The Great American Pastime
by Kevin Finnerty

When I covered my first World Series three decades ago, I was filled with such excitement, so much adrenaline, I repeatedly pressed my palms into my thighs to keep my legs from bouncing. You see, Game 1 was the first baseball game I ever witnessed in person.

I forgot my professional role and leapt to my feet when a man who could barely walk hit a game-ending homer against the best reliever in the game not because I wanted the boys in blue to win but because I’d witnessed a human triumph in the face of overwhelming odds. Thankfully, I was not the only one in the press box standing at that moment when tens of thousands celebrated the achievement.

Back then, I was a foreigner. Still am, legally, even though I live in the States most of the year and have seen much more of it than the fans who now tell me to stop bitching and to go back where I came from. I imagine most use that phrase because they have no idea where to find the country of my birth on a map.

That’s okay. I can deal with their shit. I understand The Great American Pastime better than most, even if I wasn’t born in the U.S. of A. Maybe it’s because of that. Over the years, I’ve done my best to promote the sport in my native land, as well as here and elsewhere.

It was easier 30 years ago when baseball seemed pure. I now know it never was. Owners conspired to prevent black athletes from playing in the Major Leagues for decades; they used the Reserve Clause to keep players from being free to sell their services on the open market; players took bribes to fix games and even a World Series; others cheated by corking bats and throwing spitters.

I won’t argue baseball was ever the mythical ideal I might have believed as a young man. I will to this day contend that at its best, it’s been the best. It’s served as a model, a beacon, for all sports. And so even as I watch this Series in horror, I hope, I pray even, that The Great American Pastime is not forever ruined.

During the early years, I only reported on the Series. After the world changed dramatically in the early ‘90s and technology developed and interest abroad grew, I got to spend chunks of time in the U.S. and report throughout the season. A decade later, I began covering baseball from the first pitch through the last.

As a foreigner, I never had a rooting interest the way many of those who grow up with a hometown team do. I never had to learn to forget or pretend that I had. I suppose that’s given me greater objectivity, though I know most of my American colleagues, especially those who cover the game on a national basis, only root for a good story.

The pity is that when this all started, many of my American colleagues thought this story was a good one. Rich man buys team. Tells everyone he’s going to make it a winner for the first time in a century. Then he pokes fun at opposing teams and how the league is run along the way. 

Not many foresaw McHugh as a threat back then. I saw him as a charlatan, a huckster, a con artist, and a fool. I probably gave him too much credit. Or not enough. We’re here today with Game 7 taking place on his team’s home turf because of everything that happened in the latter half of the season, in the playoffs, and in the Series.

First, it was mainly talk. Mid-season, Washington was 10 games out and suddenly he’s talking smack about the other team’s players, fans, and owners. Claiming they lacked his smarts, wit, and athleticism. What any of this had anything to do with his team’s performance on the field, I don’t know, but if you’ve ever looked at and listened to McHugh, you’d realize all this was bullshit. Neither an athlete nor genius be he. He’s more like the kid in school who sits in the back of the room and envisions himself as the jock, smart kid, and class clown all rolled into one but who only disrupts the class and proceeds to point fingers at his classmates because nothing is ever his fault. But whether it was causal or coincidental, McHugh’s self-promotion and constant attacks corresponded with his team’s improved performance and the general decline in play among the league leaders.

Next came the blatant disregard of the rules. During home games, Washington stopped using white baseballs. When they were in the field, at least during night games, they began throwing black spheres at batters. When they came to bat, they only provided yellow orbs to the plate umpire to toss to the opposing pitcher. Hitting became simultaneously easier for McHugh’s team and harder for the opposition.  

At first, the umps wouldn’t let Washington get away with its gamesmanship, but the team refused to relent and over time found a few who wouldn’t stop the shenanigans. Once the abnormal was accepted as unusual but not completely prohibited, even some who had threatened to forfeit the game if the white balls were not returned allowed Washington to get away with using others. As much as anything, I think it was fatigue at fighting. 

