occupies center stage in this public-relations stunt. She joined four other women last year in comprising the first-ever, all-female broadcast team for a baseball game. But while her participation in such an historic moment is notable, Gardner hardly seems guided by principle.

Lauren Gardner heats the screen with that fiery hair. Is it real or just Off Base?

In an interview with Rachel DeSantis of People magazine, Gardner revealed that “she didn’t realize she was about to be a part of history” until she was informed by a public-relations staffer for MLB Network.

Eek.

Gardner, whose big break came in 2004 when the Denver Broncos hired her as a cheerleader, spoke volumes with that seemingly innocuous comment. Corporate sports networks love to pat themselves on the back for supposedly advancing progressive causes.

Consider Disney, which owns ESPN. The media powerhouse paints itself as the Mighty Mouse that roars social justice—and it all starts with the dream factory that has been churning out assembly-line child fantasies for more than half a century. As Alex Abad-Santos of Vox correctly noted, “Disney has parlayed the feel-good, empowering message of its movies to position itself as a progressive, diverse, inclusive, and highly profitable company.”

But its recent “Don’t Say Gay” stance proves how superficial those claims really are. In reality, Disney—like MLB Network and other major media conglomerates—bases its decisions on coldly calculated business strategies. Their attitude about female broadcasters is no different.

In quick succession last summer, Disney/ESPN and MLB Network followed suit after taking their  lead from YouTube.TV, which debuted the first all-female broadcast two months earlier. In each instance, major corporations received extensive free advertising from the national media for “breaking boundaries” and “challenging gender stereotypes”.

Just like that, “progressivism” led to publicity, which led to profit—the bottom line (and the only uncrossable one for corporations).

Simply put, MLB Network didn’t hire Gardner because she’s an “expert”. The network hired her because the camera just adores her flaming red hair, Pilates body and fashionista flair. There’s nothing wrong with that per se. Television, after all, is a visual medium; and to a large degree, what looks good is good.

Still, it’s hard to overlook the obvious disconnect between Gardner as eye candy and Gardner as baseball dilettante. During the April 19 broadcast of Off Base, Gardner committed one of the cardinal sins of national broadcasting by root-root-rooting for the home team. Touting Colorado’s early success, the Denver native chirped, “It’s probably why I’m wearing purple today. It’s totally subconscious.”

Totally.

Suddenly, I’m reminded of media critic Andrew Keen’s perspicacious comment in The Cult of the Amateur: “The information business is being transformed by … the sheer noise of a hundred million [people] all simultaneously talking about themselves.”  

Or, just as tiresomely, “talking” on Twitter, Tik-Tok and other self-serving social media. Commenting on a routine catch by rising star Ronald Acuna Jr., Gardner said “it went viral on Tik-Tok. It’s all about Tik-Tok.”

Despite her flippancy, Gardner uncovered yet another ugly truth. For more than a decade, decisions about journalism—who covers what, what they cover, and how they cover it—have been driven not by qualification, but by traffic on social media, where the squawking gets so pointlessly shrill in the digital henhouse that one wishes a salivating fox would come knocking on the door.

“Programs for which there is a high volume of online chatter – so called “social shows” – have been found to have larger audiences and are more likely to be viewed live rather than recorded and viewed at a later time,” marketing academics Beth L. Fossen and David A. Schwindel wrote in 2017. “For television networks and content owners, it is important to have a social media strategy that spurs social TV activity for television programs. Encouraging program-related chatter can increase the total audience size and the fraction of the audience engaged in live viewing. Also, programs with high social TV activity are attractive to advertisers interested in increasing online sales.”

That must explain why Gardner pitches Tik-Tok and her panelists repeatedly check their iPhones, even while the “on-air” sign flashes red. In the Darwinian world of social media, where attention span is measured in moments, you’re either trending or you’re toast.

Gardner certainly is not alone in straining to look and sound the part. To complement Gardner’s blue denim jacket, flaming-red hair and chartreuse mini-skirt, panelist Hannah Keyser favors ostentatious outfits that scream, ­”Hey! Look at ME!” But the blood-red socks and ankle-length Holstein boots do nothing to divert attention from cringeworthy comments like “If that looks stupid in a month, well, I saw him in a game.”

