Andrew Keating, Cobalt Review: A friend and I were debating the merits of football versus baseball, in a way not unlike your June 19th NPR column: all about the short-term excitements, pacing, etc. My friend stated that he prefers football because he is frequently “witnessing things he has never seen before” (such as Riley Cooper hiding in the Eagles’ end zone). This got me thinking about the constant changes in a sport like football. I managed to become a Dolphins fan as a kid, and we had the Wildcat offense in 2008, which changed the role of RBs. Then it was Tebowmania (not too different from the double-threat of a young Michael Vick). Now it’s the read option offense. The game is constantly changing. Baseball, on the other hand, changes very little, or—I should say—incrementally and over a long period of time.
What do you think are some of the key reasons for baseball surviving as our “national pastime?” Is it nostalgia, the fact that the game that is being played today is so similar to the game that was played by my father’s generation and my grandfather’s generation?
Deford: American football is more the exception than the rule when it comes to great change. Has soccer changed much? No. Given baseball’s structure, it would be hard to make transformational changes. It’s a different game than football (and all back-and-forth games) and thus has different appeal. Whereas football is clearly the more popular game in America, baseball retains a huge audience. It could not sustain its popularity simply by being nostalgic. People like baseball for what it is.
Keating: The asterisk is perhaps the most harmful symbol in all of sports. I’d like to think we have moved beyond its use for Roger Maris, but the stink of its placement on Barry Bonds’ record-setting home run ball seems to be here to stay. And now reports are surfacing every season incriminating the baseball elite in performance-enhancing substance use.
Deford: The steroid era in baseball (and some other sports) taught fans to be more suspicious. Yes, they’re also more cynical, but I think most fans appreciate that baseball is more vigilant about drugs today. The fact that the drug cheats are not being accepted into the Hall of Fame, and that the public seems to concur, suggests that a majority of fans think the cheaters should be punished, if only symbolically. Otherwise, it’s time to move on. Football has a much greater problem with concussions, because that is an on-going issue at the very center of the game. Drugs will always be a threat in every sport, but the officials are on alert now. That changes things.
Keating: How did you, or your colleagues in sportswriting, adapt to the shifting sentiment of baseball fans in light of these scandals? Did you find the relationship with your readers change at all?
Deford: Maybe the writers who covered baseball on a day-to-day basis found readers responding to their work differently. I think most fans just wanted to hear the truth.
Keating: We have a brief essay in this issue about a woman hanging out with Boog Powell, Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and she recalls spending a lot of time at Memorial Stadium when she was younger. Since you were born here in Baltimore, I thought I’d ask if you have any particular memories from Memorial Stadium, or with Jim Palmer (the namesake of our contest, after all).
Deford: The Orioles of that era had a reputation amongst the press as about the nicest team in sports—certainly in baseball. In my dealings with Brooks, Boog and Jim, as different as they are as people, I certainly concurred with that assessment. Wonderful people, all three—and I had a special connection with Jim, because I was a trustee of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and Jim was our national spokesman for many years.
Not much to say about Memorial Stadium except that I spent many happy hours there. What’s to say? It was my hometown stadium. How do you compare it to any other in another city?
Keating: Will we ever see Pete Rose in the Hall of Fame?
Deford: Not in my lifetime. Or his.
Keating: How has the role of the MLBPA changed since it’s introduction in 1952? Do you find the Players Association as effective in baseball as it is in leagues with salary caps?
Deford: The baseball union seems pretty effective to me. I don’t hear any players complaining
Keating: Now that I’ve brought up salary caps, I’m curious about your thoughts on the Luxury Tax. The tax has only been paid by four teams a total of 17 times, and yet only four times has a team that crossed the luxury tax threshold reached the World Series (Yankees ’03/’08, Red Sox ’04/’07). Maybe this speaks to a more competitive league than we had at the time of the Blue Ribbon Panel report?
Deford: That stuff bores me. I leave that to the insiders. Just generally, I like to see the small market teams get theirs.
Keating: Last month, you celebrated the 125th Anniversary of the writing of “Casey at the Bat” by reading it on your weekly segment for NPR’s Morning Edition. It is a tale we have all heard and felt great sadness for (an understanding, as we have all felt that disappointment as fans). What is it about this poem that has stood the test of time, much like this great game of ours? What other literary works would you hold up to Thayer’s mighty Casey?
Deford: Some works of no obvious brilliance just catch hold of the public eye or ear. It takes luck and circumstance and even then it’s a bit of a mystery. Obviously, part of Casey’s charm is that the big slugger fails, but it’s impossible to explain its enduring popularity. Likewise: Who’s On First. It’s funny, but why has it remained the number-one vaudeville comic routine.
Keating: Since this issue is coming out during the All Star Break, I thought it would be appropriate to discuss the role of home-field advantage as an incentive to the midsummer classic. Do you think that this game, which is not managed much like a typical regular season game (with starting lineups being determined by vote counts, for instance, or pitchers only throwing for one or two innings), is the proper way to determine home field advantage for the World Series?
(Personally, with inter-league play a season-long necessity, I think that total
win-loss records for inter-league play could be a viable option for determining home field advantage.)
Deford: I think it’s fun to determine home court this way. Sometimes baseball people take things too seriously. Better than the just alternating, the way it used to be. (Your idea seems fine, too, but my understanding is that they need to decide fairly early how the schedule is going to go because of saving hotel rooms, etc. Waiting till the end of the season to see who wins the most inter-league games may not be logistically possible.)
About Frank: Writer and commentator Frank Deford is the author of sixteen books. His latest novel, Bliss, Remembered, is a love story set at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and in World War II. Publishers Weekly calls it a “thought-provoking…and poignant story, utterly charming and enjoyable.” Booklist says Bliss, Remembered is “beautifully written…elegantly constructed…writing that is genuinely inspiring.”
On radio, Deford may be heard as a commentator every Wednesday on NPR’s Morning Edition and, on television, he is the senior correspondent on the HBO show RealSports With Bryant Gumbel. In magazines, he is Senior Contributing Writer at Sports Illustrated.
Moreover, two of Deford’s books — the novel Everybody’s All-American and Alex: The Life Of A Child, his memoir about his daughter who died of cystic fibrosis — have been made into movies. Two of his original screenplays, Trading Hearts and Four Minutes, have also been filmed.
As a journalist, Deford has been elected to the Hall of Fame of the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters. Six times Deford was voted by his peers as U.S. Sportswriter of The Year. The American Journalism Review has likewise cited him as the nation’s finest sportswriter, and twice he was voted Magazine Writer of The Year by the Washington Journalism Review.
Deford has also been presented with the National Magazine Award for profiles, a Christopher Award, and journalism Honor Awards from the University of Missouri and Northeastern University, and he has received many honorary degrees. The Sporting News has described Deford as “the most influential sports voice among members of the print media,” and the magazine GQ has called him, simply, “the world’s greatest sportswriter.”
In broadcast, Deford has won both an Emmy and a George Foster Peabody Award.
For sixteen years, Deford served as national chairman of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and he remains chairman emeritus. Deford is a graduate of Princeton University, where he has taught in American Studies. (Source: NPR)