It is often remarked that baseball fiction, ideologically, constructs an idealized modern community. Whether the stories display interracial teamwork, valorize self-sacrifice, or chastise the individual for being too childish / serious, baseball stories are moral tales of how to live in modern American society.
Often, in telling tales of this sort, it is taken as self evident that true success occurs only on the national stage. The clip featured in this post is a moment from the 1994 comedy The Scout, in which the player, Steve Nebraska, is already beloved in his small town in Mexico. The fact that Steve is happy there, and has significant financial and personal freedom due to his on-field success, is not an issue for the film. Instead, it proceeds inevitably towards bringing Steve to New York. The ‘scout’ of the title shouts “I found Kong!” when witnessing Steve’s performance in this game, and proceeds, like Carl Denham in King Kong, to haul Steve into the New York spotlight. As far as the film is concerned, the biggest talents deserve nothing less than the biggest stage.
Several other examples of this mindset could be offered: Roy Hobbs shows obvious emotional distress that people do not say of him “there goes Roy Hobbs – the best there ever was in the game” in The Natural; Buck Weaver waxes nostalgic about the banned Black Sox players despite the fact that one of their number, Joe Jackson, plays, happy and free, for a local team at the end of Eight Men Out. In baseball fiction, it is implied, then, that baseball is inherently a national pastime – a game in which the great should have their greatness noted by the greatest number. Notions of ‘success’ and ‘fame’ do not exist below the national stage.
National fame is a modern condition – one that arises only alongside the emergence of mass media. In mediating baseball, however, national fame is normalized to such a degree that it appears as a right. Local success is only ever a precursor to being ‘discovered’; it is never good enough.
In sports fame, the national has obliterated the local. And our concept of success now seems inextricably tied to the largest of crowds, the biggest of salaries, and the widest of influence. Anything short of national fame is seen as failure. Smaller is not a choice; it is inherently inferior.