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October 23, 2002

Breaking Balls

My MasterCard Memorable Moment

by Derek Zumsteg

"Gehrig's farewell speech: selfless. Jackie Robinson's rookie year: fearless. Carlton Fisk's game-winner: timeless. Our national pastime: priceless."

-- MasterCard Presents Major League Baseball Memorable Moments advertisement

The price of our national pastime, it turns out, is $40-$50 million, which is how much MasterCard is spending on their 'MasterCard Presents Major League Baseball Memorable Moments' campaign. I can't believe it's that low, considering they've shown those commercials so frequently that I get nauseous looking at that shot of Jackie Robinson. Keep in mind, Robinson is one of my favorite baseball players, one whose autobiography I wore down reading repeatedly.

"Baseball supports our 'Priceless' positioning and our ad campaign. Our brand is about authenticity, and baseball is about authenticity."
-- Bob Cramer, Vice President, Global Sponsorships and Event Marketing, MasterCard International

MasterCard's whole priceless campaign is the kind of vague brand-building companies are into now. Pit-Pat, the pan-gender, non-threatening mascot ("Take it from me... I love you!") had signed on elsewhere, so they had to go with a bunch of vignettes with cheap actors. The result is the "priceless" campaign, in which a series of consumer purchases become component pieces of an emotional moment.

This does a couple of things for them. If you think of the end emotional state as being beyond value, it doesn't matter what the price is on each thing. Want to have a good time with your kids? Spend, spend, spend, and you'll have a great moment. In fact, go on and collect all the priceless moments. It's only money. Will paying off the card affect your ability to, say, feed, clothe, and care for the little scamp? That's in the next commercial, for one of the many non-profit-but-actually-for-profit debt management companies.

"This baseball promotion is truly a unique opportunity to reach the most fervent and most casual of baseball fans. The concept of 'Memorable Moments' is universal in that it touches nearly everyone who's ever come into contact with the sport, across every generation."
-- Cramer

It also ties all of the great qualities of those moments--courage in the face of racism, triumph from defeat, respect and dignity in retirement--to the faceless brand of MasterCard. Somehow, I guess, I'm supposed to look in my wallet and, consciously or not, associate all my good baseball feelings (and none of the awful, hopeless years of Mariner baseball) with the two-circles logo, and use that. MasterCard takes its cut from the merchant, I become the victim of usury almost immediately as a cost of convenience, and everyone wins. Except Visa.

The other thing this does for MasterCard is that it brands baseball's history. Think about that: the very act of reminiscing about our sport has been tied around a corporate brand. Instead of yarns about their time as players, or great plays they'd seen as announcers, baseball broadcasts this year featured commentary teams discussing their MasterCard Memorable Moments ballot.

I'd like to offer a moment. In college in 1993, I watched the Giants play a late-season game as they were wrestling with Atlanta for the division title. I was at my friend's apartment. We were prone to skipping classes and taking the bus downtown to see Mariners games, but the NL West pennant race was the coolest thing going. If I remember, it was October 3rd against the Dodgers, and for some reason the game was on. We sat and watched the Giants play, and it turned into a great game as only three Giants hitters--Will Clark, Matt Williams, and Barry Bonds--powered the entire offense. Six outs, and then those three would put a couple runs on the board. The other team would scratch out a run, threaten, but those three kept hitting, determined they would live to play another game and catch the Braves. And they did, working the pitchers over like determined, intelligent players who wouldn't be denied.

The boxscore's not that impressive. It wasn't the most dramatic win or the best pitching performance of the year. I remember the feeling of triumph, seeing my favorite players, guys I'd been introduced to by my grandparents in Candlestick Park years before and followed however I could since then. They carried their team to a win with much better at-bats than their peers, and I knew that the remaining days of the season would be amazing, too. And it was: the 1993 pennant was the last great pennant race we'll ever see, between two great teams with no prize for second place, the drama destroyed for the sake of three-division leagues and the Wild Card.

"The 'MasterCard Presents Major League Baseball Memorable Moments' program is the most significant marketing campaign ever initiated by Major League Baseball and one of its business partners. This program will directly engage our fans, as they will be able to determine the moments that will be honored as the most memorable in Major League Baseball history."
--Tim Brosnan, Executive Vice President, Business, Major League Baseball

Is my moment, sitting on the edge of a couch with a Giants cap on, hollering until I was hoarse as my team refused to go down, determined to be unworthy of memory because it wasn't on a ballot? It's certainly not going to get a lot of votes, since baseball managed to chase my friend away in the last decade.

Every fan of baseball has memories like this. Memories are personal: infused with meaning from what you bring to the games, who you're with, events in your own life. They're not for sale, and that's why I'm offended by this campaign. Voting doesn't determine anyone's most memorable moment. It solves nothing, but the very process is just another part of the strip-mining of baseball, where ads return to outfield walls, many teams sell their medical care (and the health of their players) as an endorsement deal for local providers, and there's nothing sacred, or too important, that it can't be bought and paid for. Every moment is already branded. The home runs are the Random Airline Trip of the Day, a defensive play becomes a LeechChemicalCo Turf Defender Lawn Fertilizer Play. If thinking about baseball's rich and storied past is a commercial act, done at the behest of an advertising campaign, why not have ads on uniforms? Why not put company logos on the outfield grass?

Baseball wants to make money. It's a business, I understand. But while I've grown accustomed to the constant branding of everything around us, I'm saddened that baseball saw fit to buy and appropriate the memories of every fan, and hold them up to be judged as right or wrong in a balloting process.

"Baseball appreciates what we do for the game and we benefit from baseball."
-- Cramer

My MasterCard Memorable Moment is when baseball sold its history for a couple million dollars.

Derek Zumsteg is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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Prospectus Q&A: Dr. Mi... (10/22)
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