We Wuz Robbed
If baseball is going to abandon the poor, then I’m going to abandon baseball.

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 3 July 2022

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With people dying in Ukraine, the overturning of Roe V Wade, and the diminishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, the fate of baseball in America may seem like a trivial concern. But after a hard week of fighting the fight for climate remediation, social justice, and economic equality, I was more than disappointed to learn that I would be unable to watch Friday night’s Mets game without a subscription to NBC Peacock. It wasn’t just the loss of my weekly relaxation ritual. It felt to me as if the privatization of baseball represented the final surrender of our shared values and experiences as a people to the short-term interests of the market.

I realize this is just the latest stage in a longer process. When I was a kid, we could watch baseball games on broadcast television. Here in New York, the Mets were on WOR channel 9, and the Yankees were on WPIX channel 11. It seemed as if everyone could afford a television set, or at least get to a friend who had one. Cheaper black and white sets could be purchased new for less than sixty bucks, or just ten or fifteen at a thrift store. Almost everyone who lived indoors in New York City also had a TV set.

But over the years, games moved from free broadcast channels to basic cable, and then to “premium tier” cable. If you’re not able to get your team’s cable channel, you can download the MLB app and pay a monthly fee to watch your team’s “out of market” games — meaning you can leave town or live in a different city than your favorite team and watch the games. For about $25/month.

But there’s no consistency. Even armed with a full package of cable and internet, it’s hard to figure out where a game is being shown. On any evening, it may be on broadcast, basic cable, one of several ESPN stations, the team channel, or some version of Fox. The home team announcers may or may not be there to ground audiences in the familiar — a large part of the reason many fans tune in at all.

And now, as various streaming services use their war chests of investment cash to battle for dominance, games are being broadcast on platforms that are too expensive or simply too difficult for many people to access. It started with Facebook live-streaming games. I suppose that’s fine — as long as you have a Facebook account, are okay with the company spying on what you do while you watch the game, and have sufficient computing power and Internet bandwidth to stream video. That’s not everyone.

Then came games available exclusively on AppleTV. For that, I guess you need at least an Amazon Firestick and WiFi, or a Google Chromecast, or an AppleTV capable computer, and a “trial” account. Last week’s game was on NBC’s Peacock — a newish streaming service for which I once purchased an account in order to watch Grant Morrison’s adaptation of Brave New World last year, making me ineligible for a trial account to watch the game. Was I willing to sign up for the paid monthly service to watch this one game? No.

I am unwilling to continue following my New York Mets to whichever subscriber-hungry platform may be leveraging the team’s brand power next. It’s not that I can’t afford it; I suppose if I prioritized my expenses differently, I’m lucky enough to be able to pay a few hundred dollars for the cable and streaming services required to watch my hometown’s baseball team on television. But I don’t believe most people are. Nor should they be. And that changes everything about baseball for me.

Baseball was always a form of mass entertainment. A public spectacle. Part of the joy of the sport was to have something in common with people of every class, caste, and color. “How about those Mets?” was as appropriate a conversation starter with the dentist as with her doorman. My Mets cap established the same rapport with the customs guy at Laguardia as it did with the retirement advisor at the bank. Reducing baseball into an experience for the wealthy defeats the whole reason for having a home town team.

When I Tweeted my discontent at not being able to watch the game without an NBC Peacock account, one of the first responses I got was from someone who accused me of sounding like “a liberal with no job.” He thought I was being stingy, and looking for a handout. I’ve got more than enough jobs right now, but I don’t want to pay to watch baseball alone — or reward the sport for moving to pay-per-view. Part of being a fan is to cheer the team on with as many others as possible. Baseball, more than any other American sport, served as a unifier in this way. It’s not an escape from the others; it’s a way of finding them.

Since the Roman games and even before, those responsible for maintaining the public sphere have recognized the need for unifying mass spectacle. And unlike the Nuremberg or MAGA rallies, sports spectacles can accomplish this social function with minimum calls for othering or violence. The “others” are the visiting team, and the violence is sublimated with sport. In this sense, while baseball teams have always been private enterprises, they have also been serving a public, municipal purpose. I used to take the stadium announcer seriously when he said “and now, your New York Mets.”

I guess what it comes down to is that baseball was one of the last things I had in common with people on the other side of various class and political divides. I may not like who you voted for, but at least we could talk about baseball. More important, I felt like I we were maintaining at least one mainstream cultural institution that embraced people at all levels of wealth.

If baseball is going to abandon the poor, then I’m going to abandon baseball.