In terms of entertainment, the first couple of games of the World Series had pretty much all you could ask from baseball.
Two through-the-looking-glass teams performing at the highest level and for enormous stakes, going about their business in very different ways.
In Game 1, the Los Angeles Dodgers judo-flipped the Tampa Bay Rays into the parking lot. In Game 2, they tried to analytics them into submission. L.A. threw out seven pitchers, none of whom tossed more than two innings.
The Rays are baseball’s great innovators, and they’re doing it again by reverting to old-school tactics. On Wednesday night, they sat behind a traditional starter and hoped someone in their familiar lineup went off. In the Sabermetrics glossary, this is referred to as “praying.”
It worked. The Rays won. The best-of-seven series is tied. History suggests that half of all World Series that are knotted after two games go for seven. This is, thus far, everything you’d want as a neutral fan.
If there were any such thing anymore.
There is nothing else going on in sports at the moment. Basketball and hockey are over. There were no mid-week NFL or college football games. Everybody with any sense is trapped in their homes in the evening. Netflix is getting so desperate it is pumping out documentaries instead of the usual addictive trash. So what are you going to do? Read? Don’t even try lying to me.
And yet Game 1 of this World Series was the lowest rated in history. According to Nielsen, fewer than 10 million Americans tuned in.
The only other time that happened was 12 years ago – Rays vs. Phillies. And the first pitch of that game was rain-delayed by an hour and a half.
This is part of a broader pandemic trend in which TV ratings are down – in some cases, have cratered – across all major leagues.
The sort of people who are interested in such things spent the first few weeks of the downturn arguing about the cause. COVID-19 jitters? Cable-cutting? Too many teams nobody cares about doing well? Too many sports, period? Player protests? Sports junkies becoming news junkies?
The answer is that no one has a good answer. All we have are the reduced numbers.
So let me suggest another possibility – that sports has in recent years done everything it can to eliminate the dilettante as fan.
Far back in the days of yore, there were two types of sports fan – the one who cared an awful lot and the one who cared intermittently.
If you grew up as one who cared an awful lot, you were by necessity an autodidact. You bought books and annual magazines for research. You memorized figures and – here’s a weird one – wrote stuff out on paper. For the purposes of baseball, Bill James was your Rosetta Stone. He translated the raw data on your behalf.
This effort required time and resources. It was work. You took some pride in it, but privately. It’s not like you were going to rock up to a girl in the schoolyard and say, “I know Ty Cobb’s lifetime batting average.”
(It used to be .367 – a number since disputed. I no longer remember a single phone number other than my own, Pizza Pizza’s and 911, but those three digits remain burned onto my brain.)
The other type of fan – and there was no shame in this – dipped in and out. They might watch a game here and there, usually if the home team were playing. They’d get excited during the postseason. But they could not recite from memory the Blue Jays' 1977 opening-day lineup.
That was not good enough for the people who make money off sports. They didn’t want casual customers. They wanted obsessives.
So they turned the information spigot from “water fountain” to “Niagara Falls.”
Sports fandom went from a pastime to an organizing principle of one’s life. Grown men began unashamedly putting “Canadiens fan” or whatever at the top of their personal inventory, in front of “functioning human being with a job.”
We used to take pride in playing sports. Now, we take pride in knowing everything about other men who do it for us instead.
In order to be a fan now, you don’t just have to know everything, you have to have an opinion on it as well. Ask someone sportsy you know whether the Leafs should trade William Nylander. Presumably you will get all sorts of answers, many of them unhinged. But I guarantee you will not get a single “I don’t know.”
This drive to completeness – turning every spectator into a database, a pundit, a human trade-tracker and a general manager who knows better than the actual one – was good for sports. It turned consumers into evangelists for the product.
But it left very little room for every-once-in-a-while care about sports. These days, if you don’t know, you don’t know. And it’s not much fun not knowing when everyone else knows every single thing.
This worked for a while because the sports wonk was in ascendancy. We had a lot of free time and a relatively worry-free existence.
What’s your anxiety level at right now? Exactly.
Worried people want their entertainment to be escapist. Sports no longer feels that way. Some nights, it feels like a math quiz, except the teachers come in between tests to yell at you about what you should have seen when you were trying to relax.
Maybe that’s the viewer sports has lost in the midst of the pandemic. If so, a vaccine, an economic rebound or an election that goes the right way isn’t going to change the calculus.
That fan, the one who just wanted to turn off his brain and watch a game, is still going to find sports a chore whenever things get back to normal. Except now, he knows he can live without it.