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Being another irrelevant essay on baseball's irrelevance

Jared Wickerham

Is it October? It must be October. Or February. Or March. Because those are typically the months when people are paid good money to write about baseball's irrelevance. It's been happening for a hundred years, at least, but it's been happening a lot since the early 1960s, when television networks discovered that people really, really love to spend their Sunday afternoons on a couch, drinking beer and watching huge men bruise and break each other.

Usually these essays aren't worth commenting upon, because the arguments are so tired, so pointless, so pining for a bygone Nirvana that never actually existed. But you know, when it's the Paper of Record it's difficult to ignore. So just in case you still care about such ravings, here's Jonathan Mahler in the Times last weekend:

MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL is doing just fine. Unlike the N.F.L. and the N.B.A., it has been free of labor strife for nearly 20 years. It has more exciting young stars than I can ever remember. It has even achieved that elusive "competitive balance," with seven different champions over the last decade. Teams across the country are playing in brand-new ballparks that they somehow persuaded local governments to help pay for. Over the last 20 years, baseball profits have grown from roughly $1 billion to nearly $8 billion.

Good essay! Nice job! I mean, it's short. But so many facts, all supporting the thesis in the lede. I'm not sure what comes next, though ... Maybe an ode to Commissioner Bud? Let's see what's next ...

The game, in other words, has never been healthier. So why does it feel so irrelevant?

Oh. Got it. Damn it.

This is just another essay lamenting baseball's fall from Grace, which last existed in the 1950s ... you know, when a team from New York won the World Series every year. Good times.

Mahler, who wrote a really good book about baseball in 1977 a few years ago, begins his thesis of irrelevance by citing national television ratings, which are significantly lower than they were in 1977. Of course, in 1977 the New York Yankees finished in first place and drew 2.1 million fans. In 2013, the Yankees finished third and drew 3.2 million fans.

That's just one example. There are many, many more just like it.

More Mahler:

As crazy as it sounds, baseball was once celebrated for its speed. Into the 1910s — before all of the commercial breaks and visits to the mound — it was possible to play a game in under an hour, says the author Kevin Baker, who is writing a history of baseball in New York City.

To the game’s early poets, baseball’s fast pace was what made it distinctly American. Mark Twain called it a symbol of "the drive and push and rush and struggle of the raging, tearing, booming 19th century!" The 21st century, not so much.

Yeah? So? The game certainly has slowed down. Which means less national interest ... and yet, somehow significantly more people actually coming to the ballparks? Hey, I'd love to see 30 minutes shaved off the average game time. But there is approximately zero evidence that the sport's relative lack of speed has hurt its popularity. Frankly, this just seems like an excuse to quote Mark Twain. Granted, it's a great quote.

Next up, Mahler blames expansion and relocation. Now, those might seem like good things. They do to me. But don't worry, Mahler's got it all figured out:

You might think that spreading baseball across the country would be good for the game, and in some ways it was: more franchises equaled more spectators. In the process, though, a lot of teams wound up in cities without deep roots in the game.

This could be problematic for any sport, let alone one as obsessed with its history as baseball. Witness awkward spectacles like "Turn Back the Clock Night" at Tropicana Field, the Tampa Bay Rays’ annual attempt to whip up interest among its putative fan base. (How does a franchise that sprang to life during the Clinton administration go retro? By wearing the old uniforms of other teams, of course!)

Awkwardness is in the eye of the beholder, I guess. But on the list of awkward things that baseball does, I would argue that coming up with 1970s-style uniforms, once a year, for a team that didn't exist in the 1970s is pretty near the bottom. It's certainly more difficult for teams in cities like St. Petersburg and Phoenix, where the deep roots simply don't exist as they do in Boston and New York. But would baseball really be more relevant if there were teams in just 16 or 20 cities? If there weren't any teams at all in California or Arizona or the Pacific Northwest? The very notion is manifestly preposterous.

Expansion also helped ensure that baseball would become a largely regional sport. Economically, this has been great: local TV deals are where the money is. It’s been good for fans, too: They can now watch their hometown team play most of its games.

The downside is that only a handful of franchises can claim any sort of national profile. When the postseason rolls around and it’s time for baseball to take the national stage — well, it doesn’t, unless the Yankees or the Red Sox are involved. "If Tampa Bay plays Cincinnati in the World Series, I don’t care if the series goes seven games and every game goes into extra innings, baseball is screwed," says Mr. Costas. "That’s not fair to the Rays or the Reds, but it’s true."