Opposing teams, players, and owners appealed to the league to enforce long-established rules and customs, but those in charge did little more than rub their fingers at McHugh. For a number of years attendance and television ratings had been declining and the league had made elevating those numbers and improving the bottom line its top priority. Say what you will about McHugh, but love him or hate him, people began coming out to see his team and watched them on television to a much higher degree than anyone else. McHugh made people pay attention to baseball again, and its commissioner concluded that was a good thing. Short-sighted as that may have been.

Sure, the league warned McHugh. Publicly and privately. It told him to follow the rules and not to ignore the game’s customs. But it took no action when he ignored them all, and, incrementally, his power and influence grew.

By early September, Washington played their own brand of baseball that was unlike any that had been seen before. After not being punished for playing with his own balls, McHugh attacked the game’s fundamental rules — the pitch count and number of outs per inning. At times, Washington’s hitters would jog to first after three wild ones; its fielders would head for the dugout after two batters had been retired. The opposing team and the umpires might challenge Washington but it didn’t matter, especially if McHugh’s team was on its home turf because the scoreboard operator would do what was needed to sow doubt or at least make McHugh’s story seem credible to those inclined to follow him wherever he wanted to lead them. Even in the face of indisputable television evidence to the contrary, McHugh’s team would not yield, would not agree to play the game as it had been played for centuries. Washington would not acknowledge its deceit or its lies, and its style of play and version of the rules became normalized. 

Around this time, the reporting of McHugh and his team changed. A greater portion of my colleagues no longer considered what was happening to The Great American Pastime to be so funny, to be innocuous. They called upon the league to address the attacks on the game, but more often than not, those calls were met with silence. Opposing fans barked continuously but McHugh labeled them partisan, and this only increased the rabid fervor of Washington’s formerly downtrodden fans, who refused to concede they were not winning games fairly. 

“The rules weren’t fair to begin with,” they shouted. 

“We weren’t the ones who ignored customs by playing three guys on one side of the infield.”

“And remember all the bad calls that went against us in prior years?”

Some of my readers here and back home appeared to be unable to distinguish between levels of offenses. 

McHugh has a point, some said. Baseball’s always had problems. Remember the steroid era? How’s this any different?

Now I’ll be the first to admit I favor a purer version of the game than most. Maybe because my appreciation for it developed from afar. I’ve never been allowed the honor of voting for the Hall of Fame, but if I were I wouldn’t cast my ballot for any of those I believe enhanced their statistics through the use of performance-enhancing drugs. But I know what those players did is nothing compared to what McHugh and his team have been doing to the game. And I’ve spent a good part of this season trying to explain the difference to my readers.

My publisher has not agreed with my approach. “It’s like you don’t even care who wins anymore? You’re always writing about the process, not the results. And it’s as if you’ve forgotten there are teams besides Washington still playing.”

Truth is, my current boss never liked baseball. He came to his position three years ago after my former publisher, who loved the game, died under strange circumstances. My old boss was happy to see baseball take root in our country: first, as a spectator sport, and later, in the early stages of a participatory one. But even before the spectacle of this season, baseball had lost favor back home.

Maybe people expected instantaneous success. Maybe baseball demands more patience and commitment than the world wants to devote to anything these days.

I had my last face-to-face discussion with my current boss in mid-August. He ordered me to sit.  Even as most of his peers have adopted a more modern style, my publisher remains committed to the past. He sat behind a large oak desk that weighed a couple hundred pounds. The lighting above us was dim and the stand-up lamp in the corner illuminated little. The only items on his desk were a manila folder full of papers and a red fountain pen. 

He sat in a chair that was purposefully about six inches higher than the one available to me. “I understand what you’re saying. This season’s horrible and that’s why you’re writing so much about bad things. But what I want to know is why you think baseball was ever so great? It seems to be such an awful game. Total chaos and randomness. Why four balls but three strikes? Why stadiums with different dimensions?”

