The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings
So did you watch the World Series this year? The Mets were in it, so naturally, I was eager to see them beat Kansas City, but even though our boys lost, I have to admit, there was drama and excitement aplenty throughout all five games.
So why do I keep seeing this myth being perpetuated over and over about how baseball is losing popularity, especially with the youth? Yes, I know the arguments: other sports are supposedly more exciting to watch; declining TV ratings, the rise of fantasy baseball as a viable alternative; aging fan base, etc., and there are those who continue to advocate in favor of baseball's popularity.
I don't deny that my interest in the game waned for a time. For me, it was the 1994 cancellation of the World Series that did it for me. For awhile, the only games I watched were minor league ones. Yes, even here in New York City, we have minor league teams, one in Brooklyn and another out on Long Island. I've also been to minor league games in Massachusetts and Ohio.
I couldn't really stay away from the allure of the majors, however. Baseball is too much a part of my DNA. It's too closely associated with memories of my father, memories of childhood friends, growing up so close to Shea Stadium I could walk there - all of that still means something to me, and I always thought baseball would continue to have meaning for plenty of other people too.
Still, let's play devil's advocate and assume the sport is on the decline. Could the reason why be a matter of baseball lacking a little... pizzazz? Yes, there are mascots and exploding scoreboards and pop music playing over the PA, but all of that is separate from the action on the field. In basketball, you can slam dunk the ball. In football, players would occasionally dance in the end zone after a touchdown, but if you try that now, they give you a penalty. Baseball? Well, I fondly remember the curtain calls the Mets would give after home runs, but I didn't see any of that during the World Series.
There used to be a time when a little razzle-dazzle in baseball was not so unusual. The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings is a fun little movie about the days of the Negro Leagues, where a little showboating went a long way in terms of entertainment. Lando Calrissian and Darth Vader lead a team of Negro League stars who want to get out from under the thumb of their penny-pinching owners by barnstorming around the country, making money for themselves. When the owners find out, though, they do their best to try and put the kibosh on the rogue players' success. Richard Pryor is in this, too, and though he has a few moments, he's not quite as funny as he would be in later films, where he was the star.
The All-Stars learn that to attract crowds to their games, they have to put on a show, so they wind up doing things like parading in the streets of the town they're visiting, dancing and strutting; playing on-field pranks during the game; dressing up in the occasional costume or two, and playing with an exaggerated hustle and flair. It's something they were familiar with before: in the beginning, we see Billy Dee Williams pitch to James Earl Jones, the first batter of a game, daring him to hit his pitch as the rest of his team watches from the sideline. As a team, though, they take it to a new level, one that attracts black and white audiences alike. Imagine the Harlem Globetrotters if they were a baseball team.
Can modern baseball learn something from this? Baseball used to be heavily resistant to change for a long time, but in watching the Series this year, I was amazed to see the changes the game has implemented now: the use of instant replay, six umpires instead of four (though I think that's only for the playoffs), so many players looking like they came out of the 70s, what with their long hair and beards. Still, can you imagine showboating on a league-wide scale, if it means baseball becoming popular again?
I'm not even sure if that's what I'm advocating. All I know is that fans love slam dunks and end-zone dances. As a kid, I loved seeing Darryl Strawberry and Gary Carter give curtain calls - and needless to say, this kind of stuff makes for good television, too. I think there may have been a backlash against this sort of thing because sometimes it made for hurt feelings on the other team's side, but you know what? They're professionals. They should be able to deal with it without resorting to retaliation at the offending player. No one did that in Bingo Long - but then, that movie represents a time when the game was very different indeed.