Why the World Series is going down the tubes (literally)

Greedy, shortsighted owners and one-dimensional teams playing bad baseball add up to an event that nobody cares about.

Published October 30, 2002 6:43PM (EST)

By legend, Miss Barton had been standing on Farragut Parkway when they decided to put the school there in 1905, so they just built it around her.

In fact, she'd only been at the head of her homeroom since 1942, but for us seventh-graders 1942 might have been a date from Julius Caesar's reign. She was friendly but formidable, and what, if any, connection she had to the world outside school eluded us. In retrospect, it took a good deal of courage for me to hand her the note my mother had scribbled asking her permission for me to miss school on Oct. 15, 1969.

She looked up at me with unalloyed shock. My plans were doomed.

And then she smiled, broadly and warmly. "You're going to the World Series? Have you got an extra ticket?"

They were all like that. Mr. Motylinski, the science teacher who looked like nothing less than a proto-Nathan Lane, not only accepted my carrying a transistor radio and earphone into class, but periodically called on me for the score. Mr. Bub, the hard-assed phys ed teacher who once fended off 27 kids who tried to force him into the showers, suggested that when I went to Game 4, I should bring a movie camera and we could watch highlights -- instead of gym. The social studies teacher, Mrs. Rice, outdid them all. She moved my chair up next to the blackboard and turned a corner of it into a makeshift scoreboard. Every half-inning -- and in those days you could cram a lot of half-innings into your average seventh grade social studies class, not just one -- I'd add a digit to the line score:


METS 0 0 0

The previous school year, they'd herded us all into the vast cobwebby auditorium at the top of the school to watch Nixon's inauguration, and several times had done the same for Gemini and Apollo launches. But these had tangible -- if to us, vague -- connections to the actual schoolwork.

The World Series, however, was apparently more important than school.

I don't remember anything else that adults would admit was more important than school.

Thirty-three years later, hearing those words "world" and "series" sends a chill through me as reflexively as the loudest Pavlovian bell. I could not have known I was the last generation to be so indoctrinated. I assumed it had always been that way, and always would be.

It no longer is.

The official data is in, and the 2002 World Series was the worst-rated in television history. There is a myriad of causes: I have about 117 more television channels to choose from than I did in October 1969. I have at least 20 more than I did in October 2001. Similarly, baseball no longer dwarfs the sports landscape. The de-nationalizing of the sport was symbolized by the presence of two geographically homogenous teams, formerly a boon to ratings, now a curse. And there have been strikes and scandals and expansion and ties at the All-Star Game and Bud Selig.

Yet the underlying cause of baseball's malaise is that, like me, the owners just assumed it would always be that way. I had an excuse: I was 10 years old. Their excuse, that mentally they're 10 years old, is insufficient.

All but a few of the owners have failed to understand television in any way other than as a revenue stream. They have never recognized its function as a merchandising, even a proselytizing, mechanism. They didn't know about Miss Barton and Mr. Motylinski and Mrs. Rice. They didn't know about the kids with their cheesy white plastic earplugs and their scratchy transistor radios. They didn't cultivate the tradition they had been given by their forbears in the first half of the 20th century. They let the World Series become less important than school, and less important than the NBA, and less important than "The Sopranos."

It takes a certain foresight to say to a television executive, "No, we can't play the whole World Series at night because the kids won't be able to watch. We can't bend to society and prime time and demographics because to do that is to lessen the obligation to watch the World Series. We have to play day games. Here's some money back."

As evidenced by the All-Star Game, baseball owners don't have the foresight to plan for the 12th inning, let alone 12 years from now. They didn't write off the few million less NBC would've paid them as seed money. Instead it's the World Series that's gone to seed, sometimes being reduced to the symbolic filler between Fox's next promo for "24."

TV usually takes the blame when this subject is introduced. But I know from my own experience with the executives who make the nuts-and-bolts decisions about televising baseball that they have done everything but beg the owners to return daylight to the Series -- and not just when the games have to start at 5 p.m. Pacific time for the sake of the East Coast audience. One of my bosses, as he sat there rejiggering the first-pitch times for one Series ("No, no. Tell Buddy he has to start Wednesday at 8:37, not 8:07, we've got a sitcom premiering Wednesday"), told of offering to split the difference in revenue lost because of a late-afternoon Saturday start. "I told Selig, think of the future. He kept saying, 'think of the money.'"

