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Just Whose Children Are All God’s Children?

“Turkish Delight”—what is it?   Most Americans have never tasted it or seen it, although they may have run into mention of it in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. This classic book for young readers—the first installment of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series— features a boy named Edmund who colludes with a witch against his own family and the magical realm of Narnia, all because she promises him “Turkish Delight.” Journalist Jess Zimmerman asked a number of Americans how they had pictured this delicacy when they read the tale as kids. They told of imagining all kinds of sweets—a crunchy, peanut butter-infused chocolate bar; an enhanced pink Starburst; dense cotton candy flavored with cinnamon, ginger, cardamon, and honey; a near cousin of marzipan; and so on. Some had envisioned it not as a confection at all but as a favorite part of dinner’s main course—the perfect turkey stuffing, for instance.  (Jess Zimmerman, “C.S. Lewis’s Greatest Fiction Was Convincing American Kids That They Would Like Turkish Delight,” Gastro Obscura, June 12, 2017.)

Turkish Delight is none of the above. It is a starch and sugar gel, typically infused with rose water, lemon, cinnamon, or other flavorings popular in Turkey. Sometimes it includes pistachios or walnuts. Served in small cubes that are commonly dusted with powdered sugar, it is a regular feature of daily life in Turkey, where it is known as lokum and is much-loved. These days, if you don’t have a local store carrying imported Turkish foods and you want to try lokum, a box of it can be purchased over the Internet easily enough.

Now imagine a different situation. Suppose you were eager to sample Turkish Delight but could not find it for sale in your area. Nor could it be ordered online. Suppose that, in fact, all around the globe, even in Turkey, Turkish Delight simply could not be obtained, although people everywhere talked about it and how wonderful it was. When you questioned some of them about this mystery food, they gave a variety of conflicting descriptions. You suspected they were lying to you, or perhaps were deluded. Perhaps they had been brainwashed when they were children, either by their parents or other authority figures. They sincerely believed they knew what Turkish Delight was, but they were simply repeating what they had been told. You wondered whether Turkish Delight existed at all. Was it just a powerful fable?

This is the quandary that many of us face when we hear about “God.” And we do, all the time.  “God” is on everyone’s lips and at the center of our most immovable convictions and our most rancorous disputes. “Keep God in the schools,” “Keep God out of the public square,” “Same-sex marriage is against the law of God,” “God bless the whole world, no exceptions,” “Every human life is a sacred gift from God,” “God will punish those who put children in cages.” But what is God? What does this short, one-syllable English word mean?  If we’re all God’s children—just whose children are we?

If you go by what people say, God is just about anything. Ask for a description of God from a cross section of believers (never mind agnostics and atheists) in the U.S. (never mind the rest of the globe). Ask an Orthodox Christian in Chicago, a Hindu in Atlanta, a reformed Jew in San Antonio, an evangelical Christian in Deerborn, a Shawnee animist in Oklahoma City, a Sunni Muslim in Pittsburgh, a Rastafarian in New York, a Mennonite in Portland, a Buddhist in New Orleans. You’ll find yourself in the position of a forensic artist trying to produce a composite image from descriptions offered by multiple witnesses—only each of these witnesses in fact saw a different individual. You can even confine your survey to individual members of a single confessional group—say, Hasidic Jews or Roman Catholics—and you’ll still get wildly contradictory responses. You’ll be left in a conceptual fog.

Christians make up a majority of religious Americans. Many of them might simply say, “God is Lord Jesus Christ.” To them, I should clarify that my question concerns, in Christian terms, “God the Father.” Jesus, according to Christian teaching, was conceived not through sexual intercourse like everyone else but by God’s impregnation of Mary. Who or what is the Being that created the embryo of Jesus in the uterus of a young woman named Mary who had never had relations with any man? Jesus is “the Son of God.” Of whom or what is Jesus the son?

The question “What is God?” is posed here for a specific purpose, namely, to identify some way of understanding God that is widely shared among Americans across political, religious, and cultural spectrums. That way, our disagreements, insofar as they involve “God” and what “God” requires of us, can at least be articulated with something approaching a shared vocabulary. We won’t be lacing our remarks and opinions, our speeches and slogans, with the word “God” when we all mean different things by it. No doubt we need a similar clarification about lots of terms for the same reason. “Socialism,” “patriotism,” “family values,” “liberal,” and “conservative” come to mind. But none of them has the power to confuse and distort our communication with each other quite like “God.”

Four Predicates

God is Almighty, God is Love, God is Eternal, God is Truth. Believers of almost all stripes concur that each of these predicates describes God’s essence. Maybe they can serve as the anchors of a shared understanding of God. Maybe. First we have to establish whether the four words—Almighty, Love, Eternal, and Truth—are themselves clear and comprehensible to the great mass of us, in more or less the same way.

“Almighty” God is all-powerful, able to do all things. A simple enough proposition. The pricklier issue is how we mortals should react to God’s magisterial power in leading our lives. Can we influence God’s will? Is it in God’s “tool kit” to change the course of things in response to our actions and appeals—for instance, to answer the prayers of homeowners living in the path of a wildfire and redirect the blaze elsewhere? Or to kill off an aggressive pancreatic tumor because the patient’s loved ones, a handful of human beings amid the billions of us, pray for a miracle? Does God’s nature include any impulse to honor our requests, if only on a spot basis? Or is the infinite power of God something different and beyond our comprehension, something that has nothing to do with the wishes that people, often in desperation, express in prayer? Should we heed the words of Ida Mae Gladding who, when faced with misfortune, always said “God don’t make no mistakes,” and leave it at that? Does prayer have any point at all?  Does anything we do make any difference to God?  You can be sure that people will have sharply conflicting views about these questions. Inevitably, they’ll be equally at odds about the proper understanding of “Almighty.“ “Almighty,” it turns out, is as much a black box as“God.”

“Love” is something we can all relate to more easily than “Almighty.” That’s the problem with Love. Love has great immediacy for us in all its forms, which range from the most selfless to the most pleasure-crazy and animal. You can try to slice and dice the concept Love, to isolate the part of it that applies to God. This is sometimes done by leaning on Ancient Greek, specifically two Greek words for Love—Eros (Ερος) and Agape (Αγαπη). From the pulpit, members of the clergy like to go on about Agape and to contrast it with the less reputable Eros, even though most of them have, at best, a superficial knowledge of Greek and no inkling of the rich complexity of love terminology in the ancient texts. That’s a subject best left to expert philologists. The truth is that, no matter what language or culture you pick, ancient or modern, Love is as tangled a concept as it is dizzying an experience. About that, you don’t need to consult experts, you can just ask anyone who has been in love. “Love,” the ultimate labyrinth, isn’t a promising path to consensus about God.

“Eternal” as applied to God’s realm (“Heaven,” ”Life Everlasting”) has been on the receiving end of a hail of hilarity in literature and elsewhere. For my money, Mark Twain takes the prize with his arch observations on the subject, like this one: “Most people can’t bear to sit in church for an hour on Sundays. How are they supposed to live somewhere very similar to it for eternity?” If we’re honest with ourselves, an afterlife that goes on and on, appending eons like the digits after the decimal point in π, is a hard sell to our intelligence. Even if we try to imagine it as carefree, struggle-free, and exertion-free, more so even than the Big Rock Candy Mountain, the afterlife prospect isn’t so much joyous as plain weird. And not just in modern positivist terms. Science aside, a paradise that awaits you after you die has no place in any kind of consideration of Eternity, including theological and metaphysical ones.  Concerning Eternity, the one thing we can be sure of is that it transcends time and temporal concepts like “before” and “after.” The right place for the afterlife is where we usually find it—in cartoons and the wisecracks of honest people like Mark Twain. But as long as countless clergy and lay people accept afterlife stories (or at least give them lip service) as reality, “Eternal” would be another sinkhole as the foundation for a common understanding of God.

“Truth” we innately grasp. It is built into us, and for good reason. It enables us to make judgments about what is and is not real, a critical capability for our well-being and our very survival. Without it, we could learn nothing—not even that a rose thorn is sharp or ice slippery or fire hot. Truth is not a difficult idea or construct. A child quizzed by her parents about two cannolis missing from the fridge knows she is fibbing when she denies having made a snack of them. She may not be as skilled at rationalizing her deceit as adults—say, scientists who fudge evidence to suit an experiment’s desired outcome—but even at her young age she has the same faculty for distinguishing truth from untruth as they do.   As long as we’re compos mentis, we have that faculty as human beings.  What about ”to err is human”?  Of course to err is human.  We reach erroneous conclusions all the time about specific matters in the world around us—we genuinely accept something as true when it isn’t—but such misjudgments are not due to a deficient sense of truth. They happen for other reasons, usually because we’ve relied on incomplete or misleading information or because we’ve allowed our partisan emotions to take charge. They are like a sour note hit by Itzhak Perlman. His execution of the note may have failed, but his ear—his perfect pitch—isn’t to blame. We form mistaken opinions right and left, but when it comes to truth itself, we have pitch as pure as Perlman’s.

