“But I knew I was out of luck the day the music died” (Don McLean)
Despite having been released 51 years ago, Don McLean’s marathon—8:42—“American Pie” tune remains one of the most effective in music history at conveying a longing for the romantic nostalgia of the past. In this case, the song’s protagonist bemoans the loss of rock-and-roll’s innocence after, amongst other things, the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, The Big Bopper.
For many decades, baseball was the premiere sport of choice for the American public. Parents passed the love of the game to their children like Joe DiMaggio conferring Yankee Stadium’s center field to Mickey Mantle. But that all changed on August 12, 1994, when a players strike wiped out the rest of that season—plus postseason—and even extended a month into ‘95. A great deal of the goodwill and romantic persuasion that baseball had engendered dissipated over those scant nine months. Whereas MLB contests averaged roughly 31,000 fans in pre-strike ‘94, that figured dropped to 25,000 in post-strike ‘95, according to Baseball-Reference accountings.
Fortunately, for MLB’s sake, a number of events then transpired at the right time: Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played record at the end of ‘95, the Yankees (baseball’s biggest market) rose to prominence in ‘96, and ‘98 of course saw a home run chase for the ages. Not only was the timing serendipitous, but even more important was the knowledge that baseball could still capture the public’s imagination. Baseball had survived the strike and rebounded nicely—8/12/94 was not “the day the music died”.
No, I’ll argue that July 13, 1999, was the last night anyone was truly romantic about baseball. While coronating the MLB All-Century Team before the All-Star Game, Ted Williams made a triumphant entrance in front of the Fenway Faithful. I’ll never forget watching that moment with my Dad and seeing perhaps the best player of his generation—the Splendid Splinter—mingle with the greats (Martinez, McGwire, Gwynn, Piazza, Nomar, Manny, etc.) that my 14-year old self idolized at the time. It was truly a moment that only the romance of baseball could provide, and one that gives me goose bumps to this day...
Sadly, that magical, cross-generational moment was the pinnacle of baseball enchantment. Within a few short years, the sport was involved in perhaps the biggest scandal—performance-enhancing drugs—of its existence. The National Football League had caught—and raced past—baseball in terms of general public interest. A super-computer in every pocket by the 2010s certainly didn’t boost a sport in which patience and incremental victories—rather than instant gratification—are virtues.
Baseball isn’t “dead”—I refuse to believe that—but it no longer has the hearts or eyeballs it once did. That is an incontrovertible fact (sad as it us for all us die-hards to believe).
All of this is to illustrate how terrified I am of a protracted 2022 lockout. Such an action would certainly hurt MLB attendance—’94/’95 proved that—and leave a sour taste in the hearts and minds of fans. Even worse? The notion that Mike Trout can be a once-in-a-generation talent, Shohei Ohtani can do things on a diamond literally not seen since Babe Ruth, and burgeoning young stars like Byron Buxton, Fernando Tatis Jr., Ronald Acuña, & Vlad Guerrero Jr. can dazzle on a nightly basis—but the public attention is bifurcated into a thousand different strands. Those feats have an impact, but not the gather-the-family-around-the-TV impact of the late-90s, to be sure.
That concept, more than anything, is my greatest fear when it comes to a prolonged baseball absence:
“I went down to the sacred store where I’d heard the music years before; but the man there said the music wouldn’t play.
And in the streets, the children screamed; the lovers cried, and the poets dreamed; but not a word was spoken—the church bells all were broken.
And the three men I admire most; the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost; they caught the last train for the coast—the day the music died.
And they were singin’ bye-bye, Miss American Pie; drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry.”