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Mismatched Sox: National Pastime Indeed

by Ed Siebert

A note for those of you reading: Mismatched Sox is a weekly blog hastily thrown together by Sox in the Basement Co-Host Ed Siebert and is written to present you with White Sox and baseball thoughts in a manner that, frankly, thinks it is funny in a much better way than Rob Manfred thinks canceling games is funny. While there will be facts here that will be factual, the opinions and other nonsense are neither reflective of anyone at Soxon35th.com nor believed or intended to cause any harm, but consult a psychiatrist and ask if this blog is right for you.

Sometimes this space, generously granted by Sox on 35th, is used for merriment. But, there is no joy in Mudville today, as the Mighty Casey isn’t even going to have a chance to strike out. Much has been written and said since Rob Manfred chuckled his way through an arrogant and tone-deaf press conference while presumably ordering the players’ presser suppressed. His leadership is rightly under question as more news trickles out that there were questionable late-night tactics by the owners and a stark reminder that the lockout was totally unnecessary as the former CBA had a sunset provision that could have allowed the league to continue while negotiating. Sure, there is some blame that the players can wear (unlike their uniforms). They could just sign whatever, get back on the field, and get paid whatever to play the game while suffering through the reality that owners always do better financially than labor when it comes to big business. Anyone telling you otherwise is a recruiter who thinks “work/life balance” simply means that chains and whips are just for shades of gray and not the workplace.

But, in reality, the current situation is just as reflective of this particular era of U.S. history, as baseball has always reflected what was going on in the country at the time. It is uniquely baseball too. The NBA or NFL by comparison sort of transcend the culture a bit, because the games are more easily dominated by a few stars, and in the case of the NFL, is more like watching a Roman legion attack a Greek Phalanx than anything societal. But baseball was always less a sport than a part of the fabric of society. Check it out, decade by decade, over the last century or so:

1920s: The Roaring ’20s!! Society was engaged in a bit of celebration following “The Great War” (WWI), largely considered a dark point in human history if not the darkest to date. Likewise, MLB such as it was had been rocked, nay shocked, by the darkness of the Black Sox scandal, largely considered to be among the darkest points in baseball history. It was such a scandal that baseball named a commissioner for the first time in response and eventually, the players involved would be insulted by the likes of Ray Liotta playing them. Seriously, Liotta is a righty who looks nothing like Shoeless Joe Jackson, a lefty. Digression over. The ’20s are remembered as a time when Hollywood emerged, jazz boomed, skirts shortened, booze flowed (illegally, but it flowed). It was an outsized time, and baseball had an outsized star in Babe Ruth. Ruth and the Yankees were not what baseball had been. It was homers and dominance in a new way. For baseball, it was a new kind of excitement and new records were set in terms of money and player marketing. Baseball had something of a new dawning, as did the U.S. But to quote Scotty from Star Trek, never get drunk if you’re not willing to pay for it the next day.

1930s: Oops. The ’30s saw the Great Depression, a loss of cash and agriculture, leading to abject poverty and tremendous struggle. Baseball did fine enough, but teams struggled at the gate for obvious reasons. The play on the field was a tale of have and have not: in the AL there was offense and offense with offense waiting on deck; in the NL pitchers thrived and games were low-scoring. As with a society where people either had income or didn’t, the game only had two extremes. By the end of the decade, guys like Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio would bring star power back to the game, just as things were looking up all over the country.

1940s: Well, crap. WWII got in the way of the game, as guys like DiMaggio and Williams did their part and served their country. The game, like so many other aspects of U.S. life, was a background to the war but reflected the “everyone pitches in” mentality. The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League was formed, where, according to Tom Hanks, there is and was no crying. And Tom Hanks is quite trustworthy. Also, by the end of the decade, Jackie Robinson helped kick open the door for minority players (the door would unfortunately kinda flap around for years and years before breaking off entirely). MLB, like the USA, had emerged from a bleak and uncertain time to be stronger and more united. Baseball was as American as apple pie, to the extent that apple pie had peels left on the apples still just like the world has some very bad things from that era that must never be forgotten lest they happen again.

1950s: The Golden Age!! Except that there was a very dark undercurrent to all of the good feelings still associated with that era! The ’50s are, in general, an era looked upon fondly for the post-war boom in the economy, child creation, entertainment, and the general return to placid normalcy that the country hadn’t really had since prior to WWI. The cars, the music, the TV shows, the movies all portray an “aw shucks” innocence and prosperity. That just masked things like the McCarthyism era of accusing anyone with an unpopular opinion or haircut of being a communist and ruing their lives, or the crushing racism that still gripped the country. Baseball was in a golden era, sure. It was great if the team had “NY” on the cap, but there was a massive divide between the large market teams and the smaller market teams where the small markets basically entered spring knowing the season was over. For all the wistful memories that Yankees and Dodger fans have (even White Sox fans!), there’s a large swath of the population that don’t remember it being so much fun. Teams relocated and even renamed to try and find some of that gold, and as the decade ended that migration included teams who had prospered in NY.

