As film subjects under the deft treatment of
Their epic nine-part series
As an identifier, "The Steroid Era" works not unlike the eponymous juice that changed the game: quick and dirty. There is so much more. It also has been the era in which baseball grew big and complicated and global and messy. Wild cards, unprecedented labor peace, home runs, a ballpark building boom, expansion, more home runs, interleague play, new media platforms and yes, even more home runs, have left the
So tonight and tomorrow night on PBS we are treated to
What shines through about
The undercurrent of sadness of the
Here is a quick visual of baseball history: the number of times a player has hit 50 home runs, including those seasons of 63 or more. It is broken down by three segments: all of major league history up until The Steroid Era, the height of the Steroid Era itself, and The Testing Era:
What took 119 years was done again (and then some) in just eight, but once steroid testing went into place in 2003, the next eight years have looked nothing like it -- and neither have the players. It is jarring, based on what we now know and what we see today, to view in
When Burns and Novick produced
Moreover, as the digital age gave rise to an information- and service-based economy rather than a manufacturing one, the availability and appetite for entertainment have exploded. Americans crave entertainment more than ever. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average American consumer spends about as much money on entertainment as on health care. Baseball, once a pastime in which newspapers and radio were the primary delivery vehicles, now must compete as one of many entertainment options across multiple platforms.
Attendance rose, but not stunningly so. In fact, it took 18 seasons for baseball to get back to its per-game average before the strike hit (31,256) -- only to sink below that 1994 attendance average last year (30,350). The money in the game did explode, however, because of greater per-capita spending at these new palaces but mostly because of new revenues such as regional sports networks, international growth, naming rights, advanced media and expanded playoffs. The wild card may be the best-known hit in the catalog of commissioner
The post-strike environment has created, according to Selig, "the best competitive balance in the game's history." Since the strike, 16 franchises have played in 15 World Series. This year, six of the eight highest-spending teams will not make the postseason (Red Sox, Cubs, Mets, Tigers, White Sox and Angels).
The greatest economic engine, however, in the post-strike boom has been the rise of the New York Yankees and, subsequently, the Boston Red Sox and the rivalry they engendered. The Yankees and Red Sox generate ratings, merchandise sales and buzz like nobody else, which explains why Burns and Novick devote healthy chunks of
Yankees-Red Sox is the single greatest weight-bearing beam in the structure of baseball. Baseball next month will conduct its first postseason without the Chicago or Los Angeles markets represented since 2001, but the idea of being without the Yankees and Red Sox has become unthinkable. They rank first and third in the majors in wins since 1995, have claimed 13 spots in the past 14 American League Championship Series and draw a combined 6.7 million fans to their parks, up 40 percent in the last full season before the strike.
As for the game itself, this season, often referred to as The Year of the Pitcher, has continued to return baseball to a pre-steroid look -- further cutting off that era from the rest of baseball's connected history. Offense has been pruned to 1992 levels. We get 1-0 games twice a week. Defense matters again. Even the Oakland Athletics bunt.
Baseball has reestablished its equilibrium, its connection to its history. The cost for such rebalancing, at a time when infamy and fame are interchangeable, when notoriety is misused so often as to have entirely lost its true meaning, is that baseball does not have a single player people talk about at the water cooler on Monday morning. McGwire, Bonds, Martinez,
Without a transcendent player and without Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles, this will not be a huge October for baseball ratings, not unless several series get stretched to the maximum number of games (a stroke of luck for which the game is overdue). But ratings alone are not the measurement of health for a sport no more than weight is for a person. Ratings, because of the plethora of media options, can't compare to what they were in a three-network world.
If you go by World Series ratings, baseball reached its apex in 1980, when the Phillies and Royals did a 32.8 rating. Last year the Yankees and Phillies rated an 11.7. And yet per-game attendance today is 50 percent higher than what it was in 1980 (20,434). The game was played in many multi-purpose stadiums and strikes or lockouts always loomed as close as the next round of bargaining between the owners and players. Today the leading economic indicators for the sport are strong. There is so much live baseball on television and online you can consume it just about anywhere anytime (except for baseball's Byzantine blackout rules). Minor league phenoms now do their apprenticeships on live national television, as was the case with
Should baseball call back Burns and Novick for
Thematically, however, the story they would tell then will not differ too much from