“God is Truth.” We should all be able to agree on this. Even atheists. Atheists have the same inborn sense of truth as everyone else, so if we ask them to think “Truth” when someone uses the term “God,” why should they object? The equation God = Truth, or Truth = God, doesn’t impose religion on anyone. Religion is what worshippers practice as they enact rituals and carry on received traditions. It is the recitation of the rosary, the crouch to pray when the muezzin cries out, the blowing of the shofar at Yom Kippur, the singing of “On Jordan’s Bank” at a Wednesday night church supper. It is, in various faith traditions, fasts and special dietary rules, the recognition of certain persons or texts of authority, the delineation of separate (and grievously unequal) roles and requirements for men and women, the obligation to gather as a congregation at fixed times. None of this is required to accept “God” as a synonym for Truth.

We pursue Truth every day, in ways ordinary and extraordinary, whether we’re stepping on the scales at the gym, testing soil for pollutants, reading a newspaper or Faulkner or Lucretius, tagging salmon, refereeing a football game, measuring the bones of early hominids, learning Spanish irregular verbs, or performing research towards a Parkinson’s cure. If only we would come to see all such activities as communing with the divine. If only we would make the search for Truth, no matter where it takes us, the holiest of sacraments. God is Truth.

George Angell, Baltimore, December 2019

“Let’s Get Nuts!”

If I were a political pro working for the Republican caucus in the U.S. Senate, I would recommend they find a way to avoid filling the Supreme Court vacancy before January 20th, well aware of the growing likelihood that Biden will be sworn in on that date.   I would urge them to resort to whatever deft dodge they could devise to pass up the golden opportunity to scuttle Rowe v Wade, among other key rulings.  And I would explain why, since they seem to need to hear it.

Republican political strategy has never sought the reversal of Rowe v Wade and the re-criminalization of abortion after half a century.  What it has sought—and carried out in elections big and small—is the continual flogging of the abortion issue as the go-to means of deluding millions of Americans into swallowing a political agenda that is pure poison to them. The GOP is about one thing and one thing only: keeping American society firmly under the thumb of the moneyed class and gradually, inexorably shifting even more of the nation’s wealth to the economy’s lords and ladies at the top of the pyramid.  That was true in the 1920s and it remains true in the 2020s.  Over the last four decades, the party’s objective hasn’t just been fulfilled.  It has been spectacularly overfulfilled, in the process hollowing out the American middle class and vilifying progressive government (“government of the people, by the people, and for the people”).  

Now, however, the whole shell game is in serious jeopardy.  The promise of overturning Rowe v Wade, elusive for so long, is within easy reach.  The ever receding mirage is a mirage no more.  It is real.  As real as a 16-year-old girl’s perforated uterus and septic shock when she attempts to induce her own abortion with a bent piece of wire. As real as a 24-year-old woman’s renal failure and respiratory arrest after she squirts a soap solution into herself to end her unwanted pregnancy.  The reversal of Rowe v Wade will lay bare the cruel absurdity of returning abortion procedures to the shadows, the unregulated chop shops of female bodies, and of giving the lock and key to women’s wombs back to politicians, only a tiny fraction of whom have any training in the medical science of human conception and reproduction, but all too many of whom consider themselves endowed with an unerring knowledge of right and wrong, courtesy of men in priest’s collars or evangelical robes wagging their fingers in pulpits.  On the abortion issue alone, the electoral consequences for Republicans will come swiftly and terribly, without even taking into consideration other critical matters awaiting the high court, such as the future of the Affordable Care Act with its protections for those with pre-existing conditions.  The whole thing will be a catastrophe for the GOP.

No one is pro-abortion.   Abortion is something we all wish we could eliminate, just as we all want to eliminate chemotherapy by doing everything possible to make the condition it exists to address—cancer—a thing of the past.  And we can do a great deal to end abortion by going after the condition it exists to address—unwanted pregnancies.  WE CAN.   We can do it through sustained, vigorous, well-funded public health practices, education, and sound science.

But not through criminalization.  No more than we can rid the world of cancer by outlawing it.

But that’s beside the point.  Because the Republican Party isn’t interested in measures that would actually work. What it wants is to keep riding the political wave that Rowe v Wade created.  And garner the votes of all those poor, struggling saps whose hands President Trump, in an unguarded moment, admitted he hates the thought of shaking.

The strange thing is, in the MAGA era, Republican leaders have started believing their own cover story. So they’re going ahead with a reactionary Supreme Court nominee, rushing headlong into a disaster, a stark demonstration of the emptiness of their promises for all to see. They remind me of George Costanza insisting on driving his fiancee’s parents to his dream house in the Hamptons, a trip that he knows will end in his humiliation because the house doesn’t exist.  The new motto of the Republican Party?  “Let’s get nuts!”

George Angell, September 2020

2131

I saw our blue-eyed ballplayer’s apotheosis

from bleacher section 96 in right.  Five bucks

to watch Game Two One Three One (W-Mussina,

16-8; L-Boscie, 6-4) that night

when schools in Baltimore had just reopened

and summertime was digging in its heels.  Euphoria

was levitating neighborhoods and marble stoops.

Inside the ballpark, pandemonium was trapped

and caged, but wouldn’t stay contained.  Not past frame four,

when Boscie’s fastball, mashed against the ash wood barrel,

sprang off and sent a violent, mortar pulse’s shockwave 

of jubilance.  Cal trotted Cal-like.   All the rest

was only after-party.  Stooped, the emissary

of games in yellowed clippings, Joe DiMaggio,

pronounced the benediction of the superseded

who loped in pinstripes through Elysium’s grass.   The four

great canvass digits dropped, confetti black and orange

rained down through pig fat smoke from Eutaw.  Clutching babies,

fans at the railings strained to touch the hem of Jr

when he had slipped the concrete dugout’s mortal bonds.

Ramrod and weathered, Sr stepped unbothered past

his old eviction’s site, the coach’s box, more giddy

than all the limo-litter VIPs, more giddy

than all the big league regulars who grinned the grin

of kids in t-ball caps at the colossus Cal,

more giddy than the umps who didn’t make the slightest

attempt to dam their adulation up—men who

had punched the air derisively year in, year out

to teach their zone du jour to straight-backed Number Eight.

Above the Yards the moon turned on its Big Top beam

and, all the while, the tribute that was easily

the best, the board beneath the right-field porch, flashed updates

aloofly through the scenes of downright storybook

and choked-up words: …*OAK 1 BOS 3 … *CLE 4  MIL 1 …

George Angell, September 1995

That Pesky Background Voice Reading the Caveats

Last night I made myself sit and watch a good slice of the Republican Convention, or whatever this largely prerecorded thing is.  Stepford meets Jonestown meets Nuremberg might be right.  I didn’t stick around for Pence, who, from what I read this morning, had his usual funeral home director charisma.  What I will say is that the earlier speakers, mostly looking like they were trying out for shampoo and tooth paste commercials, actually surprised me.  If you knew nothing about them and weren’t aware, for instance, that Kellyanne Conway had been the point person for Trump’s third world-style dirty war against the press, or that the North Carolina congressional candidate Madison Cawthorne’s biggest claim to fame is his ecstatic Instagram posts from Adolf Hitler’s mountaintop command center above Berchtesgaden, in Bavaria, you might have found it all rather harmless, if a gigantic snoozer.


I really felt like I was watching a drug commercial with an overlay of tranquilizing, department store music—in this case, in the form of feel-good stories (admittedly sounding a little contrived in the mouths of these speakers dripping with money and privilege) about sacrifice and suffering and triumph via faith in God (our God, none of those other Gods), the Stars and Stripes, and so on.  But it was impossible not to hear, in my head, all the accompanying caveats—warnings like the ones drug commercials are obliged to include about risks, side effects, exclusions, &c., in weird counterpoint to the happy mood music:

Swallowing the GOP line can cause worldwide climate catastrophe with chronic flooding, receding coastlines, and aggressive wildfires; has been known to pin thousands of children in cages; some evisceration of health coverage for tens of millions of Americans should be expected; cannot be combined with a free press; women who may become pregnant now or in the future, or who care about women who may become pregnant, should avoid at all costs; do not keep taking if you have neo-Nazi thoughts, anti-immigrant hysteria, anti-Semitism, or nostalgia for the Confederate flag; gargantuan spending that benefits only the top 2% and ulcerates the federal deficit, along with extreme disparities in wealth, may cause significant distress; ask your doctor whatever happened to American respect in the world.

