Baseball has entered the era of the entitled.
While the game has never really been rooted in the agrarian utopia of its mythology, for much of its existence the game has been relatively blind to class and status. Although the organized professional game was long segregated by race, and women have always had to fight their way onto the field, for its traditional male constituency the game has generally been remarkably democratic; apart from its first few years of existence, you didn’t need to be either rich or privileged to play. The game was played in nearly every available space and the usual pathway to professional baseball, black or white, began in unorganized, pickup games in the sandlots and fields and empty lots of childhood. Players then meandered through a variety of more organized teams sponsored by schools or towns or the local hardware store before the most promising were identified as prospects in adolescence and then provided the opportunity to play for money. It did not matter whether one was raised as an urban street urchin like Babe Ruth, in a small town like Jim Rice, a suburb like Roger Clemens, a potato farm like Carl Yastrzemski or attended a university like Harry Hooper. Talent was far more important than background. A curve ball didn’t care who your parents were, where they were from or how much money they made; the game was the great equalizer.
But not anymore. In the United States the game is more and more a sport for the 1%, the rich and privileged. Long before the game itself sorts out the talent, the dollar already has. The weeding out of the other 99% is done on geographic and economic boundaries long before a kid even has a chance to pick up a ball. Since the game is not played much anymore on an unorganized basis (for reasons both basic and complicated), a boy without access to youth baseball is generally called out before he ever has a chance even to decide if he wants to play. In my rural town there is no longer a baseball program and the door closed before it is opened. Sadly, that is the plight of much of rural America, a condition which, along with abject poverty, is shared with many in our more urban neighborhoods where there are likewise few opportunities to play. The most talented athletes play something else or succumb to the tedium of the television or the streets.
For young people today baseball is almost entirely a suburban phenomenon, and even on those manicured fields the separating of the wheat from the chaff begins at an early age. There are travel teams for kids as young as eight or nine, and select squads that play nearly year around and cost parents many thousands of dollars in travel, equipment and league fees, not to mention wear and tear on the family dynamic. There is nothing very democratic about that, as talented but less well off kids are generally abandoned and squeezed out by their more well-heeled teammates. By the time a player reaches high school if he has not been plucked to play on several of these select, private travel teams, the chances of playing professionally, earning or earning a college scholarship are as remote as winning American Idol. The player who has a chance to play 100 or 150 games a year has a far better chance to improve and be seen than the kid who does not.
The kids who get drafted into professional baseball now are primarily the privileged, the select of the selects, the ones who have been told they are special and driven around and put up in hotels for tournaments and provided their own batting practice pitchers and pitching coaches since the age of ten. As a result by the time they reach the major leagues these young phenoms have been so cut off from reality for so long they have no idea that much of their success has come, not from within, but as a result of their station in life.
Maybe that’s why too many of them act so bored and blasé, blowing off the fans and media, hitting the links, and hiding behind the tinted glass of their Escalades and the velvet ropes the rest of us never even see, much less cross.
And then they wonder why we boo.
[This essay originally in Boston Baseball in June of 2012]