1960s: Are you going to San Francisco? Like so many hippies, teams searched the country (and Canada) for a way to shed the spit-and-polish, stodgy culture of the ’50s and do something…different. Major League Baseball as a league held fast and hard to the more conservative, uptight ways of “the man” by trying to do things like squash Roger Maris’ home run pursuit with an expanded strike zone and refuse to let players grow facial hair. As the population started to divide more on conceptual grounds, baseball was forced to look hard at the fans and figure out if they had a place in the counter-culture or were destined to be discarded as old and stodgy. By the end of the decade, the game would change with the mainstream acceptance of some aspects of counter-culture, and MLB would be defined by star players and personalities, and expansion to grab more fans. By the end of the decade, the U.S. had adapted from clean-cut to shaggy but shampooed, and seemed to be trying to expand to be more inclusive. Spoiler: It didn’t go really well in the next ten years.

1970s: Dick Allen and his sideburns smoking while juggling in a dugout are all that is really needed to be known about ’70s baseball. Like the rest of the U.S.A., the start of the ’70s was an extension of the late 60s, except things were sliding downhill. The idealism that had started to make changes in the game and society quickly bogged down into a mess of rapidly changing economics and politics, while trying to push the entertainment envelope. The NFL started to rise in popularity while the CBA (not that one, the Continental Basketball Association) forced a very, very straightedge NBA to jump out of the ’50s. Daredevils, films that explored sex drugs, and violence in new ways, the birth of heavy metal and punk; these all made baseball seem quaint. So the game tried to get exciting, to mixed results. More teams adopted powder blue road unis and went with buttonless shirts in crazy colors! More teams ended up in cookie-cutter multi-use stadiums that featured turf, making weird hops and missing leg skin a common sight! The White Sox wore pajamas and shorts, so that was a thing! But also, players were starting to be higher paid and free agency was taking hold for the first time. Teams could import stars like never before and the off-season became a hot stove as teams who were struggling but willing to spend could grab a game-changer. Signing Reggie Jackson wasn’t quite Evel Knievel level danger, but for Yankees fans, it was more exciting than jumping a canyon. For that Evel Knievel danger action, some teams blew up Bee Gees records between doubleheaders and for fans, it was more exciting than a guy crashing a motorcycle. It was a weird, aesthetically hard to look at decade that ended more bizarrely than anyone could have ever guessed, from the Peanut Farmer President to the MLB owner whose name rhymed with “wreck”.

1980s: The US entered the Reagan era and was ushered into a world where greed, for lack of a better term, was good. Gone was any “change the world” idealism in the USA, and instead, everyone wanted the lifestyles of the rich and famous. In baseball, teams became very much bottom-line-oriented and looked for new ways to make cash. Teams had new revenue streams from increased corporate sponsorships, and in the case of the White Sox, a too-early-for-its-own-good attempt at a captive TV network. Teams sold more jerseys and memorabilia, a corporate logo was on everything that wasn’t human, and players demanded higher salaries but weren’t getting them at the rate the teams seemed to be making money. Labor relations boiled in a 1981 strike, and later a bona fide case of collusion that ended with Andre Dawson handing a blank check to the Cubs and winning the NL MVP on a minimum salary. The seeds of what Rob Manfred just harvested were very much planted in the ’80s, which is when Manfred started his career. The game on the field was marred by the trappings of rapid fame and money, as players partied into drug addiction and had their careers radically altered as a result. Those same trappings hit rock stars and actors and, well, other athletes too. But baseball was so very ’80s…corporate and very much in a bunch of material, uhhh, blokes…living in a material…pile of coke.

1990s: Sure, the ’90s begat a minor rebuff of the materialism of the ’80s, as slacker vibes and grunge replaced spandex and glitz. Underneath that surface slacking was really a growing distrust and ever-growing reliance on corporate America. People knew that corporations, which had spent more than a decade putting dollars über alles, were not looking out for consumers’ best interests or even the public good, but they were really running everything and getting bigger. While culturally the US raged against the machine and fought the power, it supersized the Big Mac meal. Baseball also had that distrust of the corporate MLB ownership, which ditched an independent commissioner for an owner in Bud Selig. The divide between the rich teams and poor teams grew, while fans were hit by taxes levied by the cities the teams called home in order to build new stadiums that looked like old stadiums. Something resembling bellbottoms also returned but with quasi-futuristic shiny jackets, so there was a lot of that type of confusion. Pretty much everywhere, the divide really started to grow between the ever stagnating wages and the corporate bottom line. Labor relations in baseball boiled over in 1994 and 1995 when the players went on strike and killed the ’94 playoffs, still mad over the collusion in the late ’80s and the way the money didn’t flow down. In some ways, the players were raging against the machine, but were also increasingly given millions at the top end. After the strike fans were mad but true to the ’90s vibe, didn’t really act on the anger. And true to the supersizing, the game came back and players went with the Biggie meals in syringe form, as homers went flying from every spot in the lineup, and Maris’ record fell. Good vibes from an increasing international presence, records like Cal Ripken’s streak, and a mutual hatred of the Yankees dynasty and Yankees fans helped bring the game back. As the rise of pro wrestling showed at the decade’s end, people love to cheer against a clear heel.