George Angell, Baltimore, 27 August 2020

Will a Global Pandemic Goose a Global Major League Baseball?

Pandemic restrictions are easing across most of the U.S. Workplaces of all types, big and small, public and private, are scrambling to figure out the immediate future, yet also have to think ahead to the long-term lessons of the shutdown. It doesn’t take much imagination to anticipate that the massive expansion of teleworking, home delivery of essential goods like groceries and medications, and other expedients will turn out to have lasting appeal for millions of Americans—consumers and producers, workers and managers and owners. The pandemic will have been a gigantic, impromptu pilot project, working out the kinks of new ways of living and working that were waiting for their moment.

The sports business doesn’t jump to mind in this regard. For one thing, virtually nothing is happening. The experimentation taking place in less expendable parts of the economy are absent in big time sports, which haven’t even sputtered along in low gear. The NCAA was the first to pull the plug, canceling its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments after briefly considering holding contests in empty arenas. In short order, the Summer Olympics were postponed for (knock on wood) one year, and the professional leagues in all the major sports called their activity to a dead halt even while holding out hope that their seasons might be at least partially salvaged. ESPN has been a bit like a government in exile, desperate for something meaningful to do. Over on Fox Sports, Joe Buck set about his irrepressible play-by-play of barnyard chickens pecking at their morning feed, air traffic controllers bobbing on the tarmac, and a guy staring out a window.

One hot stove league that fans do have, if you can call it that, is all about the contingencies for a resumption of play in the various sports. Although most of the discussions are behind the scenes, some of the scenarios have gotten a good airing in the media, none more so than Major League Baseball’s “Arizona Plan,” reports of which first emerged in early April. The Arizona Plan called for holding all MLB games in the Phoenix area—at Chase Field, the Diamondbacks’ ballpark, and at nearby spring training venues. Players and other essential personnel would live in some form of isolation, if not actual quarantine, at local hotels. Variations on the plan had the major league clubs split into two groups, one based in Phoenix and one in St. Petersburg, Florida; or into three groups, with Arlington, Texas added to the mix.

In essence, the Arizona Plan adapted the Olympic model for Major League Baseball. Competition would occur not at the 30 ballparks of the American League and National League clubs across the U.S. and Canada, but at a cluster of venues in and around a single host city, Phoenix, which was chosen for the facilities and conveniences it can provide. This concept is alien to professional baseball as all Americans alive today, or even their grandparents, have ever known it. To find anything remotely like it, you have to go back to the game’s infancy, in the mid-19th Century, when entrepreneurs rented out recreational lands they owned, like Brooklyn’s Union Grounds and Hoboken’s Elysian Fields, to be the sites of games between the ball clubs that were springing up in the region. By the time the National League was formed, in 1876, the practice we use today was already firmly in place. Now as then, all teams own or lease a field of their own; they play half of their games there and they go on the road to opponents’ fields for the other half.

MLB has shelved the Arizona Plan for now and tentatively aims to have the truncated season’s games played at home ballparks, although some form of the plan may well be the fall-back if distancing and other public health requirements rule out home diamonds. Nothing is decided, everything is in a constantly churning black box of imponderables and debatables. If you spot a Vegas line that you like on one of the various possibilities, don’t wait, grab it.

What you won’t find is any action on a wager looking beyond Covid-19, one saying that the Arizona Plan will live on after the pandemic’s all-clear has sounded.

No surprise there. Who would take that bet? What could make anyone think that, once the crisis is in the rear view mirror, MLB would do anything but crumple up the whole Arizona Plan concept and get happily back to normal? Big league clubs are not like top golfers, tennis players, or race car drivers, free-floating and homeless. They are closely identified with their cities or metropolitan regions and they perform in a grand edifice, a home ballpark, that adorns both city and team—a proud, emphatic monument of the symbiosis of the two. This is more true of ballparks than it is of even NFL stadiums and NBA arenas, as beloved as football and basketball franchises may be in a town. Here in Baltimore, for example, Oriole Park at Camden Yards is far more a point of civic pride, and renowned as a jewel of the city’s comeback, than the adjacent M&T Bank Stadium, the Ravens’ well-designed but (like football stadiums everywhere) largely utilitarian home. What could make MLB consider permanently shifting games from beloved bastions like Oriole Park, Wrigley Field, and Dodger Stadium to centralized, neutral sites? Would it risk squandering the success, tradition, and fan loyalty that it has built during a century and a half of keeping The Show inside great urban temples of the cult of the home team and home town?

It just might.

The whole issue turns on one question: how serious is MLB about going global?


Baseball’s leaders have talked the global talk for some time now, especially since Rob Manfred became commissioner in 2015. Action has begun to pick up as well. The Red Sox and Yankees faced off in London in June 2019 in the first two games (discounting exhibitions) ever played by American professional ball clubs in Europe, an event that MLB senior vice-president Jim Small called a “lightning bolt” for internationalizing the big league game. [1] That series was one of four in which NL and AL teams appeared in stadiums abroad—in Tokyo and Monterrey as well as London—during the 2019 season. All told, eight games were played outside of the U.S. and Canada, more than in the previous 10 seasons combined. Meanwhile, with much fanfare, MLB has established a network of academies in China and has laid plans for similar outreach in India, where cricket skills abound and—such is the hope—could be readily adapted for the diamond. The idea of an international draft also has strong support among baseball executives, including Manfred, and may be implemented as early as 2021.

As impressive as all this sounds, MLB has been candid about the limited scope of its international aspirations. They are entirely about marketing to foreign audiences an American sport played in America, not about expanding the major leagues across the oceans and admitting franchises worldwide. MLB has academies in China in hopes that a few baseball versions of Yao Ming will come play in St Louis or Seattle or Philadelphia and be watched devotedly on television by millions of Chinese, some of whom will also buy team hats and jerseys. Another new revenue stream, not a true global game, is the not-so-gaudy ring that Manfred and his brain trust aim to snare.

You can be sure that they didn’t lower their sights this way because they wanted to. MLB leadership knows that the potential of foreign lands as fan incubators and cash cows will never get beyond certain modest thresholds as long as those countries have no ball clubs of their own in the big league mix. Several nations could, without a doubt, support such teams. The talent, the experience, the popular enthusiasm, the infrastructure, and the knowledgeable media are already available—not in the places, like China and Europe, that are MLB’s missionary territory, but in countries where the religion of baseball is well established, with deep, durable roots. In the Far East, that means Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and to a lesser extent Australia and the Philippines. In Latin America, baseball is as much at home as it is in the U.S., and the superb talent level needs no more proof than the sounds of Spanish coming out of every major league locker room and the heavy presence of Latin Americans throughout the 30 organizations, from rookie league up. On Opening Day 2019, big league rosters included 102 players from the Dominican Republic, 68 from Venezuela, and 19 from Cuba, to name the top three countries of origin of players not born in the U.S. [2] Little Curacao, with a population of just 161,000 (about the size of Chattanooga or Vancouver), has averaged close to four players in the major leagues every year since 2000, meaning that during that span there have been, per capita, more than eight times as many Curacaoans as Americans in the bigs. [3]

Nor is politics the sticking point to overseas expansion. Politics may present hurdles in certain countries, but American business has almost always found a way to penetrate foreign markets when the economic incentives are sweet enough, regardless of frictions between governments. Cuba is the stark exception because of the economic embargo that was first placed on the regime of (mythical but, sadly, not real major league pitching prospect) Fidel Castro way back in 1960. The bad apple that is Cuban-U.S. relations, however, should hardly spoil things for the whole world, even if the Trump Administration’s neo-Cold War measures against Havana, along with its jingoistic policies towards other Latin American countries, are not soon reversed by a different President.

The real obstacle to a global MLB is the one erected by a far more formidable power than the U.S. Government: the laws of physics. The planet is a big place, too big for any future worldwide MLB if it is going to operate like the existing one. In the 1950s, it was the advent of reliable, routine passenger air travel that allowed the major leagues to establish a presence beyond the eastern third of the continental United States. No longer constrained by railroad timetables, franchises could realistically move to cities as remote from the eastern seaboard as San Francisco and Los Angeles, and in all the territory in between. The airliners that whisk teams from series to series today may make the prop-planes that carried Ted Williams and Duke Snyder and Alvin Dark look quaint, but the difference is minor for purposes of the sport’s practical boundaries. The three time zones that separate the West Coast ball clubs from their competitors in the metropolises of the East are still the limit to what the ingenuity of traveling secretaries and the biological clocks of players can accommodate. Unless and until teleportation becomes a reality, the idea of major league clubs routinely bouncing back and forth between North America and distant continents will remain sci-fi.

