Last week in this space I floated the crackbrained notion that the supersizing of sports on television is rooted in a kind of voodoo economics. That wall-to-wall programming, institutional shortsightedness and personal greed have created an athletic-industrial complex so bloated, top-heavy and unstable that, like Anna Nicole Smith perched on a bar stool, it's only a matter of time before everything hits the floor. But while this makes for some bad corporate mojo, do any of us really care if Disney or G.E. or Time Warner or Westinghouse lose what amounts to sofa cushion money? After all, they'll just tack an extra buck onto the price of every waffle iron or swimsuit calendar or military jet engine they sell and go on as before.
The true cost of living in our 24-hour, 500-channel, Web-wired SportsNation can't be calculated on a balance sheet. The overexposure of more players in more games on more channels doesn't come cheap. What's being lost, and lost irrevocably, is what used to lie at the heart of our relationship with sports: imagination. Without it, we can no longer really be fans, but instead are reduced to viewers, passive consumers of the interchangeable digital widgets that now constitute sports infotainment.
The late Mr. DiMaggio became a household god in large part because he was a product of our collective imagination. To listen to the radio play-by-play as he camped under another dying fly ball required a fan's active, imaginative participation. Joe D played his career out mostly in the fan's mind, not on a nightly highlight reel, and it was up to each fan to conjure up the pictures. Like all mythological beings in the time before television, from Babe Ruth to Joe Louis to Bobby Jones, we created him—we imagined him—because we had to. To be a fan back then was an act of faith and fantasy, and sports were, ironically, far more interactive than anything Bill Gates contrives for us now.
By contrast, Mark McGwire's herculean season already feels shopworn, a show we've seen once too often, diminished somehow by television's overfamiliar intrusions and its endless repetitions. By the time his McDonald's commercials aired, there was no room left anywhere for us to play a part in the mythmaking of a 70-home-run year. Television had already leeched the magic out of it.
Face it, you were a better fan when you saw 20 baseball games a year rather than 200. When you hadn't yet been anesthetized by the electronic stream of largely unremarkable athletes playing seven nights a week in cities that you didn't even know had franchises. Back before highlight shows sounded like open-mike night at the Chuckle Hut. Back before anyone needed a Stuart Scott decoder ring just to get the scores. Before teal or ocher became plausible team colors; before Diamondbacks or Raptors were viable team names. Before sports seasons blurred into a M�bius strip of infinite, meaningless programming. But most of all, you were a better fan back before your heroes came to you off the rack, prefabricated by the culture of celebrity, the latest and greatest striding to the first tee of his first tournament already clutching a fistful of endorsement deals and wearing the newest shoes, every moment of it manufactured by television for television, athletics as an act of product placement, and all of it as smoothly preprocessed and forgettable as discount cheese.
As we stare into the next century, forever fingering the remote, goggle-eyed and numb, our greatest act of imagination will be to remember the time, now long gone, when sports seemed like something that mattered.