The Game Like It Was

(Optional soundtrack for this post.)

The opening day of baseball season feels to me the way your wedding anniversary must feel after you get divorced: it’s a reminder of an old love that used to mean a lot, but doesn’t anymore.

In 1993, I was working at a radio station in Clinton, Iowa, a nondescript town of about 30,000 on the Mississippi River. Against the odds, it managed to support a class-A minor league baseball team. (And still does today.) The team’s home games had been broadcast for years by the other station in town. But the minor-league landscape had begun to change in the late 80s, and like other pro sports franchises, minor-league teams needed enhanced revenue streams to survive. Selling the rights to both home and road games would effectively double a team’s broadcasting revenue. And in 1993, my station put together a hefty offer for the Clinton team’s broadcast rights.

Our competitor knew we were going to do this, but instead of responding with a competitive offer of its own, their general manager walked into the meeting and said, “Well, I suppose they’ve made you all kinds of big promises. Here’s our offer—we’ll keep doing the home games like we’ve always done, at the same rights fee we’ve always paid.” This wasn’t a rhetorical flourish—they actually believed that the team might prefer to keep doing what they had been doing instead of getting more money and more exposure. As you might expect, we got the rights—and we heard that Brand X was actually surprised. (They were an utterly clueless bunch of people, with an almost completely false conception of who their audience was and of how they were perceived in the community.) And so my station became the voice of the Clinton Lumber Kings.

In a small market, you’re never going to know precisely how many people are listening to any broadcast. My guess is that there weren’t very many listening to us for baseball. Minor league baseball attracts most fans based on the entertainment experience at the park surrounding the games, rather than on the game of baseball itself. Only a small group of hardcores is going to live and die by the result of the games. The reality of small-market radio, however, is that if you can sell advertising, a broadcast is considered successful, regardless of how many people are listening to it, so in that first year, we were successful.

In 1993, I was not far from falling entirely out of love with baseball, which had been my favorite sport for almost 25 years. The reasons were several: the pace of games slowed from leisurely to glacial, and I found I lacked the patience to invest four hours in a game. I was a Chicago Cubs fan, but half of the roster would turn over each year, favorite players would be gone, and guys you had rooted against for years were suddenly wearing Cub uniforms. Player salaries were skyrocketing, but many of the players seemed to be doing less and less to earn it. The example that frosted me the most was Danny Jackson, a pitcher who got a $10 million contract before the 1991 season. But when he wasn’t hurt, he was awful. Cub fans, by definition, must learn to tolerate awfulness, and sometimes even embrace it. But Jackson’s awfulness was compounded by an unpardonable sin: he didn’t seem to care that he was awful. He would go out, get shelled, and then tell reporters that he’d felt fine and had done what he wanted to do, but things just didn’t work out. He was just a victim of bad luck, that’s all, so what else could he do?

Well, standing up and admitting you suck when even the blind could see it would have been a fine start.

By 1994, Opening Day was still a holiday to me, but that was the year the World Series was wiped out by a players’ strike—not that the Cubs were going to be in it, but still—and after that, I was done. I watched a few games during the Sammy Sosa/Mark McGwire home-run chase in 1998, but baseball was never going to be what it once was to me. I had stopped caring about the game day to day. Eventually, I stopped caring about the playoffs and World Series, too.

But give me some credit, at least, for feeling a little bit sorry about it every year on Opening Day.

(Rebooted from a couple of posts from 2007 and 2008.)

3 responses

  1. Our timelines are almost identical. Baseball (specifically, the Los Angeles Dodgers) was one of my passions from 1969 (when I was 11) until around the early 1990s. I was aware that my passion was ebbing, but I still followed the team and enjoyed going to games for both the Dodgers and the Angels. But the 1994 strike wiping out the World Series crossed the line for me, since it was messing with history. It bugged me to realize that a list of World Series winners would forever show a dash or “did not play” for 1994. And with that, I was done. I still go to an occasional game, and I often have the playoffs on TV in the background, but opening day just doesn’t resonate for me anymore.

  2. We made money the first year. Not much, but our standing in the community took a big leap as well as sales revenue in general. We also came to the board in suits and ties with a bound presentation for each board member while the other guys wore shorts on their way to play golf. We barely got the vote but changed a lot of perceptions on community service in a small market.

  3. There are no coincidences, but the first line of this post resonates. My first marriage (ending in divorce) was 3/31/84. You’re right about what the date means now…..

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