So why bounce around? At some point, it is sure to dawn on the Lords of Baseball that the Arizona Plan, or something very much like it, offers the solution that technology cannot. Ball clubs from Boston and Washington, Caracas and Mexico City, Yokohama and Seoul can all compete in a unitary, worldwide MLB if they play at a cluster of venues at a single neutral location or, better, at a few such locations.

This approach need not and assuredly would not spell the end of home field games, a prospect that would get a hail of rotten eggs from fans (including me) and horrify the affected cities. Current major league ballparks would not become white elephants, forlornly awaiting the wrecking ball. They would be key components in a system that also includes the neutral sites. The imaginations and creativity of people savvy about the business and logistics of baseball can devise all manner of options for organizing leagues and devising season schedules around such a system. Perhaps, in addition to the National and American Leagues, MLB would include a Pacific Rim and a Latin American League. Interleague play could occur at the neutral sites for two fixed periods during the season, maybe 3 weeks each, totaling a quarter of the schedule. All other play would be at home ballparks, no different than today.

This system would require momentous changes affecting everyone associated with baseball, the most conservative of the major sports and not one that readily sacrifices old habits and traditions. It would not, however, amount to a lopsided swap of so much that is tried and true for the single desideratum of global play. For the 30 existing ball clubs and their backers, there would be any number of advantages as compared with MLB’s current structure and schedule. The neutral locations would be meccas for vacationers who love baseball, much as spring training’s Cactus and Grapefruit League sites are now, only far more so. Aggregate gate revenue, which is more important in baseball than in pro football and basketball, would probably go up despite each team’s loss of about 20 home dates. Division of the total gate for the neutral locations could be made equal for all clubs, helping address the competitive imbalance problem caused by disparate revenue and payrolls. Overall team travel would be reduced, a blessing for players and a savings for franchises. Players would enjoy two extended periods during the long season when they could stay put and recharge. In many cases, their families would be able to join them. Umpires, league officials, scouts, media members, and other personnel would also spend less time in airports and more at game sites. The 30 teams’ carbon footprint would shrink significantly.


Is all this kooky talk? Haven’t MLB’s leaders already demonstrated that they are content to keep their investment in global competition confined to the pale imitation of soccer’s World Cup called the World Baseball Classic—a foundling that came their way when the Olympics dropped baseball? Are they really going to change their attitude now of all times, when globalism is fraying and international institutions are battered by isolationism, protectionism, and nativism? I’m not here to predict that they will, or advocate that they do. (Personally, I’m more interested in seeing MLB take certain steps backwards, not forward, as I’ve written before. [4] )But it’s well to remember that innovations, once dreamed up, have a way of planting seeds in the minds of baseball executives that come to fruition down the road, in new and altered circumstances. Such was the destiny, for example, of early, discarded proposals for domed stadiums, the designated hitter, and interleague play.

If the concept behind the Arizona Plan does have a post-pandemic future, it might unfold along the lines that I’ve outlined above, but it might do so in some entirely different way—one that might have nothing to do with global baseball. A group of cities in the U.S. and Canada that have tried and failed to land major league franchises—places like Buffalo, Oklahoma City, Charlotte, Montreal, Nashville, and Portland—might decide to establish their own league, the first attempt to challenge the AL and NL since the Continental League was organized in 1959. Rather than asking taxpayers to sink hundreds of millions of dollars into new ballparks and related infrastructure upgrades in each home town, the clubs might remember the Arizona Plan’s concept and agree to play their games at one location with multiple venues as the rebel league gets off the ground. Striking out on their own and relying on television and baseball tourism, they would be spared MLB’s old tactic of bait and switch with supplicant cities just wanting to play ball.

George Angell, May 2020

[1] Small’s remark is noted in Carol Rogers Walton, “MLB Sets Sights On New Markets In India, Europe,” Baseball America, 2 May 2019, https://www.baseballamerica.com/stories/mlb-sets-sights-on-new-markets-in-india-europe/

[2] The statistics are available in “2019 Opening Day Rosters Feature 251 Internationally-Born Players,” https://www.mister-baseball.com/2019-mlb-opening-day-rosters-feature-251-internationallyborn-players/.

[3] See Federico Anzil, “Chart of the Week: The Rise of Latinos in Major League Baseball,” https://visme.co/blog/mlb-demographics/.

[4] See “Sorry, the Summer Game Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” https://georgeisgettingupset.com/2020/02/20/sorry-the-summer-game-doesnt-live-here-anymore/.

Want to Save the Humanities? Bring out the Skulls

The Covid-19 crisis is a chicken with its head off, bounding its crazy path to who knows where.  For now, the experts aren’t willing to venture predictions about very much, including how long the disease will rage, what its mortality profile will turn out to be, whether warmer temperatures will stop it in its tracks, how robust the immunity of survivors is, and which drug or therapeutic technique is likely to defeat it.  The unknowns pile up, dwarfing the knowns.  This imbalance will change, balancing out and then tilting the other way, towards a fuller understanding of the virus.  The toolbox of countermeasures will fill up, in no small part because of one thing that we actually can confidently predict about the pandemic.  It is sure to give a powerful impetus to the relevant hard sciences in the form of massive new funding and expanded programs, including at research universities and other institutions of higher learning.  That much, at least, is a silver lining.

To some, though, the silver lining has its own dark cloud.  I’m talking about people professionally involved in the humanities, which are already losing—and losing badly—the competition with the sciences for resources and enrollment.  Will the coronavirus catastrophe only accelerate the ongoing strangulation of academic fields like literature, language, history, music, philosophy, theater, and art?   It’s tough to conclude otherwise.  A dean speaking truth to the scholars who teach and do research in the arts and letters would say this:

“Don’t kid yourselves.  The rear-guard action you’ve been fighting to save the humanities just got harder.  After the terror of the pandemic, do you expect the public to be in any mood to keep bankrolling, to the detriment of STEM budgets, your fields of endeavor—academic disciplines whose value and utility you yourselves have so much trouble articulating?  Think again.”

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A few years ago, I attended a party where I spent a few minutes talking with two academics.  Both were tenured at major universities, one a neurobiologist and one an historian of classical antiquity.  They didn’t know each other, but they hit it off immediately.  The scientist asked the historian about the subjects of his research and was impressed by what he heard.  Still, he was puzzled about something.  He asked, quite guilelessly, what the end-purpose of the historian’s highly specialized findings and writings was.  What was it leading to?  Without hesitating, the historian responded that his work was completely useless and that only two or three people in the world—people who had the same arcane interests he had— would ever read what he had written.  He simply loved what he did; that was enough.  He gave the impression that he saw his research less as a contribution to the Halls of Learning than as a personal hobby requiring special expertise and offering him pleasure and intellectual stimulation.

I wasn’t sure that the historian really had as nihilistic (from the standpoint of his profession) an attitude as he had expressed.  All three of us had put away a few drinks and he may simply not have been ready for a heavy conversation about the higher value of his down-in-the-weeds historical research.  Still, he spoke with apparent conviction and he has never been one to mince words in the interest of being agreeable or conforming with expectations.  I’ve always admired that in him and I admired it on this occasion too.  My sense was that he had given an honest response to a question that professors in the humanities aren’t in the habit of answering so candidly.

Consider a dissertation recently undertaken at Yale.  I’ve picked it more or less out of a hat from a long  listing of dissertations on the website of the Society of Classical Studies. The title:

The Impact of the Emerging Renaissance Thucydides on Machiavelli’s “Istorie Fiorentine”

The “Emerging Renaissance Thucydides” would refer to the writings of the 5th Century BC Greek historian Thucydides as rediscovered in the Renaissance.  The doctoral candidate examines the influence of these ancient writings on Machiavelli’s Florentine Histories, published posthumously in 1532.   Is the topic a pretty stiff drink of erudition—a heady cocktail of esoteric ingredients?   Yes.  More so than the typical dissertation topic in the humanities at Yale and similar research universities?  No.  As someone who learned Ancient Greek and avidly read Thucydides in my university days, and whose heart goes pitter patter over all things Renaissance humanism, I understand the candidate’s excitement about this line of research, no matter how little practical benefit it has towards ameliorating poverty, unemployment, disease, climate catastrophe, population displacement, war, hunger, and all the other galloping evils of our tortured early 21st Century world.  But excitement is no substitute for demand.  Where is the demand for rarefied research like this in a society as dangerously stressed as ours?  If there is none, how can we afford to spend precious educational funding on it and to squander some of our brightest young minds on its pursuit?