Keyser’s diffidence is shared by fer fellow panelists, who often shuffle through cheat sheets when they’re not updating their Twitter and Tik-Tok feeds. All of which just adds to the show’s slap-dash approach and apparent tokenism.

Not surprisingly, MLB Network panders to male viewers (especially its fantasy-playing, basement-dwelling adolescents); but if the network really wanted to make a sincere statement about gender equality, it would drop all the smoke-and-mirror stuff. Trying to have your cheesecake and eat it too (“We want to advance women’s careers … as long as they’re sexy.”) strikes honest advocates of gender equality as little more than chauvinism wrapped in “woke” clothing.

The same could be said of the presence of two black commentators, including former major-leaguer Xavier Scruggs. While Scruggs, a gifted broadcaster, is the only regular panelist with any baseball expertise, he gets precious little air time. The fault lies not only with Gardner’s limited hosting skills, but with the show’s directors, who should be sensitive to the problem of airing a talk show featuring white women who often talk over and around black men.

Alanna Rizzo was a hit in Los Angeles with viewers and players alike

While featuring two female and two black broadcasters makes sense, given the country’s shifting demographics and dearth of black baseball fans, slapping a generationally and racially correct Band-Aid on the sport’s 50-year boo-boo just won’t cut the hot-dog mustard. But as the recent lockout indicated, baseball’s uber-rich, hidebound owners are prone to shortsighted strategies that undercut not only their own interests, but those of the fans as well.

If the owners are serious about keeping the game relevant in a rapidly changing 21st century—and that’s a big “if”—they need look no further than former staff members to help achieve that goal.

Alanna Rizzo is one of the game’s best analysts—regardless of gender. That’s one of the reasons MLB Network hired her a decade ago, and why Christopher Russo frequently invites her on High Heat, his daily cutting session. Russo likes Rizzo because they share the same philosophy for baseball reporting and commentary: Make it smart and make it sharp. That’s a far cry from the long legs, high heels, and runway walks that MLB Network favors in its female broadcasters.

Rizzo, who curiously left the network to pursue other career opportunities several years ago, should be rehired (assuming she wants that). Granted, the 46-year-old is a Gen-Xer, and Off Base is looking to attract the younger generations. But is it written in stone that a television show must limit its participants to people who are the same age as its viewers? Rizzo’s presence would provide Off Base with the credibility it so sorely lacks; moreover, she would serve as a role model for young women who aspire to careers in male-dominated and sexist professions.

Similarly, the directors of Off Base should expand Scruggs’ role on the show by giving him more attention and time to explain the finer points of baseball that make the sport uniquely attractive. Breakdown segments like those conducted on MLB Tonight by fellow black broadcasters Harold Reynolds and Cliff Floyd would further advance the show’s credibility and entice black youths to give the sports a try.

In summary, MLB Network should stop all the gum-flapping and start respecting the intelligence of its media-savvy, younger viewers. Who knows? baseball might be saved in the process.

“The Bird” and the Sounds of Summer

By Scott M. Irwin, April 22, 2022

I discovered baseball as a four-year-old fugitive from day camp. The discovery was accidental. Bored with finger-painting stick figures and making necklaces out of Fruit Loops, I slipped out of the back of the Elm Street Recreation Center and, with fingers clenched in the chain-link fence, marveled at the shining diamond held before me.

I was instantly smitten by bat meeting ball, the supple leather of a trusty glove, the smell of hot dogs. But more than anything, it was the music of the game that captivated me. The click-click-click of cleats on concrete. The clink of aluminum bats. The high-pitched chorus of boys spazzing on sugar. Some say there’s no crying in baseball. Try telling that to a 5-year-old strikeout victim. He sounds more  moving than the bridge to “Let It Be”.

