Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

The worse it gets, the more I need baseball. The worse what gets? Well, what have you got? Watched the evening news lately? Some days, the promise of a three-hour break from what novelist Philip Roth called “the indigenous American berserk” draws me like a fountain in the desert.

Roth, of course, was a great baseball fan. He even wrote a 1973 book called “The Great American Novel”—a ribald saga about a New Jersey minor league team whose owner rented the stadium to the War Department, forcing his team to play the entire season on the road. If not Roth’s best, it has moments of antic hilarity. He told an interviewer that he had more fun writing it than any of his other novels.

When I was a kid, baseball was unquestionably the most important American sport. Nothing else came close. Debating the relative merits of Mickey Mantle, Duke Snider and Willie Mays—Hall of Fame center-fielders for the three New York teams—consumed much of my youth.

In my neighborhood, which team you supported was a more reliable indicator of personal identity than race or religion. We didn’t know from politics, but we all knew Monte Irvin. (My dad played semi-pro ball with Irvin, and he never quit talking about it.)

We also played baseball every day in warm weather. Also wiffle ball, stick ball, stoop ball, etc. To be a boy back then was to play baseball. You didn’t have to be an all-star, but you did have to know the game. Somebody said they didn’t understand the Infield Fly Rule, what they were telling you was they basically didn’t understand anything.

These days, not so much. Indeed, a whole genre of “baseball is doomed” articles appear regularly in the sporting press. The latest is called “Why No One Watches Baseball Anymore” by Dave Zirin, sportswriter for The Nation. I know what you’re thinking: The Nation has a sportswriter? Along with all those articles about “the inspiring energy of progressives?” Yeah, and a lively, provocative sportswriter at that, if a bit dogmatic for my taste.

There’s no doubt that major league baseball is less central to American culture than it once was. But then no one sport is anymore. Zirin cites polls showing that only nine percent of Americans call baseball their favorite—the lowest since Gallup started asking. In Monte Irvin’s heyday, it was in the 30s.

When the Pirates’ Bill Mazeroski hit a walkoff home run to win the 1960 World Series, so many kids were covertly listening on transistor radios that a subdued roar went up in my high school. That wouldn’t happen today. World Series games are played at night, and young people pretty much aren’t into it. Gallup says only six percent of Americans under 34 favor baseball.

Eleven percent favor basketball and soccer.

I love basketball too; soccer sometimes. Football only intermittently. Here in SEC country, the local team plays a dozen games—three they can’t lose, three they never win, and six maybes. No sooner does one disappointing season end than everybody yaks obsessively for eight months about the next. Meanwhile, I’ve watched 100 Red Sox games. I think it’s a game for people who don’t like sports as much as drinking parties.

But that’s just me, although football’s slipping in popularity too. But here’s the thing: You don’t need to know one thing about football to watch it on TV. Baseball, you do.

Zirin says that his problem with baseball is that “the games are too damn long.” He cites the recent Red Sox-Yankees series in London, England as an example. Both games lasted around four and a half hours. “Though a typical game falls more in the three-hour range,” he writes, “this is too damn long.”

To me, it’s just right. Three blessed hours of taut competition in which he who shall not be named, won’t be. Perfect. The problem with the London games was playing in a soccer stadium whose aerodynamics made pitchers unable to control breaking balls. So it became Home Run Derby.

Seventeen to 13, for heaven’s sake. That’s a slow pitch softball score. The English crowd seemed enthralled, but it wasn’t big league baseball.

Speed things up? Absolutely. Put in a 30-second pitch clock; limit hitters to one, maybe two time outs per at bat. Stand in there and hit.

The dramatic effect of defensive shifts could be altered by requiring two infielders on either side of second base. More situational hitting, fewer second basemen swinging for the bleachers and striking out.

Mostly, though, major league baseball needs to sponsor more youth leagues. You play baseball, you learn to love it.

Zirin also confesses to being a Mets fan like my brother Tommy, making the yearly transition from “Let’s Go Mets” to “Fire the Manager and Burn the Stadium.”

Usually in July, come to think of it.

IMAGE: Former New York Yankee Yogi Berra stands at home plate before the final regular season MLB American Leugue baseball game at Yankee Stadium in New York in this September 21, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Mike Segar/Files

From Your Site Articles
Photo by expertinfantry/ CC BY 2.0

At this moment, the president of the United States is threatening to "throw out" the votes of millions of Americans to hijack an election that he seems more than likely to lose. Donald Trump is openly demanding that state authorities invalidate lawful absentee ballots, no different from the primary ballot he mailed to his new home state of Florida, for the sole purpose of cheating. And his undemocratic scheme appears to enjoy at least nominal support from the Supreme Court, which may be called upon to adjudicate the matter.

But what is even worse than Trump's coup plot — and the apparent assent of unprincipled jurists such as Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh — is the Democratic Party's feeble response to this historic outrage. It is the kind of issue that Republicans, with their well-earned reputation for political hardball, would know how to exploit fully and furiously.

They know because they won the same game in Florida 20 years ago.

During that ultimate legal showdown between George W. Bush and Al Gore, when every single vote mattered, a Democratic lawyer argued in a memorandum to the Gore team that the validity of absentee ballots arriving after Election Day should be challenged. He had the law on his side in that particular instance — but not the politics.

As soon as the Republicans got hold of that memo, they realized that it was explosive. Why? Many of the late ballots the Democrats aimed to invalidate in Florida had been sent by military voters, and the idea of discarding the votes of service personnel was repellent to all Americans. Former Secretary of State James Baker, who was overseeing the Florida recount for Bush, swiftly denounced the Democratic plot against the soldiers, saying: "Here we have ... these brave young men and women serving us overseas. And the postmark on their ballot is one day late. And you're going to deny him the right to vote?"

Never mind the grammar; Baker's message was powerful — and was followed by equally indignant messages in the following days from a parade of prominent Bush backers including retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the immensely popular commander of U.S. troops in the Desert Storm invasion that drove Saddam Hussein's army out of Kuwait. Fortuitously, Schwarzkopf happened to be on the scene as a resident of Florida.

As Jeffrey Toobin recounted in Too Close to Call, his superb book on the Florida 2000 fiasco, the Democrats had no choice but to retreat. "I would give the benefit of the doubt to ballots coming in from military personnel," conceded then-Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Gore's running mate, during a defensive appearance on Meet the Press. But Toobin says Gore soon realized that to reject military ballots would render him unable to serve as commander in chief — and that it would be morally wrong.

Fast-forward to 2020, when many of the same figures on the Republican side are now poised to argue that absentee ballots, which will include many thousands of military votes — should not be counted after Election Day, even if they arrived on time. Among those Republicans is Justice Kavanaugh, who made the opposite argument as a young lawyer working for Bush in Florida 20 years ago. Nobody expects legal consistency or democratic morality from a hack like him, but someone should force him and his Republican colleagues to own this moment of shame.

Who can do that? Joe Biden's campaign and the Democratic Party ought to be exposing the Republican assault on military ballots — and, by the same token, every legally valid absentee ballot — every day. But the Democrats notoriously lack the killer instinct of their partisan rivals, even at a moment of existential crisis like this one.

No, this is clearly a job for the ex-Republicans of the Lincoln Project, who certainly recall what happened in Florida in 2000. They have the attitude and aptitude of political assassins. They surely know how to raise hell over an issue like military votes — and now is the time to exercise those aggressive skills in defense of democracy.

To find out more about Joe Conason and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.