Tonight, after a week in which I grappled with whether I might take a mulligan or write a scintillating piece on, like, what Tim Tebow means for the ontology of MLB, I found myself listening to a Phillies-Braves broadcast in the car. There are pointless baseball games, and then there are Pointless Baseball Games. A spring training game is the lowercase version of a pointless baseball game: the record doesn’t really count, the performances are questionably reliable, and the overall product is informative but probably misleading at best for an analyst or a fan. An early-September game in which a team that is 10 games out of the wild card race hosts a team that is 19.5 games out is the capital-letter version of a Pointless Baseball Game—there is nothing to gain or lose. You can’t even be mislead.
Now, of course, on a practical level there are certain things that these late-season games provide. They provide audition grounds for promising and even not-so-promising prospects who might be vying for jobs with the big-league club come March. They give managers and veteran players alike a shot at auditioning for jobs they might have to fight for over the offseason. And they determine seeding for the bottom dwellers of the league (when those same bottom dwellers aren’t playing spoiler). There’s certainly quite a lot of use for Pointless Baseball.
But what Pointless Baseball does not provide very well is any incentive for fans to tune in, at least on its face. The games drag on, hurt by the fact that they mean almost nothing, and generally killed by the fact that there is something nicer to do outside in the waning days of summer and the early onset of crisp fall. Any incentive to watching a 6-4 game that largely stars Jeremy Hellickson—just to pick a random for instance—is shot down once the viewer realizes “oh, hey, my team has zero chance of capitalizing on a win here.” Bereft of the systemic drama of the playoff race, we tune out until the Rule 4 draft.
Well, except in two situations (three if you count people who blog about baseball and desire nothing more than to punish themselves by watching September games and thinking seriously about them). The car is the first situation in which you might listen to the game, as there’s rarely anything more peaceful than hearing a baseball game over a middling car stereo with the windows down on a warm summer night. The second situation is the only thing that gives the car a run for its money in terms of pure, uncut baseball emotion: a trip to the ballpark.
Because while TV ratings tend to drop precipitously as teams reach the point of no return on their season, there’s no reason to think that the quality of the team need be a death knell for in-park attendance. While attendance varies from team to team and, more importantly, from market to market, it’s not uncommon to see teams that are well out of the race fill a park on a nice afternoon or evening. And as parks become more and more attuned to the total experience of their fans, providing them with jumbotrons, specialized park food, craft beer, et al, the in-person experience becomes more and more detached from the product on the field.
While it might seem that the last thing teams in MLB would want to do is divorce their stadia from the products housed in them, I think that actually, they’d probably be pretty happy about it, all things considered. Because while tickets sell themselves during playoff runs, the only salable point that teams have during slumps, losing streaks, and abysmal rebuilds is the park and the experience of live baseball. And as you’re probably recalling right now, a good chunk of that experience has little or nothing to do with the game on the field itself. Drinking beers, telling stories with your friends, playing jumbotron race games, figuring out if you’ll eat at the park or after the game—these are often the elements of a day out at a baseball game that stick with a spectator more than the box score. And if those elements can be divorced from the product on the field entirely, then there’s a true draw to late season Pointless Baseball, namely the venue itself.
There are two ways to think about this development. One is the good way, in which the development of spectator-friendly stadia has allowed for an intensification of the simplest pleasure of major league baseball: the fresh air and time spent with family and loved ones just relaxing. Like so many things in our rapidly intensifying working lives, baseball essentially exists as a tailored break from the stresses of work and home life, a mandated three-hour relaxation that mostly entails sitting, eating, and drinking. And that’s not a bad thing! In fact, it’s very good, especially if the quality and joy the park brings allows one to take in the spectacle on the field as just that: spectacle without any larger purpose, either within the MLB or in the world itself. Just a game as background for a nice day out.
The negative version of this follows pretty easily from the positive, though. A world where this Rockwellian vision of peace with the family is really enacted is also a world in which owners have little to no reason to pay their employees or field a competitive team, since the park itself brings in the fans. Hence, the arms race surrounding major-league renovations, as well as the almost ceaseless accusations of front office apathy, abetted with rising profits and ticket sales. And this is scary, because as much as it is comforting to have a pleasing spectacle to expect, win or lose, in the dog days of summer and the start of fall, the idea that it would allow owners to dilute the product so much as to never be competitive is certainly a risk of divorcing play on the field from its ultimate significance in the playoffs.
In the end I don’t know if I’m any surer of what the point of truly Pointless Baseball is. I guess in the end, it’s a mark of summer, a continual tick on the calendar, significant or otherwise, that we can expect in its annual place. Perhaps it’s the specter of monetizing even that—the almost lizard-brained reminders of the seasons and time’s progression—that so troubles me here. Whatever my discomfort is, however, it certainly was not helped by tonight’s brutal Phillies-Braves tilt. Right or wrong, a hot dog and a beer would have not gone amiss during that broadcast.