The first game of the Major League Baseball season, between the Texas Rangers and the Houston Astros, begins next Sunday. And I couldn’t care less.
On the other hand, less than two weeks later, the Jackie Robinson biopic “42” will be released in theaters. And I’m pretty excited about that, because whatever magic the actual game of baseball once held for me, I’ll find in this movie, as well as plenty of other films about baseball.
You know what I’m talking about: the old, romantic idea that baseball should be played for the love of the game; that it’s America’s pastime; all of that idealistic, cheesy stuff. Call me cynical, but I just don’t see that in the game anymore. And the only way for me to not dismiss it altogether is to watch movies about baseball.
Because in films like “Field of Dreams,” “The Natural” and even “Major League,” baseball isn’t just a game, it’s the innocence of childhood, the stuff of boyhood dreams, nostalgic escapism at its best.
But it’s all been tarnished. And for me, like many other fans, it happened during the 1994-1995 Major League Baseball strike. The 232-day strike led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, the first since 1904 and a total of approximately 940 games. And it was all over money.
After years of collecting baseball cards, reading books about it, arguing with friends about which team was better-the New York Yankees (I know, blasphemy for a Southern boy) or the Atlanta Braves-and attending Lookouts games at Engel Stadium, all the while playing the occasional game in the neighborhood, I walked away from it.
A lot of people did.
Over the years, it got worse. Stories of players using steroids began surfacing in the early 2000s. Among the many players who were accused were the greats-Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire and Roger Clemens. And this year, for only the eighth time since voting began in 1936, no players have been elected to the coveted Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.
And so, I look to movies to keep the magic alive.
Now, I know that this happens in other sports, too. Just look at Lance Armstrong and the world of professional cycling.
But here’s the thing about baseball. It’s been put up on a pedestal for more than a century by Americans, who at times had nothing else to cling to. It got us through the Great Depression, through World War II, through the Watergate scandal. Through times of national crises, baseball has been there for America to rally behind, a beacon of hope for people who felt there was none left. As cheesy as that sounds, it’s true, because at some point or another, someone deemed it America’s sport, our national pastime. And now, because of the events in the past 20 years, even that is being disputed.
Of course, baseball has gone through crises before; the 1919 Black Sox scandal comes to mind. And the game has recovered.
There’s a scene in the sometimes overly sentimental “Field of Dreams” in which Terrence Mann, played by James Earl Jones, reminds Kevin Costner’s character, Ray Kinsella, that, “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and could be again.”
See? That’s the stuff I love. And when it comes down to it, that’s what it’s all about. But right now, baseball seems to be having an identity crisis. And there are questions to be answered.
Will baseball ever be great again? Has America moved on, embracing football as its new savior? How much blame should we put on the players, managers and owners? Have we, as fans, turned our backs on it when the game needs us the most? And more importantly, does any of this even matter?
Charlie Moss writes about local history and popular culture, including music, movies and comics. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.