Monday, June 1, 2015

Sports in America: Where Have You Gone Joe DiMaggio?

“Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you…”
--“Mrs. Robinson”, by Paul Simon

OK: so McCoy Stadium in nearby Pawtucket, Rhode Island, home to the Red Sox minor league affiliate Paw Sox? It’s not the most sophisticated nor slick nor comfortable of places to see a professional baseball game. As a lifelong baseball fan, I’ve visited fifteen of the thirty major league parks and lots of minor league venues too and I’d call McCoy “endearingly scruffy”, like the team which calls it home.

The mascots are Paw and Sox (get it?), a pair of over sized polar bears, kind of a weird choice given the team’s locale in a hardscrabble landlocked blue collar New England city.  No icebergs in sight. The stadium is a u-shaped painted concrete edifice and sits in a working class neighborhood dotted with small homes and industrial parks. Purchase the wrong seat for a night game and chances are the sun will be right in your eyes until dusk.  The team, like its location, is made up of folks striving for better things, hoping to one day make it to “the big leagues”, to move on up.  But the hot dogs are delicious and the game on the field is always fun and so every year at least once I return to McCoy.  That pilgrimage reminds me why I so love sports as a part of my life and America’s life too.

The game is a shared experience and so I sit with old friends in the stands and we swap arcane baseball statistics and stories as the game slowly unfolds before us and a bag of peanuts is passed back and forth. We’ve got no other place to go or be and we watch and relax and cheer together on a muggy May night.  The stands are peopled with families and college students, senior citizens and kids at their first game, because the tickets here are cheap and affordable, the parking and the food too. McCoy is a storied place. In 1981 it hosted the longest game in professional baseball history: 33 innings, eleven hours and twenty three minutes to be precise. 

McCoy embodies the historic mythology of sports in America.  This seventy three year old stadium represents in a way why millions of us fans still love the game, any game.  The ideal is that on the field, between the lines, players play for the fun and for the joy of play. The myth is that every one plays by the rules and that the outcome is true and just, because the competition is always fair. The hope is that for a few dollars anyone can be a fan, buy a ticket, bring their kids or a date and enjoy time away from the pressures of life.  The faith is that while everything else in the world changes, the game does not, it cannot. We trust it somehow and then pass our love for it from generation to generation. 

But myths sometimes crumble and falter and even fail. 

There’s a very good chance McCoy Stadium will be empty in just a few years, maybe even a victim of the wrecking ball. For in the United States, especially in our professional sports, one truth these days always, always, trumps mythology.  It’s money.  Ownership of the Paw Sox recently changed hands and so now the team belongs to a syndicate of deep pocketed business men who dream of taking the team big time, They are ready to leave McCoy for a brand new state of the art $85 million dollar park in downtown Providence, just south on Route 95.  Though these new investors speak of keeping the Paw Sox legacy untouched, fans know that this is the real myth, as in untrue.  Instead picture a mini Fenway Park, with TV screens everywhere and overpriced food and expensive parking and gaudy video scoreboards. 

We get the picture.  Final score: Money 1, Myth O.  Game over? It is getting harder and harder to be a sports fan in America, a lover of the game, all games. It is tough to believe in the myth of sports anymore. 

Iconic heroes crumble to the ground and stay mum, silent, in the face of being charged with cheating and being labeled a cheater.  Are you ever going to say it ain’t so Tom?  Admission prices skyrocket, putting the pleasure of a game out of reach for the many, like folks from Pawtucket, whose hearts will break if and when McCoy goes away. Fans are now overfed, overstuffed, and overwhelmed by sports media.  Once sports in America was a playful diversion, entertainment for the masses, and fun. Now it’s all major business, even in the minor leagues.

So here’s a civic prayer.  Can I have back my myth, please!?  Can I hang on to McCoy Stadium with all its graceful informality, its low key commitment to a game and nothing more? Can I once again cheer for stars who have humility and heart and not just hubris?

Can I just be a fan?   

If you really love baseball and love a game, then take a road trip south this spring or summer and go see the Paw Sox at McCoy Stadium. I guarantee that you will have a great time.  No: there isn’t valet parking or gourmet food or limos pulling up to the players’ entrance.  Not yet at least.

But there is a game.  A game.  That’s one myth I refuse to let go of.   Play ball.

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