2000s: The love of the crazy power output of the late ’90s suddenly became the realization that it was all fake. The backlash against the steroid era is still being felt, and as players were increasingly exposed it tarnished the game. But then, this was really an era in American history where paranoia became the norm. The decade started with “end of the world” claims and an election that came down to a hand recount between a guy that had been accused of lying and a guy that had been accused of not knowing any actual facts. Terrorism reared its ugly head in 2001, and while that brought people together in steely resolve at first, it quickly devolved into worry over the next attack. That paranoia became distrust of anyone that didn’t agree with whatever brand of paranoia a group had. That distrust became hatred. By the end of the decade, there were clear divisions amongst Americans. Even TV shows were based around distrust…The Sopranos was basically a must-watch to see who would need to be whacked next for betraying Tony. In baseball, any player having success was suspected of cheating. Records that might have been celebrated were questioned. Paranoia became distrust, which became a divide as fandom became increasingly all or nothing. But the game, like the country, was also enjoying cultural globalization as more players came from Japan, Korea, Europe, Australia, and more than just the US and Caribbean. Of course, the 2005 White Sox would win the World Series with the help of a Cuban pitcher and a Japanese second baseman. But much like global warming, there are those who just don’t believe it was real. The game of baseball mirrored the USA perfectly…players, owners, fans…all looking at each other and no one trusting a soul unless they were just like them.

2010s Things didn’t get any better in the century’s second decade. Americans became far more impatient and absolute, as the internet ramped up the demand for immediate information and validation, not to mention entertainment. Binge-watching TV would be invented. In response, baseball games seemingly got longer. While that’s not entirely true, baseball started worrying about things like the pace of play as games became strikeout fests with occasional homers. Overall in the US, there were distinctly two Americas forming: an out-of-touch elite that seemed oblivious to how life worked and disregarded those who weren’t as wealthy, and the increasingly disillusioned masses who didn’t know whether to worship the wealthy or seek to end their influence. No one fully agreed who was the bad elite or who was good, exactly, but every so often it would become obvious. In baseball, owners seemed universally to be the bad type. MLB didn’t care to match the marketing prowess of the NBA or NFL, or increasingly the NHL; they made streaming games difficult as that model of entertainment took greater hold; they reveled in lining their pocketbooks while not doing a great deal to improve the fan experience; they cried poor in public even while fielding terrible teams to gather up young, cheap stars. Players signed insane contracts at times, as the teams basically treated them the way they treated cars and houses, with the expensive brand-name talents being flaunted while the rest were expendable. Meanwhile, the players became the disillusioned masses but their talent was undeniable. Feeding the fans with crazy slides, bat flips, and other moments that could be gif’d and shared on social media, the players and fans still connected, but the league itself less so. And as the decade drew to a close, there was no doubt that whatever else the USA was into it was increasingly unable to agree on much. Baseball, like just about everything else, became something that was either loved or ignored, and neither side would be swayed.

2020s Today, two years into the decade, baseball and America have some troubles. After spending the start of the decade dealing with a pandemic, most of America is very tired and has very little patience. The ones that aren’t tired and annoyed are the ones that spent the past two years revealing just how little they understand things outside their own doors. Universally, there is very little tolerance left for anyone else’s problems. Baseball, the league anyway, doesn’t appear to have any regard whatsoever for fans or businesses or even the players. The players, for their part, seem aware that there is collateral damage, but seem unaware of just how little fans have left in the tank to care about the plight of a group of people who want an extra $100K tacked onto their half-million-dollar salaries to play a game. The fans of course have zero sympathies for the owners and plenty of other things that they can be doing besides watching baseball.

The owners and players have the opportunity to show that compromise and understanding, and the ability to work together towards a common goal are still values in American society. They can stay in the public eye by being the distraction and entertainment that ties Americans to generations before them and has been one of the things that has brought the wealthy and the poor, the left and the right, the friends, family, and enemies together. But for now, baseball has joined the current national pastime of trying to be the better looking on social media while assuming that popularity there will equate to real-world success.

Baseball will be played in 2022, but if it isn’t soon, no one may care. With everyone already at the end of their rope, the question is whether Major League Baseball used some of it to hang themselves. That’s knot a laughing matter.

Featured Image: White Sox / Twitter

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Which negotiations will bear meaning fruit first: Ukraine v. Russia or MLB v. players?

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