From Seattle Times sportswriter Larry Stone’s column, June 10:
In negotiations with players to resume a season shut down by the coronavirus pandemic, Major League Baseball is administering self-inflicted wounds from which it might never fully recover, no matter how tight the pennant races or majestic the play. If the 1994 strike, which wiped out the World Series for the first time since 1904, provided a previous low point in the sport’s history, the “stewards” (quotation marks fully intended) of the game are hellbent on relocating that nadir.
This is a lifelong baseball fanatic speaking, mind you. Over the years, I’ve reflexively fought back against criticism of the sport, feeling almost an obligation to defend the game I’ve deeply loved since youth. But you’re on your own this time, fellas.
The optics of a financial battle in the midst of a worldwide pandemic were bad enough. To have that fight continue, with increasing intransigence, during social upheaval not seen since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, is unconscionable.
On July 11, 1991, I attended Eugene V. Debs Memorial Kazoo Night at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. Debs Night was a very unofficial and whimsical annual event, put on by a group of friends who were labor lawyers, and all you had to do to take part was pay four dollars for a seat in the spacious upper-deck center field bleachers. It’s the kind of thing people used to be able to do in baseball stadiums. They handed out kazoos and tchotchkes and conducted renditions of “Look for the Union Label” and “We Shall Overcome” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” I still have my STICK IT TO CAPITALISTIC TOOLS magnet and look at it every day. It’s on my fridge.
I was there in 1991 because I was working with Michael Betzold to write Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story, and because Eugene McCarthy had accepted an invitation to be a celebrity guest conductor of the kazoo orchestra, and I wanted to interview him for the book.
“We’re very pleased,” Scott Brooks, one of the organizers, told me. “We’re also very amazed, and somewhat shocked. We usually send out a hundred, two hundred letters to famous people – anyone we can get an address on. It says we’d like them to come, we can’t afford to pay their air fare, we can’t afford to pay their expenses, we’ll give them a free t-shirt and a kazoo. And we get some pretty funny letters back. I think some of the other celebrities that have come may question your definition of national stature. But in terms of ex-presidential candidates, or former U.S. senators, or anyone anyone ever heard of, yes, essentially [McCarthy is the first].”
I contrived to be introduced to McCarthy and, in the lead-up to game time, found myself sitting next to him for quite a few minutes. He wore a light blue windbreaker, looking like anybody’s uncle on a fishing trip. I asked him about the coercion and blackmail that White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf had just deployed to force an unnecessary new taxpayer-funded stadium on the south side of Chicago, right across the street from classic and perfectly good Comiskey Park. That sort of thing was not confined to sports teams, he observed.
“All these corporate guys do it,” he said. “They’re like independent countries, ya know. The whole thing of baseball players making three million dollars a year is unbelievable. It’s all a projection of television. It’s like these damn television newscasters. Hell, they couldn’t make a hundred thousand dollars a year as honest newspapermen. Eight million dollars for Dan Rather – what the hell? He couldn’t even write a sentence, ya know. Any business or institution like baseball or television that exists because of a government monopoly oughta be subject to the salary schedule of the federal government.”
A gray-haired white woman sat down on McCarthy’s other side and introduced herself. “I’m Maryann Mahaffey,” she said. Mahaffey was at the time the well-liked and widely respected president of the Detroit City Council.
“This is the first time I’ve been this close to him,” she gushed. “I want my picture!”
Mahaffey volunteered that it would be “ridiculous” to replace Tiger Stadium. “It’s a good stadium,” she said. “Where else can you get this close to the field? And it’s in good condition. I was on the council when we did the deal that they would stay until 2008. And now they turn around and say, ‘Well, it’s not in that good condition.’ And they want to use taxpayers’ dollars, and we can’t afford it.”
“It’s just like the corporations,” said McCarthy. “They won’t come to the state until you give them the capital and …”
“The tax abatements, and all that stuff,” said Mahaffey.
“The corporations,” said McCarthy, warming to his theme, “they’re like separate countries now. They have their own foreign policy, their own military policy, their own welfare programs. You’ve got to negotiate with them. They’re not subject to the law.”
