To understand America, said a culture critic of yore, one must understand baseball. Consider the significance of two of the new season's opening games.
In Boston, opening day for the Red Sox fell on Good Friday. The normal 1:05 p.m. start would conflict with the Good Friday services held by many churches between the hours of noon and 3:00 p.m., the hours that Christ hung on the cross. (Not only Catholics but Lutherans and other traditions hold a "tre-ore service" that lasts the full three hours.)
The Red Sox could have made the opening contest with the Seattle Mariners a night game, but that would have conflicted with Passover, the Jewish holiday happening to fall this year on the same date, and the ceremonial seder meal has to be held in the evening. The Sox finally scheduled a 3:05 start, so that it would fall between both worship services.
Not only that, the Red Sox recognized Good Friday and Passover by eliminating the pregame ceremonies and banning the sale of beer during the game. This latter gesture seemed to go beyond the call of sensitivity-especially since Catholics and Jews are seldom offended by alcohol. (What they should have done is ban hot dogs, observed one fan. Catholics aren't supposed to eat meat on Good Friday, and Jews aren't supposed to eat pork.) But the point, according to front office spokesman Dick Bresciani, is that "we're trying to show the solemnity of the situation for both faiths."
Christians, by and large, were astonished at such consideration. We are not used to having our religion respected anymore in the public square, and especially in the all-encompassing industry of entertainment and recreation. After all, children's soccer leagues now often schedule games on Sunday mornings.
But baseball-with its national anthem ritual, its obsession with history, and its 19th-century agrarian pace-has always been the sport that is most respectful of tradition and the wellsprings of American culture.
Now jump to the other side of the country, to the Tuesday opening day in Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium. Fans arriving at what had been a true-blue bastion of baseball tradition for four decades noticed some changes. The scoreboard now has ads, so that a sports event can have commercials even when it is not being watched on TV. The time-honored organ is now supplemented with a high-tech sound system that pumps out rock music. Strobe lights have been installed in the outfield for when a Dodger hits a home run.
The main difference this year is that Rupert Murdoch now owns the Dodgers. The O'Malley family had owned the team for decades and would never have countenanced such innovations, but like many family-owned businesses, they were bought out by a bigger corporation. Mr. Murdoch, the Australian-born billionaire whose media and entertainment empire ranges from the Fox television network to Zondervan Publishing House, bought the team for some $300 million.
On opening day, Mr. Murdoch flew in from England to see his team. Mel Antonen of USA Today describes Mr. Murdoch in his luxury box as his aides tried to explain to him the rules of the game. What's a double play? Why is everybody so excited that the pitcher hit a double?
During the game, Dodger fans booed when their great catcher Mike Piazza came to the plate. Something is seriously dysfunctional when the home team crowd boos their best player. It seems Mr. Piazza was demanding a multi-year contract for $100 million. He turned down the team's offer of $81 million. The new Dodgers management did not think he was worth one-third the price the new owners paid for the whole team. This part of the game Mr. Murdoch undoubtedly did understand.
One wonders what Mr. Piazza wants to buy with $100 million that he could not buy for $81 million. Or if Mr. Murdoch really needs the income from the credit card ads on the scoreboard.
The root of all evil is not so much money, but, as the Bible says, the love of money. Mr. Piazza wishes the distinction of being paid more than anyone else in baseball. His pride is at stake. Mr. Murdoch is commercializing the Dodgers because he wants a chunk of American culture and, like Midas, everything he touches must be turned into gold.
With the economy booming and the stock market shooting into the stratosphere, making money has become America's new representative game, the competitive sport whose points are tallied with dollar signs. The commercialization of our culture is taking place on almost every level. A number of classical musicians are dressing like rock stars and sex symbols to sell more records. Schools are cashing in on product promotions and advertising contracts. Even churches are adopting marketing strategies, turning their pastors into CEOs, and in some cases watering down their product to make it more appealing to their customers.
And yet, there are signs that Americans still have a yearning for authenticity. In a culture that seems to have become one vast advertisement, something real becomes especially precious. The Red Sox tipping their caps to Good Friday is cause for hope.
In baseball, many teams are building new stadiums. True, they are being named for their corporate sponsors-so that San Francisco's poetically named Candlestick Park has been renamed 3Com Park, for a technology firm. And the main reason for building them is so there will be luxury boxes-so that the wealthy will not have to sit with the masses, in violation of baseball's historic claim that it is democracy's game in which rich and poor alike come together at the ball park. But the most striking aspect of the new stadiums is that they are trying to be nostalgic, trying to emulate the appearance and atmosphere of the old stadiums of baseball history.
To be sure, this unstable combination of traditionalism and consumerism results in stadiums with the feel of a theme park, as phony as the facades of Frontierland. But still, that there is at least a conflict is a testimony that we have not totally abandoned our heritage.