Thank God the Reds got knocked out!

I mean, I guess. Bob Costas is a smart guy. I just can't figure out how baseball would have been screwed, no matter who's in the World Series. Attendance is solid. Local television revenues are off the charts (I keep hearing about a bubble, still haven't seen anything pop). Oh, and last year Major League Baseball signed new deals with three networks -- Turner, ESPN, and Fox -- that upped revenues by $740 million for eight years. Well, not actually for eight years. Every year for eight years.

If this is what screwed looks like, I'll have whatever MLB is having. Anyway, for now let's move along ...

THE increasing interest in college football and basketball fed the increasing interest in the two pro sports. Both the N.F.L. and the N.B.A. drafts are now mega-TV events. And the baseball draft? You can follow along on the MLB Network. Chances are you won’t recognize a single name.

Why has college baseball failed to attract any meaningful interest? Mostly because there are already so many professional baseball games to watch. Or not watch. (Earlier this month, an Astros game had a .04 Nielsen rating in the Houston area, which translates to about 1,000 viewers.)

Baseball’s ubiquity was once its great advantage. With its 162-game season, it was the default sport; there was always a baseball game on. There still is, it’s just that now there are so many alternatives. And not just live games; you have SportsCenter and its countless highlight-aggregating imitators, too.

Again, I'm not sure I see the problem here. More people go to see those 162 games than ever before. More people watch the highlights than ever before, whether on SportsCenter or MLB Network or the Twitterific .gif Machine.

But baseball has also failed to sell its young stars to the broader public. There may be a wariness to do so, a sense that "branding" is undignified for our national pastime. It doesn’t help that the game has no pop-culture ambassadors to speak of — no Lil Wayne or Jay-Z. Look at the audience of an average N.B.A. postseason game and you’ll find a gallery of familiar faces; look at one of baseball’s, and you’ll find the strategically placed stars of the latest Fox sitcom.

Really? You really think that Bud Selig wouldn't love to BRAND Mike Trout? It's always been this way. There are good reasons why Hank Aaron and Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams weren't movie stars, but Jim Brown and Joe Namath and O.J. Simpson and Crazylegs Hirsch were. I have absolutely no idea why baseball's relative dearth of huge pop stars -- or for that matter, pop-culture ambassadors -- should suddenly matter today. It's been this way since Babe Ruth, and will forever be this way. It's interesting and irrelevant.

You wanna know the really funny thing about all this? After writing hundreds and hundreds of words about the supposed relevance of baseball's supposed irrelevance, Mahler finishes by questioning the relevance of the previous hundreds of words ...

For that matter, it’s fair to wonder how golden baseball’s golden age really was — and how much our perception of that era is just a function of baby-boomer nostalgia. After all, when Roger Maris hit his 61st home run on Oct. 1, 1961, Yankee Stadium wasn’t even half full. "I don’t think the game is fading," says Will Leitch, a senior writer for Sports on Earth. "I think the notion of what the game is supposed to stand for is fading."

That may prove to be a good thing for baseball. Maybe a new generation of fans won’t grow up thinking the game represents something more than it is. Maybe baseball will stop auditioning for another chapter in the Ken Burns saga. Maybe baseball can just be baseball. Yes, it’s quiet and slow, but if you hang in there, through all of the pitching changes and batting-glove adjustments, you might get caught up in the drama. If you don’t, there’s plenty else to watch.

Nope, guess not. You had me with baby-boomer nostalgia and Will Leitch, but lost me with all the bullshit about Ken Burns. Baseball has never auditioned for Ken Burns. Baseball is already just being baseball. Usually, anyway. You know when baseball does get into trouble? When it does the things Mahler seems to have been suggesting. When it adds bells and whistles and airheads to the broadcasts. When it tries to turn perfectly excellent players into pop-culture icons. When it turns baseball games into revival meetings and jingoistic America First rallies. Mahler spends all those hundreds of words arguing that baseball doesn't measure up to all those other sports in all those other ways ... before circling around to advise baseball to just be baseball.

Which is what baseball -- granted, with the occasional and obnoxious exceptions -- has been doing all along. Mostly because it doesn't have much of a choice. For which we might all be forever grateful.

More from Baseball Nation:

The inviolable calculus of playoff rooting interests

Was this just Johnny Cueto’s destiny?

The familiar story of the 2013 Cleveland Indians

Dear Reds: Please lose.

The 10 greatest baseball scenes in non-baseball movies