Sometimes, sportswriters can be the absolute worst.
We are currently five games into a wildly entertaining National League Championship Series and it’s becoming more and more apparent that the narrative coming out of the series isn’t about the play of the two teams on the field, it’s about the battle for the soul of baseball–at least according to my misguided colleagues.
From the time the NLCS teams were decided, it was easy for journalists to start drawing comparisons—albeit lazy ones—between the baseball “cultures” of the two cities. Los Angeles, with its high-priced stars, late-arriving crowd and its connection to—gasp—the glamorous Hollywood lifestyle were cast as baseball interlopers, the mercenaries with no respect for the game. The Cardinals, on the other hand, the models of consistency and a keystone franchise in the National League, were painted with a different brush, one that turned them into a baseball team that dripped with old-fashioned Midwestern values and the real spirit of America—baseball’s answer to “A Prairie Home Companion,” if you will.
You’d think that once the series got underway, sportswriters would focus on the games, the things that actually matter here. You’d think they’d write about the emergence of Cardinals phenom Michael Wacha as a future ace in the league, or about the way the Dodgers turned their season around after a dreadful start. Instead, we get inundated with article after article about how the Dodgers, with their bat-flips and celebrations, are an affront to the sacred traditions of the game.
On Oct. 18, USA Today columnist Bob Nightengale turned in a piece that—while not distinguishable from the piles of “play the game the right way” missives that have appeared on sports websites throughout the country—is quite straightforward in its assertion that a Cardinals victory would be a victory for baseball.
“This isn’t just about flying another pennant in their stadium—their fourth in 10 years—or having the opportunity to win their 12th World Series championship. It’s about the responsibility of upholding tradition,” Nightengale wrote about the Cards. “It’s for old-time baseball. They want to show this generation that, yes, it’s still hip to be square.”
Nightengale’s column is particularly harsh on Dodger’s rookie Yasiel Puig—a once-in-a-generation athletic freak who raised his arms and stood at home plate admiring a long drive to right field only to get on his horse once he realized the ball didn’t leave the yard, galloping around the bases for a standup triple. The same Puig, who had the sheer audacity to argue a called third strike despite the fact he has less than a full year of service time in the majors.
Nightengale is just one on a long list of old fogey baseball writer, scribes who take it upon themselves to be “guardians of the game.” They are writers who fondly look back at the days when the game was “pure” and its players were gods. These are the same writers who admonished Puig earlier in the year after reports about his fondness for the Los Angeles nightlife began to circulate. The same ones who clutch pearls when Adrian Gonzalez hits a home run and motions to the Dodger dugout by holding his hands to his head—a reference to when Cardinals players said the Dodgers played “Mickey Mouse baseball.” These are, by and large, the same writers who venerate old-time players like Mickey Mantle‑a notorious carouser who is almost as celebrated for his on-field accomplishments as his ability to close down bars‑or Babe Ruth, oft-remembered for his legendary “called shot,” a feat that, if attempted by a player like Puig today, would probably give Nightengale and his cronies an acute case of the vapors.
My message to these writers is a simple one; let the game police itself. If Puig’s actions are unacceptable, let his teammates deal with the problem. Better yet, let Adam Wainwright give him a quick “history” lesson with a fastball between the numbers. After all, that’s what Bob Gibson would have done, right?
Baseball isn’t church. It’s not the military, and, important as the game is in my life, it’s certainly not some sort of morality play that represents the American way. It’s a sport, it’s a game, and games are supposed to be fun.
50 years from now, if Puig’s career stays on path, he’ll be remembered fondly—not only for his skill, but also for his quirks, which will somehow become endearing as time marches on. After all, by that time, stuffy sportswriters will undoubtedly have a new target, a new symbol of the decline of old-time baseball.
My guess is it will be those darned robots.
Follow Mike on Twitter, @LiveMike_Sports