Baseball Is Family
Alas, Rob Manfred Hates Baseball
Many of our childhood memories are composites. While I sort of remember what my third grade classroom looked like, and I kind of remember specific things which happened there, the picture of all that in my mind is cumulative.
Inject baseball, though, and the rest of a scene can be built out. There has always been something about baseball which brings things into relief.
I remember being in my grandparents’ living room, the Cubs game on, Bill Buckner at bat. It had to have been 1983, so I would have been 6. One pitch was way high and inside, so much so that he ducked but the ball hit his bat and went foul, the ultimate tough-luck strike. He then promptly hit a home run. I remember this sequence shockingly well.
I remember being in the bar at State & Madison. My uncle owned the bowling alley on the second floor. (How on earth was the bowling alley on the second floor?) On the first floor was billiards and a bar. And I was there, I was a kid, I don’t remember why I was there that day, but the Cubs game was on, and I remember them playing the Phillies, the Phillies wearing their periwinkle uniforms with the maroon logo… or whatever exactly the correct names for those colors are. Those are still the greatest uniforms, by the way. And I remember sitting in there watching the game and I drank a “7 and 7”… 7 Up and more 7 Up. If not for Harry Caray, if not for the Phillies’ uniforms, I don’t think I remember all of that.
I remember October 3, 1982. The Brewers beat the Orioles 11-2 on the last day of the regular season, thereby clinching the American League East for the first time. I don’t remember the specifics of the game but I remember the game ending, I remember being in mom’s old house out on Latham Road when it happened. Is there any other clear memory I have of some televised moment from when I was 5? I don’t think so.
The ‘80s were a different time, of course. No smartphones, no cacophony of distractions. If baseball was on TV that was the only audiovisual medium going in the room, guaranteed. For that matter, if baseball was on the radio, that was the only audiovisual medium going in the room.
And baseball, of course, was daily during the season. Even more than daily: since the Cubs always played day games at home, it was not uncommon to be able to see the Cubs in the afternoon and either the Brewers or White Sox in the evening without even needing cable to do it. (My grandfather’s huge antenna was installed specifically to pick up Channel 9!)
So many memories from a fairly young age are built around a game being on that it’s hard to imagine having grown up without it there.
My mother has a brother and a sister. My father has a brother and a sister. Those aunts married, and so I have four uncles. Basic demographics aside, I don’t think they collectively had much of anything in common. Just three things I know of: Rockford, me, and, if even fleetingly, if only in my memory, baseball.
Indeed, aside from basic pleasantries and musing about the weather, the only shared topic I can imagine discussing with them all would be baseball.
My mother and her brother were playing in a co-rec softball tournament some weekend, I can only guess at how old I was. But I can picture everything from the Ace of Diamonds that day. And it all hinges around this one moment: my tall, left-handed uncle, up at bat, I’m quite sure wearing number 20, probably because that was Mike Schmidt’s number, the pitcher lobbing the ball in… only for my uncle to reach out and catch it in his batting gloved right hand, because, like so many others, ever, the pitcher was all confused as to how to throw to a leftie, and threw the ball right at him.
My father’s brother sponsored my cousin’s Bronco team when he was 11. I wound up as an assistant coach when I was just 14, straight through to when my cousin finished in Pony. I didn’t do a whole lot, especially at first, but I did keep score, and, ridiculous as this sounds even to me, I did write a program in Turbo Pascal to keep track of his team’s batting stats. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that my cousin coaches his son’s team. I guess, if anything, the only surprise for me is that I ever might have considered not coaching when it came my turn.
Today, I play 16 inch ball (which is ridiculous) and I coach 7 and 8 year olds (which is even more ridiculous) and, well, could it all have been any other way?
My point - which I could make in a number of other ways - is that baseball is not just a game. It is much more than that. Baseball is family.
