Seated in the upper deck at San Francisco’s AT&T Park, during a Giants-Rockies game, you wouldn’t know millions of Americans are underwater and unemployed, or that the 2012 elections were less than two months away. The large man seated next to me cups his hand over his mouth to scream, “Colorado, you suck!” and other such sagacious slogans as the game creeps on, and the sun sets over San Francisco Bay.
The Giants prove unable to hit the tiny stitched ball as it zooms toward the plate. Baseball, a form of escape whether you’re playing or watching, once belonged mainly to men, especially working-class men. Now, the stands include lots of passionate women — some holding signs that read “Gamer Babes.”
Entering the park means leaving the rest of the world behind. You don’t think about those overdue mortgage payments, your job uncertainty, how you’re going to afford health insurance, looming car repairs, or your kid in Afghanistan (and maybe soon in Syria — who knows?).
Instead, 40,000 satisfied spectators discuss the performance of the ball players as they clump together on their way out of the stadium and begrudgingly re-enter reality.
I’m one of millions of baseball escapists. A Giants fan since I was four, I lived within walking distance to the Polo Grounds where they played when they were the New York Giants.
The Giants played inconsistent ball and didn’t galvanize enough fans in the decade preceding their 1957 relocation to San Francisco. The team had won the pennant in 1951 and the World Series in 1954, but couldn’t draw fans as did their Brooklyn rivals (the Dodgers) and the hated Yankees. Owner Horace Stoneham thought the move across the nation would revitalize the team.
Now, in the bayside venue, tourists mingle with hometown enthusiasts to watch the game. But beneath the blissful transition from the workplace to the ballpark, professional baseball is big business. America’s favorite pastime just happens to be vertically integrated from expensive replica jerseys to logo-bearing key chains. Players like Tim Lincecum, Brian Wilson, and Buster Posey attract cult-like followings from emotionally invested fans.
We take a personal stake in the performances of men wearing “our” team’s uniform — guys we don’t even know. But in some ways, the celebrity status of baseball players isn’t such a bad thing. In the midst of growing political disillusionment, resulting from harmful decisions like Citizens United, it’s hard to believe that any politician can act independently of monetary persuasions. But when Posey tags out a runner at home to deny the opponent a crucial run, it’s hard to imagine any other influence than pure talent and passion at work.
Sure, the players, especially the stars, make high salaries, but the team owners reap the biggest profits from tickets, TV rights, and the food and booze sold at the games. It’s a big business, like all professional sports, that uses good old American values to lure customers.
So, when you take your family to the ball park to eat hotdogs and root for the Giants, Nationals, Rockies, Yankees, whoever — you’ll be over $100 poorer. But you’ll have spent the afternoon outdoors with loved ones, not slumped on the couch arguing with an unresponsive umpire on TV.
Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies fellow.