Art & Commerce: Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

MLB to McGwire: Baseball is not a domestic brand
Americans who keep a normal diurnal schedule can be excused for feeling like today is the opening day of the Major League Baseball season. Yet everyone knows the first game of the year was played last week by the Mets and the Cubs in the Land of the Rising Sun–which is exactly what the sun was doing at game time in New York and Chicago.
For macho Met and Cubs fans, watching the prime-time Tokyo broadcast, bleary-eyed and beerless, was an exercise in extreme fandom. The rest of us had to settle for logging on to the Internet with our morning coffee to catch the score.
One who surely didn’t wake up–or stay up–to watch Japanese fans in official Major League Baseball regalia scream for Sammy Sosa and company was Mark McGwire. A week before “opening day,” Big Mac, who last summer led the Cardinals to reject MLB’s invitation to take the mother of all road trips, vented his disgust with the globalization of baseball. “Baseball is already too international,” he told The New York Times, complaining that the money-hungry MLB was sacrificing the welfare and sleep cycle of the players to the great gods of global marketing.
At least McGwire walks the walk of his “too much greed in baseball” talk, having rejected free agent funny money in 1997 to re-sign with St. Louis, a town he calls “baseball heaven.” His plaint did not get much sympathy or support. Critics call him misguided, out-of-touch, xenophobic and even racist.
Meantime, Donald Fehr of the Players Association and MLB commissioner Bud Selig, who agree on little, have practically raised bruises patting each other on the back for pulling off the global marketing coup.
In truth, the globalization of baseball is a fait accompli; the game is a fact of national life in Latin America, the Caribbean and the Pacific Rim. Even here, about one-third of the players on MLB’s
current roster were born in another country. U.S. scouts will continue to scour the globe for talent.
Now, thanks to McGwire’s refusal to cross multiple time zones to play the season opener, Sosa’s brown Dominican visage will linger in the photo archives as the global face of the American pastime.
Little wonder then that McGwire’s remarks got the same treatment the World Trade Organization protesters received last fall. They, too, were dismissed by the press as muddleheaded, nostalgia-haunted reactionaries, self-righteous obstructionists vainly blocking the road of economic inevitability.
In fact, McGwire would not have been out of place in Seattle. He denounces the sacrifice of workers to the global ambitions of profit-making corporations. He decries the corrosive effect on national traditions. He even claims our quality of life is being poisoned and our sense of values perverted by our materialism–though not in those words.
McGwire’s is the anger and frustration that inspires McDonald’s-torching Frenchmen–except that, in an ironic twist, it is American culture that he is defending against the grim reaper of globalization.
Unfortunately for McGwire, baseball as the national pastime, the pastoral allegory for the American way, no longer exists. It died long ago, the victim of television-sized attention spans, night games and a multichannel universe. Lulled to sleep by its own outdated boys-of-summer
delusions, MLB was caught flat-footed in the ’80s and ’90s, while the National Football League and National Basketball Association were seeding the globe with their brands.
Baseball has since made a belated conversion to the gospel of marketing–wild card teams, interleague play, the MLB Abroad road shows. Each innovation is another blow to tradition. But then, marketing is all that baseball has left, a substitute for the place it once held in the national psyche.
It is ironic, too, that McGwire, the most potent baseball marketing weapon in the sport’s resurgence, has become a refusenik in the game’s global gambit.
Consider the dismal TV ratings performance of the overexposed NBA this year. How much comfort can it be to NBC, which is losing its shirt on prime-time basketball, that Chicago Bulls merchandise sells out in Spain? Pundits like to blame slackened fan interest on the retirement of Michael Jordan. Do they mean that after all these years of hearing about the marketing geniuses at the NBA, basketball’s popularity really came down to one extraordinary athlete?
Marketers should take note: Players like McGwire sell baseball, not the other way around.