People in the humanities have a variety of answers.  Many of them boil down to the assertion that advancing human knowledge is a profound good in and of itself, and that this is what the academic custodians of the arts and letters are doing.  They maintain that they are not responsible for aligning their quest for knowledge with humankind’s pressing practical needs of the day, nor should they be.  Any attempt to make them do so would jeopardize their objectivity and independence as scholars.  Their mission is pure: it is to satisfy through diligent research the driving curiosity, the insatiable impulse to know, that is innate to us as humans.  This is a compelling position and has been an effective line of defense for the humanities, a go-to means of preservation.  It casts skeptics as philistines unworthy of the Academy, especially the number crunchers and bean counters in university administration and their overseers on boards of trustees and in state legislatures.  It stymies the naysayers with its airtight, all-purpose rationale for research.  “Knowledge is good” is so funny as the motto of Faber College because who can argue with it?

The trouble is that the people in charge aren’t bothering to argue with it anymore.  Rationales, sound or sophistic, aren’t getting it done for the humanities, whose disciplines are subjected to appalling budgetary buzz cuts in one U.S. college and university after another.   Many a foreign language department has been scrapped altogether, to name an area of study that has been hit particularly hard.  History, English, Music, Theater, Philosophy, and Religious Studies are among the others that are losing ground.  Knowledge may be good, but some knowledge—like bioengineering and information technology—is decidedly better than others in the estimation of administrators and the wider world.

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To judge from the trending themes of contemporary research and curricula, a gathering consensus exists in academia that the humanities can be reinvigorated and get the relevancy groove back by riding important currents in our culture and national life.  This approach can take various forms, one being to link the venerable disciplines of the humanities to contemporary mass culture.  Cult television shows are a favorite tool.  At Georgetown, students could enroll in a course called “Philosophy and Star Trek”; at Indiana State, it was “Philosophy in The Twilight Zone”; at Berkeley, “The Simpsons and Philosophy.”  Courses like these do what they can to give the musty, off-putting canon of books and Great Ideas a comforting familiarity.  The heart of the effort to court the Zeitgeist, however, is the adoption of a new values agenda filling the vacuum left when the old one—the one that saw the mission of the humanities as the preservation and promulgation of “Western” or “Judeo-Christian” values—gradually faded in the second half of the 20th Century.  Now, the symbiosis is between the humanities and progressive values, first and foremost  justice for women, people of color, and others who have drawn the short straw historically.  Job One is breaking the grip of the Patriarchy (to trot out the handy term) on mind, morals, and the historical record, using the available tools: books, scholarly journals, professional papers, theses, and social media, as well as classroom lectures and the blood-sport of faculty appointment and tenure decisions.

At its best, this movement is doing to countless research topics across the humanities what the outpouring of writing about Sally Hemings has done in recent years to the study of Thomas Jefferson (over the lame objections of some hagiographers) and the world he and his slave mistress inhabited.  Whether we’re talking about the United States in Jefferson’s era, Elizabethan England, pre-Islamic Persia, Imperial Rome, or Old Kingdom Egypt, the roles and achievements of women, people of color, LGBQT people, and others ghosted by earlier scholarship are winning recognition, while assessments of the institutions that held them down, and some of the iconic men who thrived under the wing of those institutions, are becoming more austere.

Granted, this revolution in the Academy isn’t always at its best.  Many a university humanities faculty is roiled from within by those who, in their colleagues’ eyes, put their own progressive cred above all else and get out over their skis in terms of what is considered serious scholarship.  To their fellow faculty members in, say, a Religious Studies or Romance Languages or Classics department, they can sometimes seem like peevish disrupters who want to throw overboard core elements of the curriculum or, if some of it has to be taught and written about, to do so in overheated polemical language.

This fractiousness may simply be (we can hope) growing pains—a transitional phase as the humanities slough off their old bigoted and sexist skin.  All the unseemly dramas that these squabbles occasion within the Academy are, really, an unfortunate distraction from what should be the main question, namely, whether the professorate’s embrace of more inclusive forms of historiography and pedagogy will give the humanities the boost they badly need.

Certainly, some students will jump at the chance to concentrate as undergraduates on humanities curricula of a new, less male- and Euro-centric character.  Especially encouraging, in terms of enrollment potential, is the enhanced appeal of the humanities for women, who are a growing majority in American undergraduate populations.  Some of them will choose majors and even go on to do graduate work to shine a light on neglected aspects of the history of women in this or that epoch or culture.  They’ll follow in the footsteps of doctoral candidates who, in the last decade, have been busy writing dissertations on subjects like this: Spaces of Salvation in Sixth-Century Arles: The Women’s Monastery as Household and Family  (Catholic University,  2019).  Or this:  Dispersed, but not Destroyed: Leadership, Women, and Power within the Wendat Diaspora, 1600-1701 (Ohio State University, 2011).  The expanse of unexplored areas for research is vast.   Surely an army of college women will sign on to learn from their humanities professors how to wield the swift sword of specialized historiography in the cause of womanhood and gender equity.

Stop it. They’ll do no such thing.

Clear and present evils are crowding in on the generation headed to college now and for the foreseeable future—evils that the Trump Presidency has fed and fattened.  The pandemic has exposed in the cruelest way the nightmarish consequences of having a government-that-hates-government and the vulnerability of democratic institutions previously taken for granted.  Raw ethnic and racial hatred, out of fashion since the 1960s, is back up strutting on the runway, courtesy of MAGA.  Global temperatures rise, icecaps dissolve, ecosystems sicken.  Looking out at this wreckage, talented and ambitious young women will walk right on by the blackjack table called graduate school in the humanities and respond instead to different, stronger tugs.  Why not pursue studies in the hard sciences or social sciences towards a career in public health, genetic engineering, criminal justice, urban planning, green technologies, or any of the other arenas where, besides earning a livelihood, they can show their stuff as individual women and as members of the sisterhood, toppling the clueless Patriarchy in the here-and-now, not in some rewritten nook or corner of the past?  The same outlook applies, probably more so, to black, Hispanic, Native American, and other students, male as well as female, for whom the humanities are trying so hard to create a welcoming intellectual home.

So where does this leave the humanities professorate?  Hiding in the safe room called tenure, if they’re lucky enough to have it, and keeping fingers crossed that they can somehow navigate through to retirement before the bottom falls out?   That’s not what they want or their universities want.  The paying public wants it least of all.

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The Greek poet Archilochus wrote, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”   The humanities have one and only one hand to play.  It’s a very old one, long predating even the birth of our Republic.  If it doesn’t work anymore, nothing will—time to turn off the lights.

To get back to that straight-talking dean addressing the humanities faculty:

“Let me tell you what you’re going to do when we re-open.  You’re going to lose the defeatism.  Quit retreating and giving ground to the Business School and the Ag School and STEM and all the rest of them.  Advance.  Channel the beleaguered Marshal Foch.  J’attaque!  Or don’t you see what a unique opening you have as the Covid-19 casualty lists get longer and longer, what a stunning opportunity this season of angst and fear offers?

“Have you completely overlooked the motto chiseled on the front gate of the humanities? Memento mori.  Mortality, that is your writ.  That is what you’re in the classroom to teach.  Your profession’s fundamental purpose is to make these college students—kids with half a brain who aren’t all that eager to sign up for adulthood—do something hard, really hard. Make them peer into the dry well of non-existence. Nothingness. Scare the hell out of them.  Memento mori.  They won’t live forever and they have to come to terms with that reality if they’re going to lead fulfilling lives after graduation—lives not stalked by anxiety because death’s hollow eyes are locked on their every move, watching, waiting.

“Does the chemistry lab or the particle accelerator or the geology lecture do for them what a poem of John Donne’s or an aria of Verdi’s can—help them comprehend their mortality, look into its black shadows and maybe, just maybe, espy somewhere in that darkness an inextinguishable glow of immortality?  No.  The humanities do. You do. And you now have a spectacular multimedia resource to get their attention.  The coronavirus pandemic.”

You can bet that any dean who gave this speech would get a puzzled response from the professorate.  Blank stares from most.  Mortality?   Ancient motto?  Never got the memo.

They have to be reminded.  Bluntly.  Fast.  We can’t do without the humanities but time is running out.  Higher education has to act.  For starters, bring out the skulls and candles.  Change the name plate.  Not Humanities.  Death Studies.

