Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Great Moments in Rabble-Rousing

Quote of the Week

"For the good of baseball, we need to have cost-containment."

--Rangers' owner Tom Hicks, who, according to this article delivered these words while speaking from his yacht off San Diego. Sources close to Mr. Hicks, however, have stated that he got a good deal on the yacht.

Since I started writing this column, I've heard from a vocal minority of folks who like me enough to keep reading, but not so much that they feel they need to be nice. These good people have accused me of never actually watching baseball games. They claim that I’m all about steroids, labor negotiations, and big money contracts. They say that I and writers like me do baseball a great disservice by not reporting on the little things like bunts, shoestring catches, and triples to the gap.

They have a point. Looking back at the old archive, I’m shocked to see how little I write about the actual game, and to remedy this state of affairs, starting now, Chin Music promises to include Actual Baseball ContentTM. Say, every couple of weeks. That is, if something interesting occurs on the field and I don’t feel more like writing about whatever lurid scuttlebutt happens to be ruling the half-sheets.

For our first installment of Actual Baseball ContentTM, we turn to last Thursday night’s tilt between the Giants and the Braves. The Giants entered play that night well back of the Western Division-leading Diamondbacks, but only a half-game behind the Dodgers in the wild card race. The Braves are approximately 57 games ahead of their nearest competitor in the National League East, but since they will most likely play either the Giants or Dodgers in the first round of the playoffs, this game had Serious Playoff Implications.

It was a close game, characterized by good pitching. With the Giants up by two runs in the bottom of the ninth, Dusty Baker called on the intimidating Rob Nen to close the deal. With one out, Nen allowed Braves’ speedster Rafael Furcal to reach second on a double. Nen then bore down on Matt Franco, striking him out. Next Nen walked Gary Sheffield, leaving runners on first and second with two down and Chipper Jones at the plate.

The Giants' situation still was not desperate. Jones hadn’t looked good that evening, and given the two-run lead, it would have taken an extra base hit from Chipper to make a difference (no way Sheffield scores from first on a single). Nen went right after Jones, putting him in an 0-2 hole, and the Giants one strike from victory.

Unfortunately for Giants fans, however, Nen got lazy and failed to keep an eye on the runners on base. He let them steal second and third without even a throw, putting the tying run in scoring position. Now instead of extra bases, Chipper only needed to poke a single through the infield to tie the game. And that he did, driving in both Furcal and Sheffield, and forcing into extra innings a game the Giants had all but won.

Only a torrential downpour in the top of the tenth kept the Giants from snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. For now the game is booked as a tie. (Since the Braves and Giants aren’t scheduled to meet again this season, no makeup game has been scheduled; if the game turns out to have playoff implications, it will be replayed.) Even though Nen’s gaffe didn’t technically cost the Giants the game, it may have caused some psychological damage. Entering Thursday night, the Giants had won seven of ten; at this writing they’ve dropped three of four.

If the Giants are forced to fight tooth and nail for a playoff spot through September only to end up having to fly across the continent to play a one-game makeup against a rested Braves team at the end of the season, maybe then they will have learned that little things like holding runners on base make a difference, even on lazy, rainy weeknights in Atlanta in the middle of August.

Great Moments in Rabble-Rousing

Ten years ago Slate blogger and former New Republic editor Mickey Kaus wrote a book called The End of Equality. He claimed that the most serious threat to democracy is not so much the gap between rich and poor, but the decay of public institutions where citizens can meet as equals. In other words, our problem is not simply that the rich have too much money, but that their money insulates them more than it used to from the lives of their fellow citizens.

In his latest column the Miami Herald’s Dan Le Batard has applied this same argument to the world of baseball. He blames the "coddled cocoon" of the pro baseballer's life for the current labor disputes. Players, he writes, are insulated from the fans who "squeal" and "clamor" to worship them, and from the media that goes "begging for a morsel of valuable thought." He claims that this detachment from the everyday concerns of Johnny Punchclock and Sally Housecoat is the reason why baseball "deteriorates by the dollar, by the threat, by the empty seat."

At least I think that’s what he means. Maybe he's just hungry:

Baby Ruth. Mars bars. Butterfingers. Twix. Mounds. Almond Joy. Hershey bars. Starburst. Snickers. Milky Way. Kit Kats. Blow Pops. Nerds. 3 Musketeers. Boxes and boxes are stacked atop one another in this lounge, all free, all you can eat. They live and work in a candy store, baseball players do, playing a game for a living in a little kid's fantasy world.

Yep, rather than the exorbitant salaries, the unimaginable pressure of competition, or the fame and adulation that come from being a Major League ballplayer, it turns out that access to free candy is really what separates ballplayers from the rest of us. Sure, Le Batard mentions in passing that ballplayers don’t fly coach or carry their own luggage. But he spends far more time talking about candy, chips and sodas. It’s the Butterfingers, stupid.

What’s going on here? Does Le Batard really think that free junk food is ruining the game? That the players will only give up their Snickers bars when they’re pried from their cold, dead fingers? Of course not. He's just trying to rile up the fans. Digging into the details of a labor negotiation is hard work. Making it interesting to a general readership is even harder. It's much simpler just to bang out 750 words about the unfairness of a system that distributes candy unequally. And of course it doesn't hurt that inflammatory columns tend to bring TV appearances, syndication deals, and more money.

Contrary to what most wags are saying these days, populism isn't a bad thing in and of itself. Cynical populism like Le Batard’s, however, is divisive and destructive. It’s the journalistic equivalent of junk food.

