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The World Series in a Time of Crisis
2 November 2001
The World Series provided a heck of a photo-op for George W. Bush when he threw out the first pitch one night, aiming at a large TV audience. For the most part, the game that followed was a pleasure to watch -- midway through a week that combined what's best and worst about major league baseball in an era of compulsive media spin.
Baseball may not quite be America's favorite sport anymore, but it still has plenty of emotional resonance. For that reason, politicians and corporations alike are eager to graft themselves onto the climactic games of the post-season.
The 2001 World Series attracted an abundance of the commercial hype that we've come to expect from pro sports, plus a gauntlet of patriotic imagery bordering on jingoism. The play-by-play included a steady flood of brand-name plugs -- "Budweiser, the official beer of Major League Baseball," the John Hancock "In Game Box Score," the "Nextel Call to the Bullpen" -- along with frequent overlays of Old Glory.
This time around, the final games of the baseball season took place in a wartime flag-waving context. The historic media moment was captured by a frequently seen Wranglers commercial, which aired halfway through the seventh inning on the night that President Bush got his photo-op at Yankee Stadium.
That jeans ad starts with the American flag on the screen and the well-known opening chords of Creedence Clearwater Revival's song "Fortunate Son." Moments later, the lyrics begin: "Some folks are born, made to wave the flag / Ooh, they're red, white and blue..." But then -- suddenly -- the soundtrack of the song drops out of the commercial. No more words can be heard after "red, white and blue." The next lines are missing: "And when the band plays 'Hail to the Chief' / They point the cannon right at you." There you have it, in miniature -- a convergence of corporate shilling and ultra-nationalism that can splice up a song precisely enough to turn the selection into the opposite of the song's meaning.
"Fortunate Son" is a raging denunciation of the kind of USA Number One militaristic fervor that has swept America, with privileged elites leading the cheers for war: "It ain't me, I ain't no senator's son ... It ain't me, I ain't no fortunate one..."
Despite the incessant commercialism and recent hyper-patriotism surrounding it, pro baseball retains a lot of genuine resiliency. It's the most pensive of team sports, and the close-up camera work of modern-day television is able to provide coverage that explores human dimensions well beyond just physical skill. The ball is actually in play for a grand total of only a few minutes per game -- according to one estimate, just five minutes from the first pitch to the last. That leaves plenty of time to ponder what just happened and mull over the next possibilities.
For many Americans, baseball is inextricably entangled with some of the fonder memories of childhood. And for people who grew up in the days of black-and-white television, the improvements are great. Back when ace pitchers Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette were dazzling World Series viewers in the late 1950s, watching baseball on TV involved peering at fuzzy figures that moved on a gray background. There was no instant replay then, and scant variety of camera angles.
Today, rendered on the TV screen, the game is somehow more personal as it unfolds. We routinely see artful camera shots of the faces of players on the diamond. As a sport that manages to be highly athletic and contemplative at the same time, baseball offers a measured pace and philosophical spaces that remain in sharp contrast to the frenetic energies of mass media. On the other hand, the televised games are damaged by the profusion of commercial plugs, logos and the like.
Hopefully, the essence of baseball will survive all the manipulation from corporate sponsors and symbol-hungry politicians. Especially in times of national crisis, we need to be alert. It's too easy this fall to passively consume television's melding of fervor for sports and war. The alternative is to think critically and fill in the blanks. "Some folks are born, made to wave the flag / Ooh, they're red, white and blue / And when the band plays 'Hail to the Chief' / They point the cannon right at you."