George Angell, April 2020

The axe didn’t fall on Elizabeth Warren; quite the contrary

The wailing of mourners fills the air.   When Elizabeth Warren withdrew from the Democratic primary field on Thursday, the dream that a woman would present Donald Trump with a notice of eviction from the White House was snuffed out.  What a cup of karma that would have been for today’s misogynistic Republican Party to have had to choke down the morning after the election in November.  To be sure, church bells should still ring joyfully out across the land if Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders gives Trump the boot—I will happily climb to a belfry and pull the rope until my arms drop—but large numbers of Democratic women are bitterly disappointed that any 46th President of the United States to emerge from this 4-year cycle will be the 46th President with a…well, let’s say a Y chromosome.  It will not be Warren or Amy Klobuchar or Kamala Harris, to name just the three brightest stars of the original Democratic field’s women.  Lots of Democratic men, me included, also feel the ululating impulse.  The first woman nominee, Hillary Clinton, will not be properly avenged for the sordid, all-too-masculine nastiness that was devised for her in 2016 by right-wing operatives working hand-in-glove with the Russian secret services and its Wikipedia instruments.

So it’s to cheer myself up, as well as others of like mind, when I quote a Turkish proverb:  Bir vurmakla ağaç devrilmez.  “A tree isn’t toppled with one blow.”

Consider this.  Over the last four decades of presidential elections, a total of 63 credible candidates have been on the ballot in the Democratic primaries and caucuses.  Of these, 57 have been men while six have been women, as follows:  

1980: 6 men

1984: 9 men

1988: 7 men

1992: 9 men

1996: 3 men

2000: 3 men

2004: 8 men, 1 woman  (Carol Moseley Braun)

2008: 1 man, 1 woman  (Hillary Clinton)

2012: 1 man

2016: 2 men, 1 woman  (Hillary Clinton)

2020: 8 men, 3 women (Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Tulsi Gabbard)

Of the 57 men who have competed for the Democratic nomination, 46 have ended up in that most forlorn of places—before a microphone to acknowledge the end of the road to distraught supporters. It shouldn’t be forgotten, then, that the five losing women candidates (Clinton in 2016 being the sole winner) have plenty of male company in the harsh experience of defeat.  The women, moreover, have lost at a rate (83%) almost the same as that of the men (81%).

What is different, of course, is the tiny sample size for the women.  That is an appalling blot on our history as a democracy.  It is also changing, and changing swiftly.  Half of the six women who have run for the presidency since 1980 (and to all intents and purposes since the founding of the Republic) did so in the 2020 election cycle.  Two other women, Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillebrand, mounted major campaign efforts in the early going of the 2020 cycle but withdrew before the primaries; and a third, Marianne Williamson, took part in the early debates. No such phenomenon was seen in previous election years.

Warren’s unsuccessful run comes as a blow, yes, like those of Klobuchar, Harris, and the others.  It was a blow to the tree.  The tree will fall.

Sorry, the Summer Game Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

Major League Baseball’s spring training is upon us.   Sports journalists are loading up to pepper fans with predictions about the season—who will contend, who will flop, who will come out on top—and also with commentaries about the knotty issues facing MLB as an enterprise.  What should be done about competitive imbalance?  How severe should the sanctions be against clubs that use spy cameras and other high-tech dirty tricks?  Is the ball juiced?  Should imaging devices be introduced to help plate umps call balls and strikes?   Is the ban on PEDs working?  How can the games be shortened?  Are new steps needed for fan safety?  Important problems all.  None of them, however, should worry management, players, and fans as much as the demographic rot creeping into baseball’s very foundation, its allure as a spectator sport.   The game has a dwindling appeal to anyone who isn’t a man—more specifically, a Caucasian man— born in the middle decades of the 20th Century.  Old white guys—that’s the well-documented profile of today’s baseball fan.  Fewer and fewer Americans match it. 

Who put the National Pastime on what looks like a dead-end path?  And why?  The who is the franchise owners and the MLB executives working for them. Over the span of half a century, they have given the sport a succession of nips and tucks and full-on facelifts, producing some recognizability problems for a once stunningly beautiful game.  The why is more complicated, but the biggest share of the blame goes to an ironclad orthodoxy prevailing across multiple sports, one that is especially damaging to baseball. This orthodoxy calls for intensifying the spotlight on the postseason—and elongating it in the process—mainly so that the television rights to dramatic, high-stakes playoff contests will rain cash.  What no one wants to acknowledge is that this approach is only possible by leaching attention and interest from the regular season, the lifeblood of any sport.

For most of its history, baseball was “the summer game,”  the American spectator sport woven out of sunshine more than any other.   The nickname still fit reasonably well when the peerless Roger Angell borrowed it to be the title of the collection of baseball writings he published in 1972.  Not anymore.  Now, baseball is the game of a different part of the year—the part when frosts finish off gardens, raked-up yellow leaves do their square dances in chilly winds, bowls of hot soup make the perfect supper, maybe some early snowflakes fall from gray clouds.   Late October is what it’s all about, when the sun slips meekly out of sight at afternoon rush hour and darkness holds a controlling share of the sky and the mood.

The truth is that baseball no longer really has a regular season. What’s called the regular season is a drawn-out audition through the spring and summer.  At stake are roles in the actual performance, which is the postseason.   The postseason has warm-up acts—the wildcard games, division series, and league championship series—and then the top billing, the World Series.  The majority of ball clubs go home after the auditions, forgotten and irrelevant.  As the warm-up acts unfold, more clubs disappear, having achieved almost as much pointlessness as the first group.  Finally, two teams emerge, one from the National League’s playoffs and one from the American League’s, to square off for all the marbles.  Seven months of preliminaries are over at last.  The curtain can go up on the main attraction.  And it does, well into a fall evening.  The shivery gloom of a fall evening.

Looking for the summer game?   Sorry, says MLB.  The summer game doesn’t live here anymore.

This may sound like a strange way of talking about baseball today.  Is the game in 2020 really so different from what it was in the past—what it has been since its early days?  Hasn’t the regular season always been a lengthy, grueling qualifying trial for the right to go to the playoffs and compete for a championship?

Actually, just a few decades ago, the regular season was the league playoffs.  The outcome of the season’s 162 or (until 1961-62) 154 games directly determined the AL and NL champions.  Whoever stood at the top of the given league’s standings on the final day of the season was the pennant winner.  Period.  There was nothing preliminary about the games played in spring and summer; they were the sole vectors of triumph or failure.  Only in the event of a deadlock in the standings at the end of the regular season was it necessary to stage a short tie-breaker series, like the one whose abrupt conclusion almost everyone has heard a euphoric Russ Hodges declaim on the endlessly replayed radio clip—the impromptu playoff held in 1951 between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, decided in the third game’s ninth inning by Bobby Thompson’s home run off Ralph Branca.  “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!  The Giants win the pennant!”

That’s how things worked throughout the long period of structural stability enjoyed by the big leagues from the dawn of the 20th Century into the age of color television.  In 1900, following a shakeup, the National League fielded eight teams; it would grow no larger until 1962, when the addition of the New York Mets and the Houston Colt-45s (soon renamed the Astros) increased the league’s size to 10 teams.   The American League, newly created in 1901 with eight teams, also would not expand for six decades, first doing so in 1961, when the Los Angeles Angels and Minnesota Twins were brought into the fold. [1]  Once the leagues had gotten a taste of expansion and overcome their (ill-advised) inhibitions about admitting newcomers, they soon were ready for more.   MLB grew to 24 clubs in 1969, adding the Kansas City Royals and Seattle Pilots to the AL, and the San Diego Padres and Montreal Expos to the NL.  In conjunction with this expansion, MLB decided for the first time to, in effect, siphon off some of the magic from the regular season.  The NL and AL were each split into two divisions—East and West.  In both leagues, a best-of-five postseason playoff would pit the East winner against the West winner.  Which club had performed better during the regular season was immaterial; the pennant went to the playoff winner.   The World Series, which previously had been the entirety of the postseason, now had company—a set of league championship series.

I remember the novelty—and thrill—of watching those first East versus West playoffs on television in 1969.  A high school kid at the time, I saw the Baltimore Orioles sweep the Minnesota Twins to claim the AL pennant, and the New York (“Miracle”) Mets take out their own brooms against the Atlanta Braves for the NL flag.  Both the Orioles, with 109 regular season wins, and the Mets, with 100, had amassed the best records in their respective leagues, so in the inaugural year the new-fangled playoffs produced the same pennant winners as the old system would have done. This created a comforting illusion of continuity for those uneasy with the departure from tradition.    Traditionalist winds were, in any event, not the prevailing ones in American society in the Sixties, and the enlargement of the leagues, 50% bigger than a decade earlier, seemed to cry out for the introduction of divisions, which were already in place in other major sports.  Divisional play, with teams’ schedules weighted towards their own division competitors, kept rivalries stoked.  It also kept more clubs in the hunt further into the season.  The latter factor has been the one with the most tenacious hold on the sport and the people who run it.  The 1969 reorganization doubled postseason participation from two teams to four (a sixth of the 24 total ball clubs).  Half a century later, MLB gives 10 teams (a third of the 30 total) the all-important invitation to the now super-hyped October tournament.  The Commissioner has proposed a further expansion of the playoff field to 14 teams, through the addition of more wildcard participants.   The regular season’s final standings, already a seriously devalued currency, may soon be junk.

