Filigree of Fury

November 11, 1994|By C. FRASER SMITH

The magnitude of voter anger this week went beyond offense given by politicians. An important factor totally missed so far is the impact of the baseball strike.

Within the growing national community of writers and scholars who study the role of sport in American society -- baseball or football as religion, for example -- the idea that a baseball strike might have a lingering effect on the mood of voters is not a bridge too far.

Sports provides ''a reassuring rhythm,'' says H.G. Bissinger, author of ''Friday Night Lights,'' a book about the centrality of high school football in Texas. With the World Series cancellation, he said, Americans could say, ''Here is yet another thing that doesn't work. You can't depend on anything.''

''Don't underestimate the power of sports,'' he cautioned. ''It's not just entertainment in America. It's what keeps small-town America together.''

It even makes commuting tolerable. Art Taylor, associate director of the Center for the Study of Sport and Society at Northeastern University, sees the demoralizing aftermath of a fall without baseball every day on the train.

''There are a fair number of depressed and/or disoriented people. They don't know what to talk about. Politicians could have taken advantage of it, but all you got was ill will, not real discussions of issues. A real opportunity was missed.''

Some voters may have been motivated to drop out. ''I think the performance of the government is a sufficient provocation for low turnout,'' said George Will, the baseball fan, columnist and television commentator. But, he added, ''a filigree of fury'' was added when ''a seasonal delight, one that leavens the political season, was taken away.''

The provocation was immense. Players and owners conspired to choke off Cleveland's bid for a return to post-season play after 40 years. They scuttled record-breaking individual home run-hitting performances, doomed the Series and left in the electorate a lingering feeling of betrayal.

When the teams are losing -- or not even playing -- people can feel unmoored and, sometimes, react violently. If their lives are already difficult, failures on the field are magnified.

''They're already raging, feeling the pain and using their teams to keep them afloat from week to week. When the teams lose there is all this anger built up inside. It's their float in the pool and somebody punctured it,'' Mr. Taylor said.

Politicians, says Robert J. Higgs, a retired English professor at East Tennessee State University, are the same as the players and the sports moguls, the owners and the businessman coaches.

''People think the owners and the players are just a bunch of rich bastards. That's what they're saying about Republicans and Democrats. In politics and sports, only rich people can play. So, if you're a voter, you may say 'Who cares? It's their game. If we play they'll jerk the rug out' '' -- just as they did with baseball, Professor Higgs said.

Edward R. Hirt, an assistant professor of psychology at Indiana University who studies the impact of sports on self-image, agrees.

''I think there's really a sense that we get gypped out of a lot,'' he said. ''Two factions are fighting and all we can be is detached bystanders.''

Until Tuesday when voters got into the game with more than a filigree of fury.

Baltimore Del. Sandy Rosenberg, an inveterate Oriole fan who works diligently on his Rex Barney impression, offers this partisan parallel between baseball and politics: ''The owners did not want a settlement. They wanted to bust the union. The Republicans did not want lobbying reform or a health-care bill. They wanted Clinton out.''

And they won that inning. The GOP will now have to resist concluding that it was gridlock alone that produced so many victories.

Instead of promising balanced-budget amendments, the new GOP juggernaut should be calling for truly serious bargaining between Donald Fehr, the players' representative, and Dick Ravitch, the owners' man.

C. Fraser Smith is a reporter for The Sun.

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