Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Rust Belt versus High Finance: A Metaphor for the American League Playoffs

After the late season collapse of my beloved White Sox, I am at least now free of anxiety regarding the baseball playoffs, which I can joyfully watch as a fan of the sport, suffering the gut-churning intensity that comes with rooting for my squad in high-pressure games.  Looking at the American League playoffs from this more detached point of view, I see a clear metaphor for our increasingly unequal society.

Three of the four teams that made the playoffs in the AL -the Baltimore Orioles, Oakland As, and Detroit Tigers- hail from cities that are bywords for urban decay.  Detroit in particular has come to symbolize the slow death of America's old industrial economy, Oakland has long been the less savory side of the Bay Area and has been full of unrest, and Baltimore was the setting for The Wire, urban decline's artistic magnum opus.

The other team, the New York Yankees, represents the economic hegemony of the financial sector in more ways than one.  The team is located in the world financial economy's capital, New York City, and like that part of the economy, values money and "winning" at all costs.  Despite the fact that the Yankees were the wealthiest franchise in baseball, they still forced local authorities to pitch in public money for an unnecessary new stadium, one whose ticket prices are prohibitive for many of the people whose tax dollars built the place.  The Yanks have the most expensive payroll in baseball this year, almost $200 million, and have long been able to purchase the most prized free agents and essentially spend their way past the kinds of problems that sink most other franchises.  As with the big banks, the Yankees benefit from a system that's rigged in their favor, and they are fighting hard to keep it that way.

The As, by contrast, had the lowest payroll in the American League, only $55 million, only a little over a quarter of what the Yankees spent.  Their presence in a small media market in a less than wealthy city has forced the As (as immortalized in Moneyball) to outsmart other teams by finding the best players for the money.  The Orioles are also in the bottom half of teams in terms of spending, and have reached the post-season this year for the first time since 1997, reflecting years lost in the baseball wilderness.

Of the three possible challengers to the Yankees, my heart is most set on the Detroit Tigers.  I lived in Michigan for two years, and saw first hand both the loyalty of Tigers fans, as well as the soul-crushing economic decline of Michigan.  If there was ever a city that needed a pick-me-up, it's Detroit.  I still remember being in Ann Arbor back in 2006, the last time the Tigers were in the World Series, and the first time they'd been since 1984.  I was in a bar with a couple of friends when the Tigers lost the series, and I swear I heard a collective cry of anguish that echoed from Saginaw to Traverse City.  It was a feral scream of pain that Yankees fans, with their 27 championships, have no way of understanding.

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