Monday, March 29, 2010

Red Sox vs. Yankees a Real Buzz Kill

By Bob Ekstrom

Somewhere there is an alternate universe playing out with little regard for the real one. It's a place where Bambi's mother never gets shot, and Buddy Holly takes the bus to Minnesota. Like the passengers on Oceanic 815 who never get dragged down to the Lost island because Julia blows up the giant magnet, no city in this alternate universe has their aspirations dragged down by the realities of the Boston Red Sox or New York Yankees.

Of course, the latter universe really does exist. It's called spring, a season of bliss ignorance. A time when the magnet is blown up.

A longtime reader from Baltimore recently e-mailed me his prognosis for the upcoming season. The message simply read, "O's 100-62." In all these years, he has identified himself only by the generic label, O's Fan, and that's fine. I figure it's the cyber equivalent of wearing a bag over his head at the ballpark, and understandably so. The O's have been an embarrassment beyond anything Date Mike Scott ever did in mixed company at a Scranton bar and grille. Despite sharing the AL East with both Boston and New York, O's Fan has since gone on to guarantee his team will not sink below .500 for the next 10 years. It's as if tree pollen has become pixie dust.

Yes, there's magic in the air, so the big question is, why have Major League Baseball and ESPN conspired to kill the buzz? They're doing exactly that on Opening Night.

Matching the Red Sox and Yankees in the 2010 season premier of Sunday Night Baseball — on the very day, no less, when hope is delivered to our doorsteps by an upright hare bearing cream-filled chocolates in bright wrappings — is akin to rubbing blue-collar America's nose in the games of aristocracy. We get to watch two of the four highest payrolls in baseball. One team that can get almost any player it wants takes on one that does get every player it wants. This season will kick off as a giant billboard serving notice that the AL pennant is out of reach even before anyone gets on the highway.

Why don't we tell little Johnny there's no Easter Bunny while we're at it?

Look across the MLB landscape. Half the teams don't possess an ace good enough to be a fourth starter in either Boston or the Bronx. Fewer yet can retain even a single player of the caliber the Yankees now field at virtually every position. And all it takes is a whole lot of money.

Last week, the Twins' extended Joe Mauer's contract, making him the highest paid catcher in the game. The Yankees are now down to only the highest paid first baseman, shortstop, and third baseman, not to mention No. 1 and No. 2 starters and closer. The extension came just short of being declared a Minnesota state holiday, but the elephant in new Target Stadium is that the shell-out for Mauer is a storm of the century, and that says a lot if you've ever spent a winter in Minnesota. What will be the encore for every other player not crouching behind the plate?

Last week also witnessed Padres CEO Jeff Moorad proclaiming a vision of Adrian Gonzalez in San Diego for the next two years. Then what? The Padres' entire payroll is well short of the Yankees' corner infield and they're losing money at that. Imagine a San Diegan's reward in seeing Gonzalez play in Fenway Park this October, then watching A-Rod pour champagne over Mark Teixeira the month after.

And it's not like Sunday Night Baseball is taking its foot off the pedal any time too soon. The first eight broadcasts will feature the Yankees three times in all and the cross-town rival Mets — who are second-highest in total player spending — a whopping four. In setting its schedule, ESPN, like all major sports programming networks, is exploiting a basic need of viewers: Americans love the haves. We want to root for them, to become a part of their inner circle. It's why we're riveted to Donald Trump, why guys high-five each other every time Tiger Woods walks into a Perkins Restaurant, why women cried at Princess Diana's funeral.

Sure, we tow the loyalty line and vigorously defend the home team for trading Curtis Granderson or failing to re-sign John Lackey, but while one wheel is in the ditch with them, another is on the fast track of glitter. We put on our best facade, then go home to our Kobe Bryant jerseys, maybe wrap ourselves in Cowboys snuggies. And flip on Red Sox-Yankees.

Even as we're fed one basic need, ESPN denies us another: the need to be lied to. Most of us look in the mirror and see some basic flaws — a zit, crow's feet, a wisp of gray. Like our pedestrian baseball team, we know the defect exists; we just don't want anyone else telling us so. We want to be told we look good. And we want to be told our team will contend all summer with the Yankees and Red Sox, the Phillies, and Mets; that anything can happen in October.

Then Easter Sunday comes along, the season opens, and we're reflexively bingeing on chocolate eggs in front of Sunday Night Baseball. We know the two large market goliaths battling on the field can purchase more talent over one winter than any farm system could develop in ten summers. Our team again begins to look like a wart on the nose of Cinderella's step-sister.

There are liars, and there are damned liars. Then, there is spring, when reality is masked by the joy of a season renewed. But that's okay. You need it, I need it, and heaven knows, O's Fan needs it. Why does a polygraph have to be strapped onto it so soon?

In the end, ESPN is the damnest of all for doing just that.

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