Does it really get any better than this? I live the East Bay in the Northern California, about 20 miles from Oakland. It’s not as if there’s any love for the Red Sox or Yankees based on favors done for the A’s over the last few years. Nonetheless, the renaissance has hit. People are dashing into stores, grabbing coronary artery-busting snacks, and rushing back into cars to get home to watch the game. As I was coming home from Roseville, I was stuck in traffic next to two cars driven by goateed young men, one with a Red Sox hat, one with a Yankee hat. Both shared my concern about the crowded nature of the throughway, and both shared their opinions rather vocally. How cool is it that 3,000 miles away from tonight’s baseball epicenter, people are rushing home to sit in front of the TV?
A lot of the people who cover baseball exclusively are concerned and/or bitter about baseball’s loss of mindshare to lesser sports, like, well…all of them. The stages of college basketball, football, hockey, and even preseason basketball have expanded, often at the expense of attention on what could once be called “America’s Pastime” without challenge. How bad has it gotten? It’s gotten pretty bad. Last night, KHTK 1140 in Sacramento–one of the premiere (and highest rated) sports radio stations in the country–ran an 88-72 preseason loss of the Sacramento Kings instead of Game Seven of the ALCS. In March, cactus and grapefruit league coverage has diminished, and far more attention nationwide is spent on tracking NCAA College Basketball brackets than rookies and veterans competing for jobs or getting in shape in places like Scottsdale and Vero Beach.
On Wednesday, baseball got a hopeful sign. NBC Television, afraid of getting its tail kicked in the ratings by postseason baseball, postponed two weeks of its resurgent drama, The West Wing, rather than waste two first-run episodes that would likely be thrashed in the ratings. (For the morbidly curious, one of the various Law & Order flavors was tossed out as a sacrificial lamb.) It’s gotta be at least somewhat gratifying for the Commissioner’s Office that a network that had publicly badmouthed the spending on MLB rights put its tail between its legs when faced with an October ballgame.
Of course, baseball isn’t alone in lamenting an expanded menu of entertainment options. The networks have been moaning about the proliferation of narrowcast cable and DBS channels for some time, and even within the sports subset of entertainment, there’s so much specialization and competition for media dollars that advertisers are hungrier for 15-second spots on the SPEED Network than they are to dole out a few million bucks to bankroll a golf tournament, much less to spend a ton of money on a long-term investment on a fairly focused audience that watches MLB games over the course of a season.
If people were fortunate enough to tune in last night, they did see a game for the ages. And not just because Todd Walker looked good defensively. The price for doing so was pretty low for the viewers, even with the expanded time between innings so we could all enjoy the suggestive tire-tunneling of those oh-so-subtle Levitra ads. The coverage was technically good, if subject to the constant promo interruptions that include noisy graphic packages that fill the bottom of the screen, because, as we all know, if a pitch isn’t actually being thrown, nothing of interest is going on between the lines.
But fair is fair. Fox paid the money for the baseball package as a whole so they could show precisely this set of games. MLB’s been ill-served by the contract with Fox, and arguably the ESPN deal as well, as both have relegated baseball to second-class citizen status behind the NFL. But hey, you leave $2.5 Billion on the nightstand, you’re entitled to call the shots for seven years.
But what’s important is that the World Series is set. Congratulations to the Yankees and Marlins. How good does the World Series have to be in order to be the apex of this postseason? It’d have to put Ragnarok to shame, and end up with a couple of position players throwing several shutout innings in Game Seven, before Larry Beinfest was forced to come in and take the mound against a Billy Martin impersonator in the 29th inning. Bring it on. So what if America’s collective productivity takes a massive hit over the next few days? This is postseason baseball worthy of the moniker. This is calling your friends on the cell right after their team blows something to hear them swear at you in the middle of a board meeting. This is checkout lines at the grocery store grinding to a halt because the checker and the two people at the front of the line are arguing whether or not Grady Little should be fired for leaving Pedro in. This is Nuns with Marlin hats yelling “Yankees suck!” at gang members with pinstripes. This is South Florida rocking to 80,000 people chanting “We Want Wea-ver!”
It’s a beautiful thing.