Cable news channels hype Washington melodrama to boost ratings. And if there are no real crises, they invent them
The more I see of politics, the more I love baseball. Not that this is anything new. It’s pretty much the story of my life. One anecdote my wife, Diane, sometimes wishes I wouldn’t tell concerns the time I overheard a friend of hers ask why she lets me watch so much baseball on television.
Needless to say, I was in the next room watching the Red Sox. I’d muted the sound. By midseason, I know the beer commercials by heart. I also know the imaginary kingdom I call “Beer World” doesn’t exist. You know, that sports bar in the sky filled with impossibly cute, energetic, flirty young humans?
It’s an ad director’s fantasy. But that’s another column.
A coach’s daughter, Diane grew up riding all over Arkansas and Oklahoma on school buses filled with wisecracking teenage ballplayers. If she hadn’t been too young for her father’s best player, Baltimore’s great third baseman Brooks Robinson, I might never have stood a chance.
Anyway, I overheard her explaining to her friend that I don’t tell her which flowers to plant or novels to read, and that she liked baseball. She added that even if she’d sometimes prefer a nice Emma Thompson movie, when watching baseball I’m also A) home, B) sober and C) not in some sports bar.
Baseball, see, teaches realism. Diane grew up knowing she couldn’t be a second baseman, not because she was a girl, but because she’s left-handed. One of my favorite baseball proverbs is attributed to manager Earl Weaver, calming an exuberant rookie after an early season win: “This ain’t a football game. We do this every day.”
Baseball also teaches patience and keeping things in perspective. My son called the night of the big stock market sell-off, the same son who’d anxiously sought reassurance during the made-for-TV debt-limit crisis.
“CNN’s acting like the world’s coming to an end,” he said wryly.
Over on ESPN, I answered, the Red Sox and Twins were tied in the sixth. I’d gotten my fill of CNN hysteria earlier. Wolf Blitzer was apoplectic. It was all “Standard & Poor’s” this and “Dow Jones” that. They even ran a stock ticker supposedly gauging the effectiveness of President Obama’s phlegmatic remarks.
Business correspondent Ali Velshi struggled to explain the basics to the excited anchorman. Investors cashing out of stocks were buying U.S. Treasury bills. Bond yields were dropping — precisely the opposite effect S&P’s grandstanding would have caused if markets took it seriously.
Short of dousing Blitzer with a fire extinguisher, there seemed no way to make him understand. Actually, I expect he wasn’t confused, but performing. Cable news channels hype Washington melodrama to boost ratings. Absent real crises, they invent them. Broadly speaking, Republican operatives understand this; Democrats not so much.
If it were baseball, somebody would have said that asking S&P about U.S. credit-worthiness was like seeking nutritional tips from steroid abuser Jose Canseco. S&P touted subprime junk securities as gilt-edged investments until the day Lehman Brothers chained its doors shut.
Now a baseball announcer who didn’t grasp the infield fly rule, or pretended that the Yankees batting order affected their earned run average would be out of work. Fans demand competence. Sports journalists have their faults, but they do have to get the scores right.
ESPN fielded its A-team for Sunday night’s Yankees-Red Sox game. Listening to Orel Hershiser and Curt Schilling analyze Josh Beckett’s performance was like a free tutorial in the art of pitching. It helped that Schilling — whose “bloody sock” performance in Game 6 of the 2004 AL playoffs against the Yankees fans we’ll never forget — was a right-handed power pitcher like Beckett.
Schilling can be a blowhard. I’ve sometimes found his political pronouncements annoying. But when the man talks pitching, listen. Hershiser was more of an artist on the mound, but his nickname was “Bulldog.” Announcers once made a big thing of his religiosity, an odd fit with his secondary occupation as a professional poker player. But a good fit with his keen intelligence.
I’ve never met either man, yet I’ve known them both for years. Like most fans, I experience baseball as a sort of endless Victorian novel with interludes of high drama, fascinating characters and endlessly diverting subplots.
In the sixth inning with the score tied 1-1, Beckett faces the Yankees’ Eric Chavez. Two outs, two on — yet another tense standoff extending in my memory to the heyday of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. Full count, 3-2.
The camera shows close-ups of Beckett, then Chavez: both deadly serious, both faintly smiling. They’re actually having fun. Beckett freezes Chavez with a perfect curveball. Strike three. Chavez glances toward the mound as if to say, “Wow.” Also, “I’ll get even come September.”
Two big kids playing ball, 12 years old forever.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org. More Gene Lyons.
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