People who call themselves baseball “traditionalists” can be annoying, unbearably so when they gush about a supposed golden age of the sport, which they often place in the 1950s and 1960s. They have plenty of reasons to be wistful about those bygone days—Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Mickey Mantle, Juan Marichal, Frank Robinson, Sandy Koufax, to name a few—but the era also earned a good riddance.  Marvin Miller’s successful court battle against MLB concluded, in 1975, with the elimination of the predatory reserve clause, which had effectively made players the indentured servants of ownership.  Thus was born free agency, which all by itself ensured that, whatever baseball might become, it would never be the same again.  More changes have piled on through the late 20th and early 21stCenturies—in such areas as communications technology, sports and entertainment media, baseball analytics, sports medicine, training techniques, scouting and player evaluation, and ballpark architecture and amenities.   Most of this was all to the good, as even hidebound traditionalists would acknowledge. That said, MLB can and should look to the past for ideas that might be adapted to contemporary realities.   Restoring the lost glory of the regular season should be at the top of the list.

The fan base’s emotional investiture in the regular season is peculiarly important in baseball, with its marathon of a schedule.  Baseball isn’t the NFL, whose entire regular season consists of 16 game dates.   MLB club owners have each sunk their fortunes into a whopping 162-game opportunity to attract eyeballs and turn a profit, particularly during the 81-home-game half of the schedule.  The question is whether they should hold steady with the wager they’ve been making—namely,  that future fans will purchase seats and buy cable or internet packages to watch an interminable qualifying process for the true desideratum—the tournament in the fall.    Or is baseball’s ebbing popularity a sign that the time has come to consider a different bet?

MLB’s leaders would find it hair-raising, for sure, to contemplate reversing course and putting the old luster back on the regular season. You can’t sugarcoat the fact that any such move could only come at the expense of the postseason, a scary prospect for the clubs and all their financial backers.  If the playoffs are compressed, with fewer slots available, won’t more fans lose interest in the season sooner?   Imagine a postseason of the pre-1969 version—nothing but the World Series.   Wouldn’t fans in droves tune baseball out by mid-summer, or even earlier, as their teams fell out of contention?  Never mind that the entire postseason would be, at most, seven games long, in contrast to the maximum of 33 games under the current (cha-ching) arrangement.    Is it conceivable that such a throwback form of the baseball season would somehow work to the satisfaction of stakeholders?

Not long ago, was it conceivable that craft beers would come out of nowhere to claim a huge share of a market that had been monopolized by the big brewing companies for as long as anyone could remember?   In the 1990s, Microbreweries versus Anheuser-Busch wasn’t much of a title fight.  It was more like a (very short) animated flick—a remake of “Bambi versus Godzilla.”  But times have changed, tastes have changed.  In the beer industry, Godzilla is back on his heels, staggering and steadily losing sales.  The giant conglomerates are out of sync with the Zeitgeist.   America is a troubled, skeptical land in a troubled, skeptical world, and people aren’t so receptive to rah-rah, mostly-cow-bell (or Clydesdale jangle) pitches.  They want something more than the vapid suds of the past, something well-made, with a distinctive character to appreciate, indulge in, and savor in the moment—for tomorrow you may die in a mass shooting or a climate catastrophe. The trend, of course, isn’t confined to beer.   No matter where you turn in the realms of food and drink, leisure, and recreation—from artisanal bread, olive oil, and yogurt to hiking, biking, and yoga—“smell the roses” is the watchword of the times.  Why not “smell the peanuts and crackerjacks” too?   Why not re-imagine MLB so that fans can get back to enjoying an ordinary mid-season game—enjoying it for what it is at the micro level, nine innings of competition between teams of the top players in the world?  It’s only a game, yes, but is the entire baseball season and its outcome so different?  It’s only a season.

If evidence for the powerful draw of the individual game is needed, MLB need look no further than its own farm system affiliates.  Attendance at Minor League Baseball games has boomed; 41,504,077 fans passed through the gates in 2019, a 2.6 percent rise over 2018, continuing the years-long surge in interest.  In most cases, these fans are not buying tickets because of postseason hopes or dreams of a title, but because of their love of that incomparable experience, an ordinary game at the ballpark.

Paradoxically, the MLB postseason itself would benefit from its own diminution in one very big way.   The old majesty of the World Series would return.  Its freshness and immediacy as a unique celebration of baseball at season’s end would be back, and the trophy would be all the sweeter.   As things stand now, MLB’s postseason tournament goes on and on, far into the part of the calendar when football is closing in on sports watchers’ full attention.  By the time the tiers of the AL and NL playoffs have finally identified the pennant winners, all but the most hardcore baseball fans begin to feel that they’ve had their fill.  The World Series awaits like a third slice of cake.   Enough is enough.   No wonder, then, that television viewership for the Fall Classic is on a dismal trajectory.   All five of the least-watched World Series were in the last dozen years.  Among them were 2018 and 2019, when average viewership was 14.125 million and 13.912 million respectively.  Compare the five most-watched World Series, which occurred consecutively from 1978 though 1982, attracting an average viewership that ranged from a low of 37.96 million (1979) to a high of 44.279 million (1978).  League playoffs did exist during those years, but they remained on the (by today’s standards) miniature scale of 1969, a single 5-game series for the pennant.

MLB needs to finally recognize that it has a postseason addiction problem, one that (as the Commissioner’s latest proposal again demonstrates) seems to need an ever greater fix. The vicious cycle is slowly destroying the game. The good news is that the addiction can be kicked. It must be, if new and younger fans are to be snared by baseball’s old, matchless charms. About the regular season, MLB will find that, if you value it, they will come.

As a postscript for numbers junkies, here are the attendance figures of the 10-team American League for 1963, a sample year I’ve taken at random from the period immediately before the start of divisional play era.  The teams are listed in order of finish, with final standings noted.

Ball Club                       GB                    Average Attendance     Total Attendance for Season

New York Yankees         —                     16,260                         1,308,920

Chicago White Sox       10.5                 14,307                          1,158,848

Minnesota Twins          13                    17,474                          1,406,652

Baltimore Orioles         18.5                 9,560                               774,343

Detroit Tigers               25.5                 10,148                              821,952

Cleveland Indians         25.5                 6,945                               562,507

Boston Red Sox             28                    11,710                              942,642

Kansas City Athletics     31.5                 9,412                               762,364

Los Angeles Angels        34                    10,199                            821,015

Washington Senators    48.5                6,612                               535,604

                                                                                                      909,485 (AL Average)

Flash forward 56 years. Here are the attendance figures of the 15-team American League for 2019.    The five clubs that made the postseason—three division winners and two wildcard teams—are listed first, followed by the 10 that did not.  The specific division within which a club competed is not reflected, although the second column refers of course to the numbers of games back within the team’s division.

Ball Club                       GB                    Average Attendance     Total Attendance for Season

New York Yankees         —                     40,795                         3,304,404

Minnesota Twins          —                     28,323                          2,294,152

Houston Astros             —                     35,276                          2,857,367

Tampa Bay Rays (WC)    7                      14,552                         1,178,735

Oakland Athletics (WC)  10                  20,521                        1,662,211

Cleveland Indians         8.0                  21,465                         1,738,642

Boston Red Sox             19                    36,107                         2,924,627

Chicago White Sox        28.5                 20,622                        1,649,775

Texas Rangers               29                    26,333                         2,132,994

Los Angeles Angels        35                    37,272                         3,019,012

Toronto Blue Jays         36                    21,607                          1,750,144

Seattle Mariners           39                    22,122                          1,791,863

Kansas City Royals         42                  18,267                          1,479,659

Baltimore Orioles         49                    16,146                          1,307,807

Detroit Tigers               53.5                 18,536                          1,501,430

Any attempt to compare raw numbers between 1963 and 2019 would be fraught with distortions created by the different conditions of the two eras, especially 1) the 70% growth of the U.S. population, plus MLB’s expansion to take in a Canadian fan base, in the intervening years; and 2) the precipitous drop in the number of day games on weekdays over the last half century.    Certain patterns that emerge from the two sets of stats, however, are worth pointing out.

