World Series: a gripping finale - so why is America not gripped?
Baseball was once America's pastime: today the men in striped pyjamas are no longer in tune
EDITOR'S UPDATE: Since this item was posted, the Boston Red Sox went on to win the World Series with a 6-1 victory over the Cardinals in Wednesday night's Game 6 at Fenway Park. It was the first time in 95 years that the Red Sox had won the title in front of their home fans.
TONIGHT is the night the Boston Red Sox are slated to win baseball's World Series. They're tipped to beat the St Louis Cardinals on their home turf at Fenway Park, wrapping up the season in a contest being hailed as a "true fall classic".
You would imagine that Americans will be glued to the game. Baseball is, after all, "America's pastime". Tonight's match will surely be akin to an FA Cup Final, at the very least.
Actually, it will be pretty much ignored by about 90 per cent of Americans. Quite a few might check the results in a last glance at their computer screens before turning in for the night, more will probably leave it for breakfast television.
Fenway Park will be filled and whooping tonight, for sure, but across the United States nearly everyone will have something better to do.
The 2012 season scored the lowest baseball television viewings on record, 50 per cent down from the early 1990s. Similarly, last year's World Series play-offs, once the nation's premiere sporting event, had the lowest ratings since baseball first flickered onto American screens.
Baseball is no longer "America's pastime"; recent polls show that, in fact, it hasn't been since 1972. In that year, for the first time, more Americans named football - American football, that is - as their favourite sport. This year the figure is 41 per cent for football, ten per cent for baseball.
What's gone wrong?
To judge by the enthusiasm of the sports writers, you can't blame the competing teams. The baseball in this World Series, they agree, has been terrific.
"Call some friends," wrote Joel Sherman in the New York Post. "If you haven't joined in progress yet, it might be time. This is a fall classic."
The Red Sox beat the Cardinals on Monday to give them 107 wins over the season to the Cardinals' 106. Whoever gets to 108 wins the championship. If the Cardinals win tonight to draw, the teams will play again tomorrow.
"Friends," Sherman went on, "should know this has been a Series of outrageousness, weariness and sloppiness. Most of all, though, of evenness. Except for this - the Red Sox have had Jon Lester and David Ortiz."
He is referring to the hottest new stars to make the headlines in a decade. Lester is the ace pitcher and Ortiz the ace batter. They are the kind of newly discovered players hitting top form who should be able to re-energise any sport.
Both are even being compared to Babe Ruth, the greatest of all the old-time legends who started at the Red Sox but defected to the New York Yankees, thereby inflicting a curse on the Red Sox who famously then failed to win another championship for more than half a century.
In a recent essay for the New York Times, Jonathan Mahler wrote that in theory baseball "is doing just fine". There are new baseball parks built mostly with taxpayers funds, revenue has rocketed in 20 years from $1 billion to $8 billion, no one team has a boring lock on victory, as the Yankees once had, and "it has more exciting young stars than I can ever remember".
"The game, in other words, has never been healthier," he wrote. But then he asked: "So why does it feel so irrelevant?"
The answer is revealed in those crashing TV ratings. On the one hand, baseball - like Test cricket, some would say - is simply not telegenic. Games last for hours and hours, with no fixed final whistle. You can find yourself staring at a screen while players in striped pyjamas chew tobacco and confer with each other, wondering when something will happen.
On the other hand, the nature of the audience has changed too.
"It does have a lot to do with the broader cultural trends that have helped shape modern America," wrote Mahler.
"The NFL [American football] has certain structural advantages over Major League Baseball: teams play only once a week, and when the post-season arrives, every game is an elimination game.
"But its real advantage is that it's louder, faster and more violent - which is to say, better in tune with our cultural moment."
The old baseball cliché was that it was the American game because, like jazz, it uniquely expressed the role of the individual – the trumpet soloist, the one-on-one contest of batter and pitcher - within the co-operative society in what was the "exceptional" American Way.
That does not ring true even as an aspiration in today's America of winner-takes-all capitalism, gun law and political feuding around Congressional demands to gut the social safety nets.
"In an age of instant gratification," wrote Joey Spitz for the Huffington Post, "today's fans desire entertainment that is fast-paced and straightforward. Baseball, conversely, is a slow, novel-like, amusement whose power lies in the accumulation and appreciation of moments.
"The truth of the matter is that baseball, though destined to remain a touchstone of American history, will continue to be marginalised in a culture of instant gratification."
American football has become the metaphor for American life. Watching it on television while gobbling fast food and gulping super-sized drinks is now "America's pastime". ·