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April 11: Old Timers – Baseball, Nostalgia & Respect

So, Charles Krauthammer recently opined in a column for TIME Magazine that baseball is dying, at least partly because of its love for nostalgia, and how we fans, supposedly, look back on the past as brighter and better than the present or future. Of course, the real point of the essay seemed to be that it was Mr. Krauthammer’s own nostalgia that makes him think that the current game is dying, but he wouldn’t come out and say that…

But the essay got me to thinking. Today I was posting some reminiscence in the Yankee web site Fan Forum, and found myself reflexively starting to joke about my age, a la “yeah, yeah, there I go again about the old days.” But I stopped myself, because I realized that I really didn’t have to. We live in a youth-obsessed culture, where “nostalgia” is being recycled after five years or less on MTV, where generations have less to do with decades and more to do with minutes. So the reflex, now that I am over thirty, is to always self-deprecate about being over thirty, about having been alive during the groovy seventies and surviving the Reagan 80s and so on…

But, in baseball, first of all, I’m far from being the oldest fan in the forum. I don’t even think I’m close to the average age, actually. Second of all, baseball culture respects nostalgia in a very unique way. We want to hear the stories of “I was there” and re-live great moments in a non-ironic, completely sincere fashion. We aren’t trying to be “retro” (though all the new ballparks are…) when we look up to heroes like Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays. Those of us who were too young to know those greats don’t snicker when those older than we are start talking about them. We listen, and we expect that when we get old, we’ll be talking about Cal Ripken and Derek Jeter and whoever comes next down the pike, and the younger generations of fans will sit around our feet saying “wow.”

This is a startling thing to realize. Is there anywhere in American culture, especially in entertainment and media (which spectator sports fall into), where the past is respected? Where age is respected? With our continually emerging genres of music, cutting edge fashion, and the immense value we put on innovation of any kind, we are one of those cultures that Margaret Mead described so long ago, one where the knowledge runs not from the old to the young, but from the young to the old. The youth dictate what we will listen to, eat, buy, see, drive, etc…

But not in baseball. Baseball is a grand old game, ain’t it? But it isn’t just that it is old, and it isn’t smothered by its own nostalgia, because the current game respects the old game, and the current fans respect the old fans. And we think it’s going to continue that way for a long time. Oh sure, there have been potholes and chasms along the way. Strikes, free agency, the designated hitter, and yet something remains basically unchanged about the game. Commissioner Selig has designs on restructuring the leagues again and once again reshaping the post-season. Will it be too much change?

I don’t know. But you can bet fans of all ages will sit around saying “I remember when…”

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