Monday, August 12, 2002

Lukewarm: HBO's Unconvincing A City on Fire

When I was a child my parents would take me to visit my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in Detroit. Except, of course, they didn’t really live in Detroit. They lived in the suburbs of Livonia, Oak Park, Dearborn, and Rochester Hills. In fact, none of my relatives had lived in Detroit since the late 1960's because, in the words of an uncle I have thankfully lost contact with, "that’s when the niggers took over." He was talking about the 1967 Detroit riots that left 46 dead, thousands injured, and over 2,500 businesses burned to the ground. The long-term effects were even more devastating. A good part of Detroit's population fled north of 8 Mile Road, leaving the city crippled by poverty, crime, and despair.

The Detroit riots provide the backdrop for the HBO Sports documentary A City on Fire: The Story of the '68 Detroit Tigers (airing on HBO throughout August, and again in early October), about a city divided and the championship baseball team that brought it together. It's a great concept: Americans at odds over race and class coming together over the national pastime. Too bad the facts don't cooperate. No matter how hard the filmmakers try, they never quite manage to show that the Tigers' World Series run had any healing effect on the city.

City on Fire does provide a terrific and chilling view of the Detroit riots themselves. The opening moments place viewers right at the epicenter of the coming earthquake: the corner of 12th Street and Clairmont, on July 23, 1967. We see the rioters' faces close-up as tensions boil over; we watch a car full of terrified people tentatively accelerating down Grand River Avenue; we witness the beginnings of what was essentially the military occupation of inner city Detroit. In these brief, early segments, City on Fire makes for gripping television.

It also provides a telling glimpse of race relations in Detroit. Even though baseball had been integrated for over two decades, in 1967 the Tigers still had only three black players on their major league roster. Black fans at Tiger Stadium would often root for the Tigers’ better-integrated competitors. And yet on the night all hell broke loose, Gates Brown -- the Tigers’ stocky and seemingly unassuming pinch hitter, and one of its three black players -- stood in the middle of 12th Street in his uniform and pled unsuccessfully for calm. I could have listened all day to Brown and teammates Willie Horton and Earl Wilson talking about day-to-day life in black Detroit. Unfortunately, Brown, Horton, and Wilson are relegated to bit-part status as soon as Dick McAuliffe grounds into the double play that ends the Tigers’ 1967 season.

At that point City on Fire loses focus and becomes essentially two different documentaries: one a tired account of the domestic turbulence of 1968, the other an occasionally engaging recap of the Tigers’ 1968 World Series run. The former seems an afterthought. 1968 is represented by an all-too-familiar montage of the Tet Offensive/MLK/RFK assassination/Democratic National Convention. Yes, the world was spinning out of control in 1968, but you'll learn more about it in the average U2 video than you will here.

The digressions on national politics get in the way of the real subject. The film would have done better to focus on what was going on in Detroit between July 1967 and Opening Day 1968. Instead we get little more than vague suggestions that the city feared another riot. No one discusses the tensions that gave rise to the previous violence. No one explains why another explosion might have been likely. We do, however, get to watch Detroit native Ted Nugent shock absolutely no one by telling how he carried a nine-millimeter pistol while walking the streets of Motown in those uncertain days. This is not exactly an illuminating detail. Given Nugent's well-known enthusiasm for firearms, he probably would have been packing heat even if the whole city had been dancing in rings and joyously proclaiming the eternal brotherhood of man.

City on Fire regains some momentum when it turns back to baseball. Tigers fans will already be familiar with the high points of the 1968 season, but others ought to find the rundown of major developments -- Denny McClain’s gonzo 31-win season, Al Kaline’s injury, and pitcher Mickey Lolich’s World Series heroism -- quite entertaining.

Ironically, the most enjoyable anecdote in the film has nothing to do with race at all. When Cardinal pitcher Bob Gibson tells how when he broke the World Series strikeout record in Game 1, catcher Tim McCarver trotted up to the mound to offer congratulations. Gibson promptly told McCarver to shut up and get on with the game. Brilliant! I think I speak for all baseball fans when I beg Mr. Gibson to repeat that noble deed, and stop McCarver from ruining another post-season with his similarly intrusive and distracting brand of television commentary.

City on Fire has other enjoyable and informative moments like that one, but they aren't enough to salvage the whole. Specifically, the film’s central premise -- that the Tigers’ 1968 World Series "may not have saved the Motor City, but there's little doubt they helped it to heal" -- never really pans out.

For instance, it is implied that the Tigers’ race-blind esprit d'corps set a good example for the rest of Detroit. But that notion suffers a bit when we hear Lolich blame his slow start in Game 5 on Jose Feliciano’s bluesy, mournful interpretation of the National Anthem. Here Lolich is echoing the views of the (mostly white) establishment, which treated Feliciano's rendition as an assault on American values.

Likewise, when you hear that the Tigers won the World Series over a black and Latino-heavy St. Louis Cardinal squad, it’s hard not to think of those black Detroiters who were in the habit of rooting for more integrated teams. Might it have been predominately the white fans who rallied ‘round the Tigers? We never really find out.

Ultimately, the filmmakers’ argument that the Tigers "healed" Detroit rests upon reminiscences of how the entire city seemed to spend the summer of 1968 watching or listening to Tigers’ broadcasts in perfect harmony. But setting aside for a moment that such things are always said about a team mounting an improbably successful season (e.g. Boston during the Red Sox’ "Impossible Dream" season of 1967 and Seattle as the Mariners rode Ichiromania to 116 wins last season) it's worth noting that there's a significant difference between healing and distraction. Detroiters may have forgotten their troubles during the binge of 1968, but the city was in for the hangover of a century once the World Series ended.