By Jan Hubbard
When I first began covering sports as a newspaper writer, I heard the most difficult athletes to work with were baseball players. There were several theories.
– The sport was so statistically oriented that it made players more selfish, thus more sensitive to inquiries and criticism.
– Unlike football and basketball players, many baseball players went straight from high school to the minor leagues and did not have the benefit of college, thus they had collectively less maturity.
– Baseball players simply were not as smart as other athletes.
On one of my first trips into the Texas Rangers clubhouse, I asked a prominent player what I thought was a pretty good question and this was his response:
“Anyone who asks the kind of questions you ask shouldn’t be covering sports.”
Sports? Hey, if he’d said I was lousy at baseball questions, he would have had some credibility. But all sports? That hurt.
In 2006 and 2007, I was a regular beat writer covering the Rangers and I’m happy to tell you that as a group, if baseball players have changed. You won’t find nicer athletes anywhere than guys like Michael Young, Kevin Millwood, Jerry Harrison Jr., or Mark DeRosa. And spending two springs in Surprise, Arizona, allowed me to understand the magic of spring training, and thus the magic I thought existed in baseball when I was a kid.
At times, like other sports, baseball has been soiled by big business. But there still is a romanticism and purity about it that is unmatched and that’s all a part of the excitement we feel about the postseason.
Much of it is about history and tradition. There is so much more of it in baseball than other sports. Consider the obvious:
The National League began play in 1875 and the American League began in 1901.
Compare that to the NFL, which began in 1920 and was around almost 50 years before it began attracting mass attention. The NBA began in 1946 and as late as the early 1980s, the league was so unpopular that its championship series was broadcast on tape delay.
The NFL, of course, has now far surpassed MLB as the top sport in America. The NFL is so dominant that it draws more TV viewers than even the top entertainment shows. Consider the local reality:
A meaningless Cowboys preseason game will draw more local viewers than the top-rated Rangers regular season game, even against a team like the Yankees. And a Cowboys playoff game will blow away the Rangers and the Mavericks, even if they are in a championship series.
Yet even though it does not translate into eyes watching TV, we have seen the last few years how a pennant race brings out the baseball fan in all of us. That love of the game was passed down from generations in the first half century to the baby boomers – who still loved baseball more than other sports – and they have successfully passed it to their sons and daughters, who have passed it to their sons and daughters.
It’s also been 16 years since baseball had a nasty labor battle between players and owners. When the World Series was cancelled because of a labor dispute in 1994, baseball fans were slower to forgive than fans in other sports. Oddly, it was the steroid-infused home run derbies of the late 1990s that, well, fueled some of the interest in baseball, but that fans returned.
But the fans are back and, as always, baseball seems to have produced an exciting story. The Washington Nationals are the first baseball team from Washington to make the postseason since 1933. That is amazing.
In 1933, the NFL was the afterthought and the NBA was 13 years away from being born. That longevity has sustained the passion for baseball. It’s an old friend, and no matter how old you are, it’s been around all of our lives.