Baseball is connective tissue, binding us to people whose names we have long forgotten, people whose names we have never know, people who were and are cornerstones of our understandings of the world as a whole. I cannot think of another institution quite like this, at least not one which for me personally functions so much in the specific and in the abstract, connecting me to my literal family, while also connecting me to an abstract extended family. Not even some other sport. Not even rock ‘n’ roll. Not even the United States of America.
Major League Baseball and its Players Association came to a new labor agreement on March 10. There will be a 162 game season. Today, April 7, is Opening Day.
This agreement concluded a multi-month lockout on the part of the owners, which looked like it might shutter the game for a long time to come. And to be very, very, very, very, very clear here, this was on the owners. I do not and will not subscribe to the knee jerk “it takes two” line of thinking. That’s the kind of thinking that holds that you’re partially at fault for a car accident if someone runs a red light and hits you. The players might not be saints, they might not have handled everything completely correctly, but there will be no false equivalence invoked here.
Weeks on from this agreement being reached, I’m still pissed off. It’s Opening Day! And I’m still pissed off. I’ve cooled down some, and I’ve changed the overall story I want to tell here, but I’m still pissed off, and I am going to try my best to explain why.
I’ve read multiple books about baseball so far this year:
Jim Bouton’s classic Ball Four based mostly on the exploits of the ill-fated 1969 Seattle Pilots;
Jay Jaffe’s Cooperstown Casebook, including an analysis of every player in the Hall of Fame and several who ought to be;
Roy Campanella’s autobiography It’s Good To Be Alive, about his extraordinary Hall of Fame career in the Negro Leagues and with the Dodgers, and the accident that paralyzed him for life;
Daniel Okrent’s Nine Innings, a structural masterpiece centered around a single game on June 10, 1982, when the Brewers defeated the Orioles 9-7 (the observant reader will note that this is the second 1982 game between these two games that I have had occasion to reference!);
Minnie Minoso’s autobiography Just Call Me Minnie, about his extraordinary Hall of Fame career (an honor he deserved when he was still alive);
Jason Turbow’s Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic: Reggie, Rollie, Catfish, and Charlie Finley's Swingin' A’s, about the early ‘70s A’s, which… wow.
What I can tell you is that baseball, ever since its inception, has been a game of heroes and heels, frequently ridiculous in its excesses, often sublime in its simple beauty, the excess and the beauty often emerging at essentially the same time.
And I can also tell you that, while baseball feels timeless, strangely unchanging, perpetually 90 feet from base to base (except not???), the game has in fact been undergoing constant change ever since its inception. Often it’s the field itself where change has been slowest to come, but baseball has never simply been about what happens on the field.
For over half a calendar year, baseball is an every day thing, in a way no other sport is. While it’s true that NBA and NHL teams play robust schedules - 82 games compare to MLB’s 162 - they still feel very different in that respect.
See, it’s not just that, during the season, you can always seem to find baseball on TV. Baseball, in some form, was also the lead story in the sports section almost every day during the season. Having grown up reading the paper every day, this meant reading baseball every day.
Baseball cards were far more ubiquitous than football or basketball cards. Seemingly everybody played baseball - I’d go so far as to suggest that around fourth grade more of us were on organized baseball teams than on organized teams of all other sports combined.
I was in fourth or fifth grade when my mom got me a subscription to Baseball Digest, a monthly publication. Not long after I even had a subscription to Baseball Weekly. I remember looking at the stats when OPS was starting to be used. If things had worked out differently, I very well might have wound up majoring in statistics instead of history.
Baseball, in other words, has long been something much, much more than merely a game one can play. There are so many verbs available besides just play. You can watch it. You can trade it.
You can read it. You can write about it. You can calculate it.
Literally, baseball is reading, writing, and arithmetic.
But, as I’ve noted, I grew up in the ‘80s. Times were different. Kids around me didn’t much play soccer. We didn’t have endless streaming choices on TV and definitely didn’t have YouTube. And don’t even get me started about our video games.