I always had an ear for the game; but then, I had an ear for everything. I learned from the crib, listening to my mother’s sweet nothings, that singing was stronger than speech. Later in childhood, Sundays meant worship; and church meant music. The pipe organs my parents played had the power to raise a congregation, celebrate a marriage, grieve the loss of a loved one.

But holy days aren’t holidays. Summer mornings, free from the burdens of school and church, weren’t spent singing sacred songs, but rather profane ones like Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” and Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time”. (Back then, we cued the needles to scratchy 45s).

“This was the ’70s. The Age of Evel Knieval’s roaring motocycle, Keith Moon’s manic drumming, Howard Cosell’s loud mouth. Like any precocious youth, I mimicked the adults, and soon realized  that running commentary was the best way to pass time between pitches.”

So, inevitably, the sounds of summer came to define my passion for baseball. The whirring of a Wiffle ball and the metronomic pop-pop produced by a game of catch marked the hours like a sundial. By Little League, my enthusiasm for chatter rivaled the cicadas that descended on our village like a plague sent by an angry god. Hey, batta-batta-batta, suh-WINGGG, batta!

This was the ’70s. The Age of Evel Knieval’s roaring motocycle, Keith Moon’s manic drumming, Howard Cosell’s loud mouth. Like any precocious youth, I mimicked the adults, and soon realized  that running commentary was the best way to pass time between pitches.

Even while playing, I simultaneously called the game, which became annoyingly evident to both umpires and coaches. Here comes the pitch … and Irwin takes a fastball inside. Two and two. (Umpire shakes his head in disbelief).

One coach (who slept in the bed of his El Camino and smelled of sweat, stale beer and cigarettes) growled during practice, “OK, Howard Cosell, tell everybody what you think about this!” He smashed a sizzling grounder to me that left a golf ball on my shin—and a deeply bruised ego.

I found therapy in pulling out my Strat-O-Matic baseball cards and Panasonic tape recorder, pressing record, and calling every roll of the dice. I even performed mock commercials that lampooned the day’s popular ads: I can’t believe I ate the WHOLE thing! Try shilling Alka-Seltzer in a Cosellian accent; it’ll have your family in stitches.

Howard Cosell directs ABC executive Roone Arledge to the wet bar for a refill

Cosell’s voice was synonymous with the season; he announced everything from title fights with his buddy Muhammed Ali to prime-time football games (when he wasn’t throwing up on “Dandy” Don Meredith’s cowboy boots).

Cosell’s ego was so inflated that he announced the absurdly entertaining Battle of the Network Stars. Listening to Cosell narrate O.J. Simpson running loose—without being chased by the Los Angeles Police Department—was inspiring. But busty Adrienne Barbeau bouncing through the tires of an obstacle course? No contest. Barbeau practically melted America’s heart with the fondue cheese of The Love Boat.

And yet the Spirit of ’76 didn’t always focus on breasts—even though, at times, it seemed to do just that. There was baseball, too—and that meant the National League centennial, Monday nights with Cosell, and “The Bird”.

Horatio Alger, Meet Mark Fidrych

America loves a folk hero, a rags-to-riches guy who raises himself from obscurity and rockets to the top by virtue of hard work, charisma, and an unshakeable belief in success. And nowhere are folk heroes venerated more than in the sentimental sport of baseball. So, who better to place on a pedestal than a former gas-station attendant with a mop of long, blond curly hair and the comic touch of the clueless?

On June 28, anticipating the most important Independence Day in a century, Mark Fidrych silenced those titans in pinstripes, the New York Yankees. He did so with a diving sinker, a biting slider, and, most importantly, a free spirit that swelled with the restless optimism and youthful vigor that defines the American Creed. The Spirit of ’76 with a rock-star twist, if you will, and it had 47,855 fans in Detroit and barstool fans from Barstow California to Bangor, Maine screaming with delight.

Mark Fidrych: His rock-star hair and goofy antics epitomized the Spirit of ’76

Fidrych gyrated on the hill like an oversized bobble-head doll chatting up the baseball. He stalked around the mound, as his infielders threw one more around the horn. The event felt like an arena-rock show. And no less an authority than Jan Wenner knew exactly what he was seeing: “Fidrych Comes Alive”—only Peter Frampton’s fraternal twin was a magician with a baseball, instead of a guitar. And so “The Bird” made the cover of a Rolling Stone.

