Tuning Out

Night baseball has made the World Series just another TV show.

October 19, 2003

Americans of a certain age have similar memories of the World Series. At school, teachers pulled out televisions otherwise reserved for science lessons and space launches. At work, people huddled around radios in the corner of an office or factory. Nuggets of information about crucial outs, run-scoring hits and soaring home runs were passed along like coded messages among the underground resistance.

This year the story of the Chicago Cubs and the Red Sox helped to demonstrate that baseball still can exert its mythical tug on the American psyche. But that's rare. Every year, it seems, baseball executives lament the decline in ratings for the series and wonder what can be done. Perhaps they should consider that a whole generation has grown up without these kinds of memories, without experiencing the thrilling, nailbiting joy and tragedy that is a World Series.

The change began in 1971 during the series between the Orioles and the Pittsburgh Pirates. That year, for the first time, a series game was played at night. It was only one game. There was general agreement - still borne out by hitting statistics - that baseball is meant to be played in the daytime, under sunlight. That could be violated during the regular season, but not during the World Series, the game's cathedral of excellence.

This first night series game was a novelty. Some viewed it as a public service, enabling more fans to see the game. But the camel had its nose in the tent. Within a few years, the three weekday games were at night. Then baseball did not want to go up against the increasing popularity of pro football on Sunday afternoon, so the Sunday series game was moved to the evening. The Saturday game soon followed.

So consider the experience that today's teen-agers had with the World Series as they grew up. They never arrived home in the afternoon to a game on the television set. Its drama never interrupted their school day. There were no whispers of what the score was in the bottom of the fifth.

In the daytime, the series was a communal event that drew its fans out of their routine and allowed them a shared experience. At night the series is just another prime-time television show. Young viewers decide, as media consumers, "Should we watch Friends or the World Series?" With the remote control in their well-practiced hands, it might be both.

And the late start of the games means that, in childhood, they were usually sent to bed long before the last out.

Connected to youth

Baseball has essentially been eating its seed corn, damaging its appeal to a new generation of fans for the short-term payoff of higher rights fees for prime-time starts.

In his essay "Baseball as Narrative," the late A. Bartlett Giamatti - the classics scholar who became president of Yale and then, briefly, commissioner of Major League Baseball - wrote that our pleasure in sports is "radically tangled up with our childhood. Much of what we love later in a sport is what it recalls to us about ourselves at our earliest. And those memories, now smooth and bending away from us in the interior of ourselves, are not simply of childhood or of a childhood game. They are memories of our best hopes. They are memories of a time when all that would be better was before us, as a hope, and the hope was fastened to a game."

If today's teen-agers attach their hopes to any game, it is probably played on a computer. The move to nighttime World Series games points to a fundamental problem: The integrity of sports is challenged when they begin to define themselves essentially as a means of entertaining an audience.

In an influential 1967 essay entitled "Art and Objecthood," Michael Fried - now chairman of the Humanities Center at the Johns Hopkins University - contrasted art that he said depended on the presence of an audience for its very existence with works that he found superior because they had a kind of integrity that asserted their existence whether an audience was looking at them or not.

The World Series seemed to have that kind of integrity when it was on during the day. Major League Baseball appeared to be saying to the nation, "This is our game. If you want to come to it, if you want to train your television cameras on it, fine. If not, that's OK, too. We're going to play it no matter what."

But as the series became more and more of a prime-time entertainment vehicle, it began - like the works Fried denigrated - to depend on the audience for its existence. In the daytime, the World Series intruded on our lives, demanding our attention. In prime time, it tries to mold itself to our lives, begging for our attention. Something is lost in that transaction.

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