If I know anything about baseball writers, they’re about to get worked into a huff about Major League Baseball’s decision to put Spider-Man 2 logos on bases and the pitcher’s mound to promote the movie, breaking the invisible but sacred barrier between the game and the outside world.
The advertisements will be 7.5-square-inch drawings of a spiderweb on a bright red background. They will be on the top of the center of each bag and the pitcher’s mound and in the on-deck circles, but not on home plate, from June 11th-13th.
Inevitably, people are going to say baseball has “gone too far” and that they will stop watching games now. Unfortunately for the baseball purists, a group of which I used to consider myself a member, following the sport nowadays often requires biting one’s tongue. This is one of those times.
How can someone like Bob Costas, the host of two sports-related shows on HBO, claim that “not everything is for sale” when it comes to baseball when nearly all the stadiums are named after large corporations? And how can he say, with a straight face, “I think people have lost the understanding of what the dignity of something is.”
The dignity of baseball went out with the strike season of 1994, with the dismantling of the Florida Marlins in 1997 and with the ongoing steroid scandal. The dignity of the sport has also been threatened by the two premier sports leagues in the country, the National Football League and National Basketball Association, which have distinguished themselves from baseball through aggressive marketing.
Now baseball is playing catch-up with marketing, and this is one of the steps they need to put the sport on equal footing with sports leagues it once dominated. How can baseball writers complain that there are only four black starting pitchers in a 30-team league if they do not aggressively market in the inner-cities, like the NBA does, then criticize baseball’s marketing efforts?
The athletes you are most likely to see on television hawking products are Kobe Bryant (arrested on rape charges), Ray Lewis (guilty of obstruction of justice in an Atlanta murder investigation) and LeBron James (the 19-year-old phenom who is supposedly a symbol of marketing excess), none of whom play baseball. The lesson is that fans don’t run from players who could be perceived as having problems, as with Barry Bonds and the steroids issue, they embrace them. They see those players as human, whether they agree with their poor decisions, and admire their talent on the field.
Baseball has long considered itself the moral role model for other sports, but that’s a silly and unrealistic position to maintain when the sport has had so many problems and the other leagues are being successful doing just the opposite. Advertising within the game may irk some fans, but it’s inevitable, and good will likely come from it.
Right now, MLB is the place where the best athletes from across the world come to compete against America’s second-tier stars. A case in point: Darryl Strawberry was a great baseball player. His son is a great athlete. Rather than taking on baseball, he’s a star at the University of Indiana—as a basketball player. If the son of a former home run king can’t love the game, the game needs to change.