Then-Tigers owner Tom Monaghan – the billionaire founder of Domino’s Pizza – was “one of those Irishmen that rocks on his heels,” he said. “You ever know those Irishmen that do that? Look out for that guy.”
The national anthem started, and the Debs Nighters rose to accompany it on kazoo. “We better stand up,” said McCarthy to me. “George Bush might be watchin’.”
Bud Selig, whose early local fame was as the young proprietor of the Selig Ford dealership, was a folk hero around Milwaukee when I was growing up, because he had pulled off the feat of turning the Seattle Pilots into the Milwaukee Brewers, just five years after the Braves had broken Wisconsin’s heart by skulking out of town (a shameful tale that’s authoritatively documented in a chapter of Bill Veeck’s book The Hustler’s Handbook). I considered it a brush with fame on my own part that my father was Selig’s daughter’s teacher at University School. One of the best things that ever happened in the history of baseball, as far as I’m concerned, is when Charlie Moore – a fan favorite who had lost the starting catcher’s job to Ted Simmons (who incidentally really should be in the Hall of Fame) – made a perfect throw from right field to nail Reggie Jackson at third in Game 5 of the 1982 American League Championship Series.
But researching and writing Queen of Diamonds taught me too much inside baseball about baseball, Detroit, and America. By the time the book came out in 1992 I could cite chapter and verse on particular ways it was all too clear that the fix was in, and it’s not much of a stretch to say that part of what propelled me as far away as Thailand in 1993 was sheer disgust. And I found I had lost interest in following baseball for pleasure. So I largely missed out on the 1994 strike and the whole steroid era. My attention was on other things, like the democracy movement in Burma and the 1997 Asian currency crash and the appalling Indian occupation of Kashmir.
After I returned to live in the U.S. in 2006, settling in Seattle, I started following baseball again. I had fled Detroit thirteen years earlier feeling bruised and wounded, but it seemed now that enough time had passed, and going to Mariners games was an enjoyable way to foster new friendships. And baseball still was, as it still is, a fine thing in itself. And then too, there was the sublime Ichiro Suzuki. You would have to work hard, if you were so inclined, to convince me that he was not one of the ten greatest hitters of all time. And I got to follow him closely through most of his American career.
I remember one game I was at where Ichiro went three for five with an infield single, a sharp line drive up the middle, and a Texas Leaguer that fell between fielders in right-center, and I could have sworn he willed it so, just to show us how a master practices his craft. My friends Dennis and Wally had been there in person to see him get the 262nd and final hit of his record-breaking 2004 season (also the last game of Edgar Martinez’s career). Dennis told me the prevailing vibe when Ichiro first showed up in Seattle in 2001 was, “Who is this guy?” (My brother once said, when I mentioned the Japanese-British author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go: “Ishiguro – isn’t he the ballplayer that got all those hits?”)
My time living in Seattle has coincided with a mostly frustrating and deeply mediocre string of Mariners teams, but I’ve enjoyed following them, and especially Ichiro. I’m glad, for his sake, that he retired last year. And this year was billed, plausibly, as the start of a potentially exciting youth movement. But now I feel ready to lay baseball aside again. It’s beneath my notice until further notice. Or rather, I feel ready to turn my back again on Major League Baseball. It’s helpful to remember that Major League Baseball, the vast and voracious commercial entity, and baseball, the game, are not the same thing. Take me out to the ballgame any day – after we somehow get to the other side of the pandemic and the political crisis, and as long as it’s on a neighborhood or small-town field and people are playing and attending for the sake of bragging rights and convivial pleasure.
As Tom Petty put it, it’s only a broken heart. Or, as Eugene McCarthy wrote in Elysian Fields Quarterly in 1993: “If all goes badly, the better choice might be to call off the whole thing as too complicated, outlaw all organized baseball, including the Little Leagues, scatter a few balls and bats and gloves and a catcher’s mask or two around, and let the whole process start over again.”