But for all the electrifying sounds from the stands that Monday night, it was the basso profundo of play-by-play man Jack Buck and the reedy tenor of commentator Bob Uecker that recorded Fidrych’s virtuoso performance.

I was so overwhelmed by what I heard and saw that the next night I took retreated to my bedroom, turned off the light, and scrolled to 760 on the a.m. dial. WJR-Detroit, whose 50,000-watt signal barely reached North Carolina after dark.

And that’s how I “met” Ernie Harwell. His gentle Georgian accent didn’t harmonize with the big brass of television, but it played perfectly on the radio. Favoring humble opinion over orotundity, Harwell was treasured by his modest Midwestern listeners, and by 1976 he was ascending toward the broadcasters’ firmament that incuded Red Barber, Mel Allen, and Vin Scully.

Harwell did it all with a voice as folksy as Willie Nelson’s—a take-your-time tenor that sounded the pace and process of the game. Deliberate. Relaxed. Timeless. Natural.

Ernie Harwell’s easy style and Georgia accent defined him as a broadcaster

I spent those summer nights, and so many more, with my ear pressed to the speaker, straining at the crash of thunderstorms and a Spanish-speaking station, just to hear Harwell translate the nuances of baseball and then transmit them a thousand miles away to my dark and silent room.

I never heard that joyful roar from national television again—until the 1984 World Series. In spite of The Bird’s delightful antics and dominant pitching, the Tigers were still a bad baseball team, beloved only only diehard Michiganders. But I didn’t care. “The Bird”—and his flock wearing the classic Olde English D—had appeared as a brilliant revelation, and then just as suddenly disappeared. But the spell had been cast, and I entranced.

It didn’t matter that the team failed the “eye test”. Baseball was becoming a religion to me, and as such it demanded my constant suffering—and my faith. Still, the names of the players—when vocalized by Harwell and his smooth sidekick, Paul Carey—certainly sounded good.

Houk. Staub. Ruhle. Veryzer. Wockenfuss. Oglivie. Scrivener. I definitely didn’t know anybodyby those names, and their strangeness lent them a certain mysterious appeal. Hearing those names, given weight and poignance by Harwell, was like hearing some baseball Bible read aloud:

“In the beginning, Baseball God created heaven and the baseball diamond. And the baseball diamond was without form, and void, so He placed bases on the earth, and lines with chalk, and a mound that reached toward heaven. And Baseball God saw that baseball was good. And Baseball God chose his people, and thus began the House of Cobb. And Cobb begat Gehringer. And Gehringer begat Cochrane. And Cochrane began Greenberg. And Greenberg begat Newhouser. And Newhouser begat Kaline. And Kaline begat Fidrych. This is the word of Baseball God. So sayeth the Scrivener.”

But the profane always wars with the sacred, even in a soul as young and impressionable as mine. Most nights, listening to those ’76 Tigers was like listening to a late-night DJ spin old 78s like Louis Armstrong’s “Gut Bucket Blues”. The summer played out like an inharmonious symphony, replete with theme and variations, the sforzando after “The Bird” appeared on national television, and a September coda that included 18 losses.

The next year, I returned to WJR to listen to Harwell spin the oldies-but-goodies (aging veterans like Staub, Bill Freehan and Willie Horton). And when summer shifted to autumn, a new trio hit the stage, featuring young cats that could play, even though folks outside of Montgomery and Bristol had never heard them: Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, Lance Parrish. These greenhorns were just about my age; hell, Trammell was a teenager. But they still had style—in spades and talent to beat the band.

And then the players kept coming. Dan Petry (draft class of ’76), Jack Morris (’78). Kirk Gibson (’79). All of a sudden, there was a new sound in Motown—one that would soon have Detroiters dancin’ in the streets of Corktown, where the Tigers played.

That was the Glorious Summer of ’84, which is another story altogether.