These days, it's hard to make people gasp. Bad taste is so commonplace and the lust for a buck so raw that it's hard to move the outrage meter, much less make it jump off the chart. But baseball managed to do it this week. The sport sold the bases, the pitching rubber and home plate as ad space for a movie sequel!
As satire, as spoof, as a parody of everything that has debased our games and driven the public away from big-time sports, this would seem excessive, improbable, just too far over the top to believe.
But baseball actually did it. Bud Selig's sport sold out the 150-year history of its pristine geometry for the pathetic price of $50,000 on average. Or about what Alex Rodriguez earns in one game. Baseball agreed to put ads for the movie "Spider-Man 2" on its playing field as well as both on-deck circles for the weekend of June 11-13. All over America, jaws dropped until they hit the floor.
That's the bad news. Here's the fabulous news. Within two days of the story's publication, baseball was so overwhelmed with outrage and mockery from inside and outside the game that, last night , it abruptly canceled the most offensive parts of the advertising campaign and pulled the ads off the bases. The campaign, however, will still be a presence at the ballpark — in the on-deck circles, on the pitching rubber for pregame ceremonies and on stadium video boards.
For once, the public actually shoved an attempt at rampant commercialism back down the throats of the philistines who proposed it. Maybe they can put ridiculous "swooshes" and stupid little animals all over our clothes, but they better not mess with the baseball diamond! At least we draw the line somewhere, even if the choice of battlegrounds — a picture of a spider's web on home plate — must seem odd in other cultures.
Of course, baseball is trying to put a good face on its embarrassment. We shouldn't let them. Everyone associated with this decision-making processes should be mortified. This isn't just a baseball issue. It's a broader American cultural issue. If the pitcher's rubber at Fenway Park and second base at Yankee Stadium are up for sale, then what isn't for sale in this country?
Selig and baseball's president and chief operating officer Robert DuPuy — who's had the misfortune to be the mouthpiece for this PR disaster — should not be let off the hook. The idea, in its entirety, should be rejected completely. If there is any backsliding, if the "web-slinger" — who is himself a legitimate comic book icon — finds a way to swing himself anywhere near the game's actual playing fields, then heads should roll. "Spidey" has his place. It's not on the pitcher's mound or even in the on-deck circle.
"Major League Baseball and Columbia Pictures have agreed to remove the 'Spider-Man 2' logo from the in-field bases," baseball said in a news release last night.
"As stated when this partnership was announced, we think this is a terrific promotion . . . and a great opportunity to reach out to children and families," said a statement from DuPuy.
That's bunk, of course. It's a lousy idea and a blatant attempt to sell out, not to "reach out."
"The bases were an extremely small part of this program," continued DuPuy, ignoring the obvious — that putting logos on the bases was the controversial centerpiece of the whole promotion.
"We understand that a segment of our fans was uncomfortable with this particular component," continued DuPuy. "We are pleased to be moving ahead with all other elements of this groundbreaking marketing partnership."
Oh, please. The only fans that weren't outraged by the idea were those who were downright apoplectic. Even former commissioner Fay Vincent, also a former president of Columbia Pictures, was appalled by the base logos. "It's inevitable but awful," he said before the plan was nixed.
It's is ironic, to say the least, that America is able to understand issues of taste and tradition vs. commercialism more clearly when the debate is reduced to a baseball field than it is in countless other venues where corporate gall and lowest-common-denominator values routinely carry the day.
But then maybe we understand baseball better.
No sport, except perhaps golf, has ever been so closely identified with the beauty and uniqueness of the place in which it is played. One of the central reasons that baseball is able to sustain a 162-game season — twice as many contests as the NBA or NHL — is that people, for generations, have loved to sit in a baseball park. On our American list of "perfect things," the baseball diamond has always held a high place. Even those who don't love the game understand the combination of power and peacefulness in a ballpark.
All around the world in these tormented times people ask, "What does America stand for?" If comic book movie logos had been stamped on all the bases in every big league park of the national pastime, maybe the correct answer really would have been reduced to "Money, money, money and money."
Luckily, we have risen up and prevented the editorial writers at Le Monde from having a "field" day?
A measure of baseball's lack of judgment and backbone under Selig is the fact that neither the NFL nor NBA has allowed anybody to do any advertising on their actual fields of play. The impoverished NHL, groveling for every dollar, has allowed ads under its ice. But baseball was the sport that was ready to sell its soul for peanuts — $3.6 million. That's exactly the size of the NFL contract that the late Pat Tillman turned down so that he could fight, and ultimately die, as a U.S. Army Ranger in Afghanistan.
Make no mistake, three days of movie logos on the bases is just the thin edge of the wedge. What this week has taught us is that we need to keep a close eye on Selig's bunch. No breach of faith with the game's fans is apparently beneath them. They only relented because they were bludgeoned from coast to coast. "Signage" on a baseball diamond is pure spoilage. Each logo would have been like a gob of tobacco juice in the eye of every fan who has an ounce of feeling for the spirit of the game.
Luckily, the public said, "Enough is enough." But we will have to continue to say it. Our alternative is to docilely accept what Vincent calls the "inevitable but awful" — in our games and in our culture. If we don't resist our commercial despoilers, then when they make a sequel to "Field of Dreams," Shoeless Joe Jackson may come out of the cornfield wearing a sandwich board that says, "This Space For Sale."