Baseball: It's good for what ails us
Well, it’s supposed to be spring, but when I woke up this morning it was 19 degrees and there was ice on the forsythia. Flint’s water is still unsafe to drink, and Donald Trump is still the likely winner of the Republican presidential nomination.
There was the cheerful announcement that the federal government is giving our state $75 million that’s supposed to be used to help homeowners struggling with their mortgages. But instead, the state is going to use that money to tear down abandoned homes in Detroit and Flint.
This is seen as good news. But for a few ragged, delusional optimists, none of that matters very much, because yesterday was Opening Day of the baseball season. Hope springs eternal, and the reconditioned and revamped Detroit Tigers play the hated New York Yankees at Detroit's home opener Friday.
Now, don’t become alarmed; I am not about to try to compete with Michigan Radio’s sports analyst, John U. Bacon. He really knows sports. I know that basketball is played by extremely tall men in what looks like their underwear, and football is played by people who will eventually have closed head injuries. I have succeeded for years in not seeing any of their games.
Baseball is different, however. The phrase has become a cliché, but the French-American historian Jacques Barzun really did say
“Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball,”
and that is somehow oddly true.
The game reflects American society and psychology imperfectly, but in some uncanny ways. Exactly half a century ago, the Detroit Tigers opened their season in New York against the Yankees, and I was a baseball-mad 14-year-old boy who listened to the entire game instead of doing my algebra. I still remember that the Tigers won, 2 to 1.
They won their first six in a row that year, but eventually collapsed, in part because they had not one but two managers who got sick and died before the year ended.
That was a very different world. It was a year when the Tigers’ greatest star, Al Kaline, refused a raise to a $100,000 a year because he didn’t think he deserved it.
That’s about $730,000 in 2016 money. Now, Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers’ equivalent star, makes about $76,000 a day, or $28 million a year.
There are 30 teams instead of 20 and the seasons sometimes last into November. Yet while there are a lot more distractions and we live in a faster-paced world, nearly three times as many people pay to attend major league baseball games as did half a century ago.
I don’t know what this says about us as a society, except that maybe, just maybe, baseball still unites the generations. We haven’t been very good at preserving our heritage in Detroit. The plant that pumped out millions of Model Ts is a hulking, abandoned building. They tore down the stadium where Kaline and Cobb and Ruth and Gehrig played.
But this week aging baby boomers and millennials will start to hope that this year’s version of Tigers 2.0 will go forth and win the World Series.
If they do, it won’t do a thing to solve the problems we all face.
But the truth is, I hope that too.
Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's senior news analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.