And so I can hardly expect that my son would bond with this one particular game the way that I did. He doesn’t have all those aunts and uncles and grandparents to reinforce the game the same way. There’s no daily newspaper here. He’s already had tastes of swimming, basketball, and track, and his favorite sport to play is soccer, which, I’ve got to say, is very understandable. There’s just so many other options for his free time.
That said, we live in an area where baseball is still very popular, where there are a lot of Sox fans and a lot of Cubs fans, where the local Little League is quite popular.
So why doesn’t Major League Baseball super encourage my kid to love the game?
Why, instead, does it seem that they keep failing miserably at taking rational steps to keep kids interested?
Why would they even dream of threatening this season?
Seriously, what the fuck is wrong with these people?
I’ve read enough about the game that I’m under no delusions about how things have been at times in the past. The enforcement of the color line. The war against free agency. The owners’ collusion of the ‘80s. Owners don’t think about things the way I think about things. I get it.
Nine Innings was especially helpful in helping me better understand the problem. As it so happened, Okrent chose the Milwaukee Brewers to base his book around, which meant a lot of time following around one Bud Selig, team chairman, and, come 1992, the acting commissioner, and come 1998, Commissioner of Major League Baseball.
Bud Selig loves baseball. He might not live it the quite the way other people do. His love is very much caught up in a great many other things. But he loves the game, in his own way. I firmly believe that.
And, I believe, so too have most owners and most commissioners, even the most ludicrous among them, like Charlie O. Finley who owned the A’s through their ‘70s dynasty. (If you want a case study in the extreme absurdity of what constitutes ownership, read Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic. You won’t believe it.)
Above and beyond the love, there has been the sense of responsibility to the game. Not just to Major League Baseball, but to baseball, the abstract institution, the national pastime.
Today, though, I don’t feel that way. I see what the owners are doing primarily in extractive terms. Even when ownership does seem interested in the game, there is little tug to suggest that they are weighing what’s best for baseball in any of their decisions. The lockout, and the cynical reasons behind it, are just the latest examples of a particular kind of corporate outlook on the game. Look at the way the minor leagues were ripped apart. Look at how, in a game awash in money, minor league players have been treated so poorly overall. Suffice to say that if the primary concern was the long term health of the game that these kinds of decisions would not have been made.
No, the primary concern is not the health of the game. The primary concern is money. But it’s deeper than that. The health of the game often seems to be a concern at all only when considered through the lens of money. Having read about the likes of Selig, Finley, Walter O’Malley, Bowie Kuhn, and so many other owners and commissioners, I really do believe that there has been a change, that the mooring to the game is not there like it once was.
The primacy of money is so deep that there is, today, I truly believe, a visceral contempt for the fans, matched only by a visceral contempt for the players. This broad contempt, I do think, is sometimes tempered by the reality that at least some of the owners truly do care about the game, albeit on their own terms. But, for lack of any other better available conclusion, it seems to me, so as to prevent whatever latent passion for the game itself from overriding the primal instinct of maximizing profit, the owners, that the owners made the fateful decision to select as the Commissioner of Major League Baseball one Robert D. Manfred Jr., a man whose concept of the “best interests of baseball” is diffused through this saddest of lenses:
Rob Manfred hates baseball.
I do not know Rob Manfred. He could be a wonderful dancer, a fantastic confidant, any number of other things whereby he might bring joy and pleasure and comfort to the people around him.
But I am not here to speak of Rob Manfred, human being. I am here to speak of Rob Manfred, Commissioner of Major League Baseball. And I think it is terribly and perplexingly sad that the owners, in their quenchlessness, have put a man in charge of decisions for Major League Baseball who seems to care not one iota about the concept that baseball is family.
To this end, my baseball family, a modest proposal:
When you are at a game this year - any game - join me in a chant. It is a common chant. You all know it. It’s the one that follows a rhythm like this:
LET’S go WHITE sox
or, perhaps, for our Canadian friends:
LET’S go BLUE jays
or, um, for some eighty-two people:
LET’S go MARlins
followed immediately by clapping like so:
<clap> <clap> <clap clap clap>
But instead of using it to cheer our favorite team on, we will use it to cheer our favorite game on, by shaming the man who has shamed the game, and by doing so, shaming the owners who installed him in that role.
