If the proposal floated last week by Major League Baseball to sell ad space on uniforms goes through, tomorrow's baseball player is going to look like a NASCAR driver. Or worse, like Greg Norman. But where did you think we were headed? It has been a long time since professional sports have functioned as anything beyond an advertising vehicle, a flimsy pretext for some corporate presentation, so nobody should get too excited if baseball decides to sell commercial space on uniform sleeves.
This isn't the start down a slippery slope. While outrage is predictable—you think a little barking Chihuahua on pinstripes might rouse a purist or two?—this is a path we all chose long ago. If part of our nostalgia is a ballpark with HIT THIS SIGN, WIN A SUIT emblazoned on its outfield wall, then let GAP signs in the gaps, as at seven major league parks now, be part of our sports heritage as well.
The fact that we haven't seen ads on uniforms sooner is the mystery (or would be, if you didn't know how backward baseball leaders are). In an age when a player is identified as much by his shoe company as by his team, it's only natural that his branding power be flexed on the field So let PowerBar (or some other energy booster of choice) buy Mark McGwire's biceps. Short of sandwich boards, which would compromise baserunning (though not, presumably, McGwire's), what's the harm? This is America, baby, home of the 30-second spot.
For traditionalists (old-timers who recall having seen the San Francisco Giants play in Candlestick Park), I have an idea: ad-free baseball. It would be an alternate league—the PBS of sports—that would play in unadorned ballparks. There would be no signage of any kind. Make George Will the commissioner; give Ken Burns the broadcast rights.
Of course, as the only revenue would come from disgraced oil companies eager to regain an aura of civic responsibility, there would be little money for players. The game would feature lots of sacrifice bunts and might acquire a following among academics, who could argue over the hit-and-run, but for the rest of us it would mostly be dull, hardly worth the bother of a Rotisserie League. Even the national anthems, with all those unemployed tenors looking for gigs between PBS fund-raisers, would be off-putting to us lowbrows.
Anyway, that's not going to happen, is it? America is a nation based on the idea of commercial opportunity, a country where Burma Shave signs were part of the pioneer scenery, where ad jingles are the day-today sound track. It's a name-brand nation, where the real pastime is consumerism, not baseball. So pardon me if the next time I hear "Batter up!" I think Bisquick, not Sammy Sosa.