In 1963, only four of the league’s 10 ball clubs failed to draw at least 90 percent (818,537) of the AL average total attendance (909,485). This was so even though the Yankees ran away with the pennant, outpacing their closest competitor, the White Sox, by 10 ½ games.  Most teams were effectively out of the race quite early, yet fans showed up in solid numbers. In fact, the Twins, who finished 13 games back, actually had a larger gate than New York.   Things were different in 2019, when nine of the AL’s 15 clubs fell short of the 90 percent (1,835,569) mark in average total attendance (2,039,521).  The shimmering mirage of the postseason, with its wildcard possibilities, failed to draw the kind of turnout up and down the standings that had been seen 56 years earlier.

Also instructive is the ratio between the pennant winner’s turnout and the median turnout for the entire AL.   In 1963, New York’s (average) game attendance was 16,260 or 1.59 times larger than the league’s median figure of 10,173.  In 2019, the Yankees’ (average) game attendance was 40,795 or 1.93 times larger than the league’s median of 21,044.

Greater parity in attendance (1963) is a sign of a more diverse and durable fan base; less parity (2019) is the opposite.

Endnote

[1]   Before these expansions, several franchises had relocated in the postwar years, beginning with the move of the NL’s Boston Braves to Milwaukee (1953) and AL’s St Louis Browns to Baltimore (1954), but these moves did not affect the size of either league.  Technically, the Twins came into existence in 1961 through the relocation of the Washington Senators to Minneapolis, not expansion.   A new, expansion Washington Senators franchise began play in the AL that same season.

George Angell, February 2020

New Motto for The Hill School

Lamar Alexander has demonstrated the GOP’s no-nonsense commitment to fighting grade inflation.   He has given D. Trump’s performance a scorching “Inappropriate.”   Susan Collins may even go as severely old school as to assign a mark of “Needs Improvement.”  “Coming Along Nicely” Lisa Murkowski will then annotate ambiguously on the permanent record, to avoid unpleasant litigation.  “Not in Latin,” Mitt Romney will append grumpily.   But Headmaster McConnell will see to it that the pupil is not required to repeat Quid Pro Quo class.

The only remaining order of business will be to officially change the school’s motto to Stop Snitchin’.

George Angell, 31 January 2020

Putting in a Good Word for the Royals

Royalty may just be a good thing to have around, as silly as it is.   That’s the conclusion I’ve reached as I’ve watched the avalanche of media coverage rolling down the magic mountain that is the British Monarchy the last couple of weeks.  Harry and Meghan took their abrupt leave of the royal family and its prerogatives, with no advance notice to the Crown.  To some in the UK establishment, Harry is a selfish brat whose only fitting title is persona non grata; his wife isn’t even persona but simply one of those subhumans called “commoners of color.”  And look at the appalling commotion they’ve caused!  When they said “see ya” to Windsor World, they set off a great, fantastic carnival of reporting, gasping, snickering, tsk-tsking, photo-snapping, auspice-reading, finger-pointing, parodying, and psychoanalyzing, all topped off with Buckingham Palace’s official statements, which fell somewhere between grumpy blessings and soft-core fatwas.  A pageant of the absurd.

Surely every nation worthy of the name has a healthy enjoyment of the absurd.  The British lead the pack; they are the world’s foremost devotees and curators of the weird and the whacko.  Think Monty Python, Mr. Bean, and Dr Strangelove. Think the slightly deranged headlines of the tabloids.  Think the willfully peculiar place names (or maybe you haven’t been to Great Snoring, Crackpot, Catbrain, Bitchfield, or Titty Ho?).   In the realm of national political life, absurdity has had its way with the UK often enough—never more so than in the painfully ridiculous drama of the present day (Brexit), enacted under spectacularly buffoonish direction (Theresa May and Boris Johnson).  Yet the Brits maintain a reputation as a dignified and sober people, certainly more so than we do on this side of the Atlantic.

A big reason for this, I believe, is the Monarchy.  Not its grandeur but its absurdity.  Remember that the Royals, up to their booted knees (or, more to the point, their sporran-dangling midsections) in scandal and libidinal liberties, are not professional entertainers like the cast of The Office.  They are the representatives and living personifications of the nation.  The Queen, not the Prime Minister, is the head of state.  Her image, the imprimatur of the Crown, and other expressions of royal primacy are everywhere—on currency, on post boxes and stamps, on the names and signage and letterhead of every public institution and office, in the rituals of government, in the ancient acts of physical self-abasement in Her Majesty’s presence, in the very oaths of loyalty taken by members of the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force, and the other services requiring members to put their lives on the line.

The upshot is that the Royals have a special status in all things, including their prominent function as bumbling laughingstocks, charlatans, and cut-ups.   In this role, too, they enjoy a kind of official sanction—they stand apart, at the top of the caste system of clownish reprobates and extra-marital canoodlers.  Beneath them, all others engaged in similar sneakiness and hypocrisy, notably top politicians pulling capers, look déclassé by contrast.  A Prince with a wife and children can have his Camilla on the side and even be outed as her aspiring sanitary napkin, yet suffer only some raucous ribbing from the comics.   Mere cabinet members and other MPs and public figures, the hoi polloi of bad deportment, are in for rougher treatment and have a lower survival rate.  They just come off looking mean and ugly even if they do sometimes manage to navigate a scandal’s grungy waters without falling in and vanishing (as BoJo was able to put the affair with Petronella Wyatt in the rear-view mirror and, so far, subsequent shenanigans as well).     It isn’t too much to say that, when it comes to the British population’s need to be kept agog and amused at the sins of the mighty, the Royals possess a noblesse oblige that other delinquents can only dream of.

I am an American and a committed believer in our republican form of government.  I won’t deny, though, feeling some envy at this special advantage the British enjoy with their Monarchy.  Over there, the Royals hold the license on sleaze and dopiness; everyone else is a poacher and is regarded as such by the great mass of people, helping to curb such things outside the Palace.  That dynamic looks awfully appealing in America’s current polluted ethical environment, brought to us by the Trump administration.   If Trump, who has none of the intelligence—much less education—of even mediocre British political leaders, had entered politics in the UK, he would not have lasted a single news cycle.    As a non-Royal, his egregiously stupid, crude, and absurd way of conducting himself would have landed him in the political obituary section before he could say “covfefe,” “my generals,” or “bad hombres.”  And that obit would have pulled no punches in the interest of being “fair and balanced.”  

George Angell, January 2020

Nietzsche and the Architects

Maybe you read Nietzsche in your student days, when you were still wide open to new ways of seeing existence. Maybe you did a double-take when you ran into eternal return, his marquis idea. It isn’t a winner with most readers. Understandably so. There is something that makes your skin crawl about the prospect of living your life over and over in an infinite loop, the same life you’re now living, down to the minutest particulars, including the times you screamed through kidney stones or lay lonely and depressed after a breakup, a bankruptcy, or a death. How could Nietzsche, who had more than his share of misery in his sickly and solitary life, have embraced eternal return so euphorically?

Eternal return is stripped of its dreadfulness if you recognize one thing about it. It isn’t real. It can’t be real, taken on its own terms. Go ahead and suppose the universe—everything—does circle back on itself at some future time with complete, lockdown precision, such that the tolerance for novelty and variation is nil. The cycle ushers us, too, with all our frailties and foolishness, back into existence, continuing a pattern of recurrence that will never end. In simple terms, a perfect repetition has occurred.

Any repetition has two elements, sameness and difference. You went to the pretzel stand on Monday and you went again on Thursday. Hummingbirds hovered at your patio’s salvia plants this year just as they did last year. The same thing occurred but at a different time. Time is always the difference in a repetition. Presiding autonomously over our lives, marking them off the way a clock on the sidelines does the action of a soccer match, Time makes repetitions possible. Where the universe is concerned, however, there is no Time presiding on the sidelines. There can’t be because there are no sidelines! Time is real, yes, in the swirl of the cosmos, but it is not separate and sovereign; it is a thread woven into the universe’s fabric along with all the other threads. It is as much a component of the universe as the Milky Way or Galaxy GN-z11, and as subject to the universe’s destiny. The universe cannot come back “at a later time.” Nor can your life with it.

So you have nothing to worry about. You are not trapped in a never-ending loop. You cannot step twice into the same episode of kidney stones. Nietzsche almost certainly understood this and was pulling our legs with “eternal return.” He was like architects who use illusion to create a powerful effect for aesthetic purposes. Nietzsche had his own purposes and felt they were important enough to justify presenting something that he knew was an illusion as the truth.

George Angell, January 2020