Yes, friends, I want you to chant with me:
ROB hates BASEball <clap> <clap> <clap clap clap>
ROB hates BASEball <clap> <clap> <clap clap clap>
ROB hates BASEball <clap> <clap> <clap clap clap>
And take it to Twitter. #robhatesbaseball or #robmanfredhatesbaseball if you prefer.
And look on Twitter for @robhatesball. Oh, Twitter is a cesspool, but it’s the perfect medium. Well, maybe TikTok is the perfect medium, but I’m older than 40, I wouldn’t know that, now would I?
I am a bit reticent about encouraging such behavior because hate is such a powerful word. I have thought about this deeply. In the end I believe it is eminently appropriate for the matter at hand. In three words, ROB HATES BASEBALL directly speaks to the problem at hand. It’s uncomfortable, but that’s because the situation is uncomfortable. The person who’s specifically empowered to look out for the best interests of the game isn’t doing so, and isn’t capable of doing so, and the damage is being felt not simply at the major league level, but throughout the broad game.
I won’t dwell on all of those problems here but I’ll mention a couple. The contraction of the minor leagues was especially odious. So too is the way that the game has substantially abandoned inner city America, morphing into a lot of “travel team” bullshit. The latter may have more to do with other socioeconomic trends, but I also think it reflects a deep lack of awareness and creativity on the part of Major League Baseball in terms of positioning the game, as well as the pathetic corporatization of entities like Little League. It doesn’t all have to be so naked. You can still make gobs of money by having it be about kids. But they don’t seem to get that anymore. I actually think they’d make more money overall if they managed to get that sense back, but it’s apparently not the way so many of them want to think about their money.
In a nutshell, what they are failing - or, perhaps, refusing - to grasp is that baseball is family.
At home, baseball is way down the list of childhood pursuits. It is definitely below Minecraft. But I will keep plugging away.
It was difficult, because getting this child to engage in any creative endeavors can be like pulling teeth, but I did get him to submit something to a White Sox contest for Jackie Robinson Day. It seemed especially appropriate this year to honor the man who broke the color barrier in Chicago:
Baseball is history too. It is a tremendously powerful tool to teach about America.
The prize for submitting anything to the contest is two tickets to the Sox game on April 15 - Jackie Robinson Day. I want him to see that. To be confused by, but grow into an appreciation for, how everybody on the field is wearing number 42. I want him to grow up and think: My dad took me to a few games, but one of them was really different. It was cold, and everybody was wearing the same number. And José Abreu hit a home run!
The White Sox stadium - which I like to call The Downs, but let’s just call it Comiskey - is the only place I have ever been (on some separate occasions, of course) with my father’s mother, my mother, my aunt, my nephew, and my son. Think of the power in that. That’s baseball.
I’ve written about baseball quite a bit since starting this Substack up. I’ve written about it drifting away and coming back, about playing, about coaching. In a world that feels increasingly mad, there is a great familiarity and relief to the game. I wish I could be more immersed in it. But not just as a means of escape. The more I have thought about it, the more it has occurred to me that baseball is glue, that it gets at the essence of so much, of education and history and understanding how the world works and interacting with older and younger generations and communities… I’m not saying it’s this way everywhere or it’s this way for everyone, I’m not saying that it’s always baseball that can do this. But baseball can do this, it has done this, and will continue to do this, if it is not completely undermined by greed and short-sightedness.
My plan for Opening Day is to send this essay out, try to get people to respond to it, try to haul my kid out later to play catch even though it’s 42 degrees, and to settle in to watch any game which might be on. Looks like that’ll be Mets - Nationals, which means I get to see Juan Soto, this generation’s Ted Williams, at the plate. I can roll with that. Will my goofy boy? We’ll see. But I’ll bet a lot of you will do the same. Even the game of catch. Because it’s baseball.
And baseball is family.