Let's say it's late October, and you're in what should be baseball heaven, sitting on the couch watching the fourth game of the World Series, Yanks vs. Braves.
Suppose for a moment that you're a Minnesota Twins fan. You've been a baseball fan all your life, grew up playing the game, once got Rod Carew's autograph at a Little League clinic, spent your eighth birthday at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, and your fifteenth at the Humpdome in downtown Minneapolis. You played baseball in high school, took a summer vacation in college to Cooperstown, and once joked that you wouldn't leave the country between September 1 and the end of October, because you couldn't stand to miss the end of a pennant race or the playoffs.
But tonight you find yourself watching the Series not because you're passionately rooting for either the Atlanta Braves or the New York Yankees. Instead you're watching mostly because, well, watching the Series is what you've done every October for as long as you can remember (save for that lost fall of 1994).
So you sit there and contemplate the Atlanta Braves, a team the Twins vanquished eight years earlier in perhaps the greatest Series ever. And you wonder about the fortunes and forces that, since then, have sent your club into a decade-long financial and competitive tailspin, while the Braves have been in the playoffs every full season since. The two cities are roughly the same size, and, competitive factors being equal, Minnesota has supported the Twins at least as well as Atlanta has supported its team. Yet in the weird logic of late-'9Os baseball, Atlanta is a big market and Minneapolis-St. Paul is a small one. While your team still plays in the depressing dome, Atlanta has a new state-of-the-art facility with natural grass, good sight lines, a cozy retro feel, and all the modern amenities.
When you look across the field at the New York Yankees, you just shake your head. It's hard to work up the old "Damn Yankees" antipathy these days. Partly because of Joe Torre, and partly because baseball's proudest franchise seems to be playing in a league, if not a sport, entirely different from your own. They got your best player two years ago, even though the Twins' owners would have paid him a team-record contract to stay in Minnesota, near where he grew up. He wanted to go to another club, Chuck Knoblauch said, because he wanted to play for a title. You recall that as a rookie Knoblauch had won a World Series ring. He was a Twin, and it was your team's second world championship in five seasons. You were sure then that Knoblauch would be a Minnesota fixture.
But these days, you know better. No player of consistent All-Star quality is going to remain in Minnesota throughout his career. And yet just this summer, you watched George Brett--who played as recently as 1993--inducted into the Hall of Fame. Brett played his whole career with Kansas City, passing up bigger offers elsewhere. Not that he wasn't well-compensated, both financially and competitively. His Royals were perennial contenders, and won the AL West six times. He was happy to stay. Yet if he came up today, his competitive nature would make a move not just probable, but mandatory--not because of greed or disloyalty, but because teams like Kansas City and Minnesota can no longer even hope to compete.
Now back to the Yankees. After winning their second Series in three years, with a payroll that was already four times that of the Twins, they began the 1999 season by trading for the Cy Young Award winner, Roger Clemens. He's a pitcher you've long respected, but one who has bewildered you in recent years: Hadn't the Texan Clemens said he wanted to be closer to home after leaving the Boston Red Sox in '97? So didn't his decision to sign with the Toronto Blue Jays betray either a disingenuous streak or a staggeringly bad grasp of geography? But Clemens can pitch, so he proceeded to win two straight Cy Young Awards for the Blue Jays. Then Clemens demanded a trade in '99, because, he said, he wanted to play with a contender. And you wondered, "If a team like Toronto--which won back-to-back World Series in '92 and '93, and only recently drew 4 million fans for a season to a new ballpark--can't qualify as a contender, what does that tell you?" And all through the '99 season, as the pitching-shy Blue Jays were fighting toward the brink of contention on the bats of talented young sluggers like Carlos Delgado and Shawn Green, you couldn't help wondering how good they might be if they still had Clemens pitching for them.
After Clemens closes out the Series in Game 4, with a vintage, overpowering performance, you wonder if all this means the same thing to him as it would have if he'd stayed with the Red Sox and they'd somehow won it all. Or if it means anything like what it meant to Kirby Puckett, who took less money to stay in Minnesota, where he won world championships in 1987 and 1991.
In the weeks ahead, instead of the normal shake-up of hot-stove action, the rich get richer, and the ranks of those who can no longer compete grows to include what once were considered "middle-market" clubs. Seattle has a brand-new stadium and a string of sellouts, but they're convinced they'll have to trade Ken Griffey Jr. and/or Alex Rodriguez. Toronto is working on deals to ship away Green and Delgado before they bolt for free agency.
You still call yourself a baseball fan, and you still get out to the Metrodome a few times a season. But the game seems more distant today than it did only a few years ago. You can't follow pennant races anymore--because there aren't any--and the wild card seems hard to get excited about. The media characterizes the game as "on the way back," thanks largely to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. But even at its most epic, the '98 home-run race seemed somewhat disconnected from the season it was part of--less a highlight of the season itself than a thing unto itself (through no fault of the particulars), or a substitute for the plain fact that when the last several baseball seasons began, you knew that your team had no living chance to contend for a pennant.
No, the rising tide has not lifted all boats. And as you watch the games from your living room now, you realize that something essential has changed. You're not nostalgic for the "old days" as much as you are for the more recent ones, when the fact that you had one of the best managers and farm systems in baseball was a crucial advantage. When star players wanted to be with the Twins. When the Twins' owners weren't eyeing other cities. And when you could greet April with the hope that your team had a prayer.
But as you sit and watch the Yankees celebrate, those days seem far removed. You might wonder if anyone on the other side of the screen is feeling the same way.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Fair Ball by Bob Costas. . Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.