It took me a moment to recognize that for once my publisher was not attempting to berate or belittle me. Not that he was asking me to convince him of baseball’s merits — his mind was permanently closed to that concept — but he probably hoped, in light of this most troubling season, he could get me to convince myself he was right. That I’d been wrong all these years. He hoped I’d decide this season would be my last covering the sport. He knew, and I knew, once I was done, he’d be done, maybe our country’d be done, with baseball.

It’s never easy to confront one’s well-established beliefs. Our minds, our thoughts are, essentially, who we are. To try to make dramatic change after decades of living is akin to asking oneself to forego one’s existence. This is tremendously difficult, even when it’s the right thing to do.

I’d thought a lot about The Great American Pastime by that point in the season. I’d seen how bad the game had become, and was well aware of its spotty history. But I wasn’t ready to give up.

“Baseball,” I said to my publisher, who immediately opened his folder and grabbed his pen because he understood from the tone of my first word that I was unwilling to adopt his stance, “has presented opportunity. Opportunity to come together, opportunity to excel on one’s own. If you’re a good enough player, no matter whether you’re poor, an orphan, a minority, you get the chance to succeed at the highest level. Sure, there have been barriers, but they’ve come down eventually. And fans get to rally together around the greatness of the game. Whatever its faults — and there have been many, too many to identify — baseball has always followed through on this ideal. And so, in my opinion, baseball may be, as you say, a terrible game, but at the end of the day humans need something, and in my estimation, baseball happens to be better than any other sport being played anywhere in the world.”

A little more than a month later, Washington qualified for the final wild card spot on the final day of the season. McHugh immediately took to social media to attack the opposing team’s starting pitcher prior to the one-game playoff.   

22-5 one year after going 14-13? Doesn’t sound like a NATURAL improvement!

The league needs to look into rumors of C.H. doctoring the ball. Somebody’s got to maintain the integrity of the game!

Not a single rumor existed prior to McHugh’s Tweet. The likely Cy Young winner hadn’t been accused of anything other than developing a killer change-up in the offseason. And yet McHugh’s tactic of putting his opponent on the defensive worked: C.H. couldn’t find the plate, even when pitching at home. He threw nine straight balls to start the game, mixing a hit batter in between two walks. When he finally lobbed a grapefruit towards home with his tenth pitch, Washington’s cleanup hitter drilled it off the wall, three runners scored, and a rout was on.

After losing game one of the next round of playoffs in which the only remarkable call the umpires made was requiring Washington to follow the actual rules of baseball, McHugh threatened to boycott the rest of the series unless the league changed the assigned crew, ostensibly because one member was alleged to be the second cousin of the assistant GM of the opposing team. 

Family connections? Not a good look for baseball! We’re only going to play if field is level.

Sadly, the league succumbed to the bully once again. Worse, the new crew included four members who had only been promoted to the majors during the season following McHugh’s complaints about the lack of fair and impartial arbiters of the game. Two of them had less than a year’s experience umpiring AAA games and were rumored to have been former employees of one of McHugh’s corporate entities. 

The calls made in the next three games were nothing short of atrocious, highlighted by the winning run in the series scoring in the bottom of the ninth when a Washington runner shaved at least three feet off his trip home by cutting through the grass around third.          

The abhorrent calls continued throughout the next series, but because Washington won it four games to one, McHugh used the opportunity to charge those who complained afterwards.

Losers making excuses. No conspiracy with umps. Washington dominated the series like few teams in history. Very rare to win in five games. McHugh expects biggest parade in history if win W.S.

Despite a significant effort to make the notoriously fixed 1919 Series of the past appear to be on the up-and-up, Washington fell behind 3-1 before its ace hurled a masterful complete game to stave off elimination. The series shifted back to Washington, but on a night with only a 10% chance rain and none falling at the time the first pitch was scheduled, the home team canceled the game at McHugh’s direction. 

Home team calls it before the first pitch. Umps after.

When people pointed out this was the rule in the regular seasons but not the post-season, McHugh responded: Some people want to put players’ safety at risk. Washington ready to play with ideal conditions coming. No fear!

