COVID-19 Delays Baseball Season, But ‘Brockmire’ Taps Into Sport’s Literate Legacy

One thing that baseball has always enjoyed compared to its counterparts – at least in the U.S. – is a rich legacy of evocative writing across multiple media platforms. Now in its 4th season, IFC’s Brockmire fits seamlessly into that media history. If you can’t see the real thing right now, this ode to baseball is a great (if warped) window into that world. If only Major League Baseball itself could create a present to rival its wonderfully chronicled past.

No question about it – MLB has massive challenges, starting with COVID-19’s threat to obliterate its 2020 season. But beyond that, MLB’s consuming public, especially TV viewers, has relentlessly aged in recent years. The games take forever (see prior point on TV audience). Its two leagues play two different games (the American League uses the Designated Hitter but not the National League). And in this past off-season, MLB was confronted with a cheating scandal involving the 2017 World Champion* Houston Astros. The only thing more intense than the loathing for those recent champions is that towards MLB itself for their meh response. MLB needs a massive organizational transformation, and I’m not saying that because I’m a strategy consultant. OK, not just because I’m a strategy consultant.  

Despite all this, baseball’s founding and history have helped lay the groundwork for a treasure trove of baseball literature and cinema that ought to be on any fan’s must list. Baseball is by legend more than fact rooted in small-town America (it actually started in the now millennial hotbed of Hoboken, New Jersey), but that’s part of the mythic charm of it. How many other sports have been chronicled by no less than 4 Pulitzer Prize winners, including John Updike in The New Yorker (Hub Bids Kid Adieu on Ted Williams’ last game); Philip Roth (The Great American Novel); Bernard Malamud (The Natural and the basis for the Robert Redford movie) and David Halberstam (Summer of ’49)?

Films have created no less memorable depictions of baseball and the characters that surround the game such as Bang the Drum Slowly, Bull Durham, Eight Men Out and A League of Their Own. Even sillier fare such as Major League and Fever Pitch are at their heart about the love of a game that connects you to your childhood. Field of Dreams probably trumps all in its unabashed sentimentality about the game. James Earl Jones’s epic ode to baseball is only missing iambic pentameter to qualify as poetry. Great baseball play-by-play can also evoke rare eloquence, none better than from Vin Scully, the long-time announcer of the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose live call of Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax’s perfect game in 1965 (”It’s 9:46PM in the City of Angels”) is legendary.

Hank Azaria, the creator and titular star of Brockmire, recently appeared on the NPR program Fresh Air and said the greatest strength of the show is the writing of its Executive Producer Joel Church-Cooper. Although every actor always seems to say this about their latest project, it’s indelibly true here. As long as you can roll with the show’s no holds barred raunchiness, Brockmire is filled with incredibly biting wit that flows not only from Azaria’s broken-down baseball announcer but from a host of other clever and often hilariously bewildered characters that share Brockmire’s broadcast booth, bed or family bloodline. Towards the end of the last season (Episode 7 of Season 3), Brockmire and “Matt the Bat” (wonderfully played by J.K. Simmons) engaged in a confessional dialogue about baseball that rivals almost anything you’ll find from the sport’s writing catalog.

No less important than the writing in Brockmire is a terrifically assembled supporting cast given plenty of room to shine, including not only Simmons but pros such as Amanda Peet, Linda Lavin and Katie Finneran and newcomers such as Tyrel Jackson Williams as Brockmire’s oft mystified protégé. A series of perfectly inserted cameos from the real world of baseball and broadcasting helps lend a great touch of faux reality.

Another strength of the series is its great eye and ear for short-hand cultural signposts. Much of the show focuses on life in the baseball minor leagues and in particular in the fictional small town of Morristown, Pennsylvania, which like many minor league towns has seen better days. The show can pretty savage about some aspects of small-town life, especially with the (absence of) local culture. But it is no less ferocious when it comes to coastal mores. When Brockmire acquires some podcasting cache, one Morristown local is told to sell beer to “anyone with a T-shirt for a band you’ve never heard of” or an NPR tote bag. In the sports world it highlights the absurdity of marketing sponsorships such as the “King Venom Vape Cartridge Stadium”, which is only slightly crazier than the real-world Bad Boys Mowers Gasparilla Bowl in St. Petersburg, Florida.  

Unfortunately, MLB has failed for 3-plus years to take advantage of Brockmire’s paean to the sport. Instead of licensing actual teams and their intellectual property, the show settles for watered-down similar color schemes. Does MLB remember how Cleveland and their woebegone Indians were so integral to Major League years ago – where is that creative partnering? Even the sad sack New York Knicks of the National Basketball Association licensed their identity in Amy Schumer’s move Trainwreck a couple of years ago.

If MLB is afraid of Brockmire’s scatological humor or irreverence towards the game I have two words: Ball Four. Jim Bouton’s classic baseball diary (which MLB leadership hated) tore the cover off of baseball reverence and drove untold attention and curiosity to the sport when it desperately needed it. Remember that transformation thing? Well, in its new season, Jim Brockmire becomes the Commissioner of MLB. Maybe he’ll come up with a good plan.

*The asterisk is not a typo, but an appropriate residue of the cheating scandal.  

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