In my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, opening day of baseball season is a civic holiday. There’s a parade, a street party, and local and national celebrities attend the game. Someone important throws out the first pitch, and on those blissful years with nice weather, the city basks in the glow of the oncoming spring.
This year, for the first time since I figured out what baseball was—somewhere around the age of four—I didn’t care. And it had precious little to do with my being overseas.
Baseball is America’s pastime, unofficially and colloquially, at least (although I suspect our real favorite pastime is quickly becoming the petty online argument). Baseball was my thing, all the way through youth. From second grade through middle school, every daily journal entry assigned by teachers somehow meandered back to baseball. When I was nine years old, my hometown Cincinnati Reds unexpectedly won the World Series ( the name for professional baseball’s championship, although it only includes teams from only two countries), and the fervor gripped me even deeper.
That year, I also met my namesake, the hall of fame third baseman Brooks Robinson. Famous for his tireless work ethic that turned him from a boy of middling talent into an all-time legend at his trade, I disliked him deeply throughout my childhood. See, what I knew of him came largely from grainy video clips that showed him almost single-handedly handedly dominating my favorite team in the 1970 championship. As a kid, that was the worst thing I could imagine: being named for someone who dominated my team. I never understood why Dad could have burdened me that way—until the afternoon I met Mr. Robinson. He wept openly in front of a line of autograph seekers when my father explained I’d been named after him. Then, he bought a camera so he could have a copy of a photo with me, and then he called me to his side and talked to me while he signed autographs for the rest of the line-waiters.
So, here I am a couple decades later, an American in Russia on opening day. I should be preaching the word of the real beautiful game, right? I should have been tuned into the parade and the festivities, maybe even telling Russian students about the game and why it’s so integral to America and the American psyche.
But like everything else in America these days, it’s more complicated than that.
I still love the game itself: the beauty of it, the mixture of strategy and strength, elegance and power. But it’s also one more thing that’s on the brink of being ruined by money, and the very thing my hometown celebrated this week is the thing that’s brought the sport to the edge of being unwatchable. See, the reason Cincinnati is so bonkers about baseball is that the city was home to the first all-professional baseball team, and one of the first all-professional sports teams generally. That was wonderful when the 1869 Red Stockings were barnstorming the country and racking up a 57-0 record, but these days, it’s led to the absurdity of $10 million contracts for situational backup players—prices that allow just a handful of teams from major media markets to remain competitive.
The commissioner of professional baseball is on an ongoing mission to save the sport, which is losing viewers, fans, money, and potential players to other sports and entertainment pursuits. His thesis is that everything can be fixed by making the game shorter, which has led to a series of odd and largely misguided rule changes in the past few years. But that’s not the problem. The problem is ballooning salaries that cause small market teams to trade away beloved favorite players before they become unaffordable. The problem is an overreliance on math and technology that largely undermine what the sport really is: an athletic contest. The problem is a focus on individual superstar players rather than a local team.
The problem is that none of the actual problems will ever be fixed, because they’re making someone rich. Superstar players sell memorabilia and products. Math and technology fuel fantasy sports. Ensuring success for the wealthiest teams and owners—well, I haven’t really figured that one out, since they seem to be doing well enough on their own.
Last year, one team began employing laser pointers in its quest to squeeze the last drop of sport from baseball. From the bench, the defensive team’s coach would call a pitch. Somewhere in a booth, mathematicians ran a simulation of the batter’s tendencies, then flashed honest-to-god lasers on the field, showing all the defenders where to stand. The batter plunked the ball harmlessly toward a player who was standing in the perfect spot. No need to run or strain. No room for heroic tales or storybook endings of overcoming the odds toward an unexpected victory. No hometown heroes to celebrate, because they’ve all been sold to the teams with enough money. These days, America’s once-favorite sport is just a human video game with expensive snacks between innings. So this week as baseball season began in America, I didn’t regal my Russian friends and colleagues with stories of the games virtues, because frankly, I’m not sure it’s got any left.
Next week, we’re back to adventures in Russia.
The views expressed in this blog are my own and do not represent the U.S. Department of State or the Fulbright Program.