It isn't just the sizzle, of course. There are now severe problems with the steak, too. In Bob Costas' memorable phrase, the Wild Card has indeed turned the Series into "The MLB Finals." Never was evidence greater of the damage induced by the expanded playoffs than in the unwieldy, pitching-optional exhibition between the Giants and Angels. While five-run leads disappeared faster than Angels fans will if "their" team tanks next year, Giants fans wrung their hands over the prospect of losing a manager so brilliant that only he could see the wisdom of starting the pitcher who led the league in losses in the decisive seventh game. Even on the subject of former team owners, the average -- or even sub-average -- was elevated to absurd heights. Gene Autry, an often brutal executive, was beatified, and his harpy of a widow transformed into a virtual Mother Teresa in a red pants suit. It was Jackie Autry who, in 1991, overruled her general manager Whitey Herzog and nullified the contract offered to the most popular player in franchise history, Wally Joyner. She said she would never give a guaranteed deal to a "malingerer" -- her vicious interpretation of the leg injury that had shelved Joyner during Game 3 of the American League Championship Series in 1986. Joyner had been playing for two months with a hidden staph infection behind his tibia. On a slide at the plate the infected area burst. It took 10 minutes just to drain and two weeks before Joyner could again walk. That made him a malingerer.

The viewers were way ahead of the cognoscenti on this celebration of mediocrity. Amid all the explanations for the ever-plummeting ratings, the simplest one inevitably gets bypassed -- if you're scoring at home, or even just by yourself -- this just wasn't very good baseball. Six-run rallies and Barry Bonds home runs are impressive. But if they happen every night, they take on the falsity of the plot twists in pro wrestling, or Anna Nicole Smith's chest. And in a sports world full to overflowing with last-second touchdowns and buzzer-beaters from the popcorn stand, all offense, all the time is no longer enough to hide the fact that to be watchable, baseball must be a balance of hitting and pitching. In one year, the number of World Series starting pitchers who lasted seven innings or more dropped from nine to none.

In the old days, the pretenders -- one-dimensional teams like the Angels and Giants -- were eliminated in the slow but fair crucible of the regular season. If the best team in baseball occasionally had a bad week and undeservedly lost the World Series, that merely served to create endless fodder for the off-season. Now, the candidates for best team -- this year, those were the Yankees, A's, Braves, and Cardinals -- can be eliminated almost by chance at two levels even before they stagger into a sometimes anticlimactic World Series. The Yanks lost not to the Angels, but to three consecutive bad starts by their own pitchers. The A's and Braves were not the poorer teams; they had managers too headstrong to see the folly of starting ace pitchers on short rest. The Cardinals lost to injury the key hitter in their lineup during a series they shouldn't have had to play, if the regular season had still meant anything.

There are two nightmare scenarios for television ratings. If they continue to decline at the rate they have since 1991 -- 50 percent in 11 years -- ratings for the World Series of 2025 would be about a tenth of what they were in 1991. If, however, it is no coincidence that the five worst-rated World Series of all time have all occurred in the last five years, and the fall of nearly a quarter from just last year continues, that 10 percent figure could be reached as early as 2009. A Canadian network has opted out of the last year of its contract to televise the sport, choosing to spend millions for the privilege of not showing baseball, rather than to spend millions more to show it. The regular season has already been neutered; even the teams given new, free stadiums are failing. Bud Selig sees all this, peering dimly through his clouded-over glasses, and floats an obvious solution: add four more Wild Card teams.

Selig shows an average of four times a week that he has no grasp of the present. His gift for foresight brought us such wonders as the collusion scandals of the '80s, the 1994 Series cancellation, and contraction. But it's his inability to see the past that truly dooms him and his sport. Not merely the past full with Miss Bartons and Mr. Motylinskis and the kids with earphones, but more instructively, the time well before that.

Through the 1880s, the nascent World Series was mismanaged. From an instant attention-grabber in 1884, it was turned into an endless traveling freak show (best 8-of-15 format, games played in 10 different cities) by 1887, and the denouement of labor wars and over-expansion by 1890. The 1890 Series pitted the Louisville Cyclones, who had risen from worst to first in the American Association, against the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, who had won the American Association pennant in 1889, then collectively jumped to the National League.

So full of rancor and devoid of talent was the 1890 World Series that even though the host Bridegrooms entered Game 7 leading Louisville three games to two (Game 3 had been a tie) and needed just two more wins for the title, only 300 fans showed up. When Louisville tied the Series at three, the decisive eighth game -- and the rest of the Series -- was abandoned.

"There is scarcely enough interest in the series," noted a writer for The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, "to induce the people to read the scores."

The world has made itself over a thousand times since that sobering revolt by the Bored against the Boring. Baseball's resiliency reminds us that the World Series broadcasts might still inspire another generation, wearing not transistor earplugs but watchman headphones. Or, like that unhappy 1890 Series, it could wind up getting cancelled -- this time by TV executives.

By Keith Olbermann

Salon columnist Keith Olbermann hosts the ABC Radio Network's "Speaking of Sports ... Speaking of Everything."

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