Throughout the year, some of my colleagues wondered aloud when Washington would hit rock bottom. I know there’s no such thing. It’s a never-ending abyss. There aren’t any rules that won’t be broken, no historical norms that must be abided, no overriding sense of the place the game deserves in history. There’s only McHugh using any means to get what he wants. 

In Game 6, Washington’s players began throwing balls at members of the other team. I’m not talking about brushback pitches. Rather, infielders fired at batters who’d hit grounders as they ran to first, hitting them in the shoulders or hips and, in one case, the side of the head; outfielders aimed directly at the backs of runners who tried to go from first to third, felling one who was drilled between the two number “4”’s on his back. Washington’s assaults resulted in four fights, seven ejections, and two star players from the opposition lost to injury. 

When reporters sought to interview Washington’s offenders to ask them why they had tried to injure their fellow professionals, some of whom were former teammates and friends, McHugh refused to make his team available for public questioning. Instead of a press conference, he dealt with the accusations by typing keystrokes while alone in his bedroom: We play an aggressive brand of ball, not like those who come here — illegally? — from tiny islands and don’t speak English! Also, has everyone forgotten the A.L. team was accused of stealing signs in an earlier round? Where’s that investigation?

Upon arriving at the ballpark today, I had to acknowledge what I’d been trying to deny for months: Even the press box is no longer immune. A few of my colleagues spent several minutes challenging any account of Game 6 that conflicted with their imagined narrative, even though the events could not be legitimately disputed. When their effort at obfuscation failed, they changed tactics and argued Washington had every right to play the way it did. 

“Time’s change and so does how you play the game.”

“Baseball’s not for wusses.”

It’s as if this vocal minority wanted to see the death of the game that has offered hope to millions while providing them with a somewhat comfortable living.

And so it comes down to Game 7. There’s normally no place I’d rather be than the press box for a winner-take-all game of the World Series. Not this year. Not in Washington. I descended onto the field a half hour before the game. I wanted to see what was taking place from ground level.     

I saw fans in the upper deck taunting the few opposing fans who dared to venture into McHugh’s stadium. These men just wanted a fight, a chance to imagine that they held power they have not had for decades. I get that they want to be winners and that it’s no fun when the fans of other teams continuously call you losers. At the same time, they might recognize that while they sit in a place that used to be called the cheap seats — they’re still in the stadium. They’re still at the game. But as they shook cans of beer before spraying everyone indiscriminately, they didn’t appear open to reasoned discourse.

I next looked at those sitting closest to the field, near the dugouts and behind home plate. I watched stadium employees carry wine and sushi on silver trays to them. If not for fear of taunting the baseball gods, I’m sure they would already have popped champagne. They laughed and schmoozed and didn’t even seem to care when their team took the field. It’s clear they would willingly remain blind to the ugliness in front of their faces as long as the score favors Washington. They believe they have the best seats in the house and always will. They fail to recognize they might be relegated to the parking lot next year at McHugh’s whim.

Last, I scanned the stadium looking for the commissioner and the league’s presidents. I couldn’t find any of them and doubted the cowards had chosen to attend. They had abdicated their role in protecting the game. What’s the use of having so-called leaders who are too afraid to act when they are needed most?

I decided not to return to the press box. I didn’t want to be distracted.

I don’t know if I’ll write an article today or if it will be my last one if I do. But for the first time since I started covering the sport, I’m watching the game with a rooting interest. I’m rooting for decency, for sportsmanship, for The Great American Pastime. I’m rooting against Washington with all my heart.

I don’t want McHugh and his team to destroy the game forever. They must lose, and the people to whom this sport belongs must impose genuine, substantial reform to ensure nothing like this season ever happens again. Baseball won’t survive without it.

Kevin Finnerty’s stories have appeared in Eclectica Magazine, Me First Magazine, Rathalla Review, Variety Pack, The Westchester Review, and other publications.

Image by Lenora Cagle from Pixabay.

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