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Baseball Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used to Be

Kids today, they just don’t reminisce about baseball the way they used to. In my day, you walked to school wearing nothing but vague, sentimental longing for baseball’s golden age—both ways! Ah, nostalgia was so much purer then, and simpler. Don’t you just miss that old-time baseball nostalgia?

Case in point: Derek Jeter. This past season, the media machine known as Major League Baseball gave the retiring Yankee shortstop the most hyped farewell tour in baseball history, showering him with adulation, gifts, speeches and ovations everywhere he went. And that’s nothing compared with the wardrobe stunt the Yankees pulled. For the last month of the regular season, the New York club adorned their shirts and caps with commemorative Derek Jeter tribute patches (Jeter was adorned, too). This practice is usually reserved for—let’s put it in euphemistic baseball terms—inactive players: Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Earl Weaver, Stan Musial and others who have bit the ballpark dust. Keith Olbermann called it “creepier than hell,” and rightly so.

Why the premature eulogizing? This nostalgia for still-active players was designed to make fans forget about the steroid era. As revelations about performance-enhancing drugs rolled out by the rosterful in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Major League Baseball began force-feeding fans a synthetic nostalgia for the clean players still in the game. One of these planned legends was Jeter. Another was Mariano Rivera. A third, at one time, was Alex Rodriguez. (We know how that turned out.) With a conspicuous lack of modern-era

reps in baseball’s sacred pantheon, Jeter’s lionization was amplified, expedited and in many ways contrived.

Not to say he didn’t deserve the tributes and ovations bestowed upon him. You just have to see it for what it is: exploitation of an aging star. Jeter means more to baseball in monument than in the lineup. Why, I still remember those good old days when we would allow a player to put a period at the end of his career, even let a suspenseful ellipsis build up, before rapturing him up to baseball heaven.

Let’s take a brief look at the history of baseball nostalgia. Baseball was hardly out of the womb when, in 1856, a journalist for the New York Mercury first called it America’s “national pastime.” Soon, the idea that baseball had a simple and pure past seeped into the nation’s collective subconscious. In 1868 a sentimental and possibly confused fan grumbled, “Somehow or other they don’t play ball now as they used to…with the same kinds of feeling or for the same object.” By 1915 the groan had become, “The sordid element of baseball as a business has cast a shadow over the sport. Players make too much money and become spoiled.” Lawrence Ritter hit the ball on the screws when he wrote, “The strongest thing that baseball has going for it today are its yesterdays.” And he said that half a century ago.

Is this intense nostalgia specific to baseball? Sure it is. Baseball is part of American folklore, the only sport whose ultimate purpose is to remind us of our past. By contrast, basketball and football are forward-looking sports geared toward the next generation of superstars—hence ESPN’s coverage of college games and live coverage of both drafts. (Who follows college baseball?) When commentators invoke yesterday’s NBA and NFL

greats, it’s usually for purpose of comparison: “I’m telling you, this kid’s the next Jordan!” No one dares proclaim the next Ruth or Gehrig—that would be like proclaiming the next God. Baseball’s past is behind glass: Look but don’t touch.

Nostalgia is part of our national psyche and selective memory. The essence of every generation is to idealize the past—the MLB and its media machinery just help it along. You watch, A-Rod’s reinstatement next season will be spun out as a classic redemption tale, the prodigal son returning, now chastened and wise. The game itself, which has always been there, is secondary. America’s pastime isn’t baseball; it’s nostalgia. And I

miss the way it used to be.

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