Saturday, February 25, 2012

It's the Only Sport With a Statistic Called "Errors"

This must be a sign of advancing age, but somehow I find the entire Ryan Braun fiasco reassuring. As sports continues its seamless integration into the global corporate state monolith, it's nice to see that baseball retains its lovable and comical institutional ineptitude.

Let's keep the National League MVP's urine sample in some clown's basement for the weekend!! That's almost as laugh-provoking as an All-Star game ending in a tie. Now that he's on a roll, we can confidently expect Bud Selig to roll out yet another of playoffs, or maybe a Cosmic Series between the World Series winner and the winner of the World Baseball Classic.

Hard as it is to believe, both Major League Baseball and the MLB Players' Association are chock-full of extremely smart lawyers. In unison, they devised a drug-testing policy which did indeed contain protections for the reputations and rights of the players being tested. Then everyone involved shook hands and forgot the whole thing, especially the part about making sure the process was carried out.

This worked fine until they got to Braun, a guy who failed a test who was and is sure he never took performance-enhancing drugs. Braun fought back under the process, which resulted in two near-fatal blows to baseball's drug policy. 1. Some malicious and very foolish jackass, who odds are is an employee of baseball, leaked the Braun story to ESPN, immediately destroying any trust or goodwill players might have for the program. 2. The arbitrator ruled in Braun's favor, meaning the embarrassing details of how the process didn't work is now public knowledge.

Braun and MLB are considering real-world legal action. That will and should soon pass. The discovery process could be most unkind to both parties. The Glorious Guardians of the Purity of Sports, such as the New York Times sports section and the dimmer members of the U.S. Congress, will cluck disapprovingly for some time. A study committee will be appointed to recommend improvements in baseball drug testing, and its report will come out around next year's Super Bowl. By the time the Red Sox play BC down in Fort Myers, the Braun case will be news as old and forgotten as the Lindbergh kidnapping case.

That's what makes baseball unique as a business enterprise. Humiliating failures of management and horrible misjudgments (let's put franchises in Florida) have little to no impact on its bottom line. The money keeps rolling in, and if the TV dough can't compare with the NFL's, there are compensations -- like maybe owning your own network, or full parking lots 80 times a year instead of 10.

The romantic seamheads taking in the sun and watching grown men play catch in Florida and Arizona will tell you that's because baseball's timeless appeal can survive any mistreatment. They're partially right. In fact, they don't go far enough. It's my belief that its mismanagement and buffoonery are an integral, no, vital part of said timeless appeal.

It's almost a century later, and the 1919 Black Sox remain a subject of endless fascination for baseball fans. The immediate aftermath of that scandal was a quantum leap in the game's attendance and financial standing. Horrible, horrible episodes of marketing gone wrong, such as the Disco Demolition Night and Dime Beer Nights riots of the 1970s, are cherished parts of baseball lore today. Come to think of it, despite some institutional tut-tutting, most fans laughed about 'em when they happened.

Look at Bud Selig for that matter. There's a case to be made, and a strong one, that Selig has been the most successful head of the four major pro sports in the 21st century. Baseball takes hit after hit on Selig's watch, and yet its profits have moved on a nicely rising line that Apple Inc. wouldn't sneeze at. Yet Selig retains and I think carefully manages a public image as a pleasant bungler. I think Bud is well aware that a certain amount of inefficiency is essential to baseball's prosperity.

You want an image of corporate efficiency? Watch the NFL. Many people do, of course, and the image is in large part a fraud, since football is chaos. You want to have fun on a warm summer night, or on a cold night in February imagining there will be warm summer nights? Watch baseball. Many of those same football fans do that, too. Baseball is spectacular counterprogramming.

Every time baseball screws up, its followers are reassured that it's not going to change. Baseball fans like that. Hell, they're still arguing about the DH, now 40 years old. A certain amount of change is necessary for a good life. So's a certain amount of stability.

The national institution the National Pastime most closely resembles is Congress. Everybody hates and laughs at Congress. Its approval rating is about 10 percent. And this November, at least seven out of eight incumbent U.S. legislators will be re-elected, just as in every election.

Deep down, Americans of all political beliefs don't particularly want an efficient government. So they create a Congress to insure they don't get one. Deep down, Americans don't particularly want sports to be efficient, either.

Baseball caters to their desire, and does well from it.


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