Yelling at clouds: Networks, teams showing old games don’t know what ‘classic’ means
With each new list of classic games to be broadcast, streamed or otherwise relived during our sports-less coronavirus time of exile, one thought repeatedly comes to mind: We don’t have a good handle on the word “classic.”
Warning: I’m about to yell at some clouds.
The past few weeks have seen leagues, networks and teams roll out so-called “classic” games to help satisfy the millions of sports fans who’ve had nothing new to watch for nearly a month. While some of these are rightly called classics — the NCAA Tournament championship between N.C. State-Houston in 1983, the 1992 Elite Eight matchup between Duke and Kentucky and 23-22 finish between the Phillies and Cubs in 1979, to name a few — others have appropriated the title and diminished the meaning of the word.
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Inevitably, as I skim each new list of alleged classics, I’m reminded of the famous line from “The Princess Bride” — I do not think it means what you think it means.
Which brings me to the first cloud: We’re too liberal with the word “classic.”
That was my reaction to MLB’s recent “Opening Day at Home” campaign that showed so-called classic games from all 30 teams to commemorate what was supposed to be MLB’s 2020 Opening Day. What I immediately noticed was that nearly every game was from after 2000, and that the overwhelming majority were post-2010. That’s not to say there haven’t been classic games in the 21st century, or that the games featured weren’t important or memorable. But given baseball’s penchant for history and nostalgia — not to mention the way it values the “all-time-great” label more than other sports — pegging nearly the entire “classic” experience to the past 20 years seemed odd.
Not only did I have just vague memories of many of the games mentioned on MLB’s list, but even after looking them up or reading the descriptions I was left with one thought: Huh? That’s a classic? While I acknowledge that certain games mean more to individual fan bases than the sport’s overall fandom, I would argue that there were, in many cases, better games that fit the “classic” label than what MLB ultimately chose.
One example: The game chosen for the Marlins was Game 6 of the 2003 World Series. That was a 2-0 clincher for Florida, with Josh Beckett going the distance and striking out nine. A memorable game for Marlins fans, for sure. But more memorable than Game 7 of the 1997 World Series? Really?
One more: Was the Mets’ clincher in the 2015 NLDS more memorable than Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS? Or Game 5 of that NLCS? Or Game 6 of the World Series? I suppose the argument would be that those are all obvious choices, so MLB wanted to go with something less expected. OK, fine. Here’s a better one: The Mets’ wacky, 19-inning 16-13 win over the Braves on July 4, 1985.
I lied. One more: Did Bryce Harper’s walk-off grand slam from last season really make that game a bigger classic than the time they overcame a 10-0 deficit to beat the Pirates? Or Game 5 of the 1980 NLCS? Anyway. …
So, what makes for a classic game? I really just have one rule: The game must be compelling throughout. There cannot be long stretches when nothing significant happens. In baseball, a classic game might include a back-and-forth rollercoaster, a big comeback or a pitcher’s perfect game. But, because “classic” is a sliding scale, it also could include games in which historic things happen: a four-homer game, hitting for the cycle or, say, Greg Maddux’s 76-pitch complete game in 1997. In any case, there must be multiple significant moments, or at least lasting drama. The “allure” of the game can’t be just one moment, no matter how big.
That’s just, well, a big moment.
It’s not a flawless comparison, but think in terms of a Hall of Fame. In theory, a “classic” game should be a Hall of Fame-level contest, or at least provide Hall of Fame-level entertainment — an all-time-great showing that can be appreciated in any era. And while there’s definitely a sliding scale of talent in any Hall of Fame — inner circle vs. fringe players, for example — the ideal leans more toward the former. The same could be applied to games with the “classic” label. Just as players aren’t inducted into the Hall of Fame for one big moment, or even one big season, a game shouldn’t earn elite status because of something exciting that happens in the first inning.
Look, I get it: The more recent “classic” games featured during MLB’s “Opening Day at Home” were almost certainly chosen to lure in or keep younger fans, which MLB desperately needs. But don’t forget the average MLB fan is 57, meaning there are millions and millions of people who would love to relive classic games from before 2000. There’s room for long-term and recent nostalgia.
And, to be fair, there has been some progress. The Brewers, for example, on Monday night showed the team’s record-tying 13th straight win to open the 1987 season, while MLB Network aired two games from the 1979 World Series. In both examples, older fans could bathe in nostalgia while younger fans could watch something they’ve likely not seen before — and perhaps gain a greater interest in team/baseball history.
All the leagues would do well to offer a better mix of these throwback offerings over the next few months until sports (hopefully) resume. While young audiences are often the golden ticket for viewership, that demographic shouldn’t be the only consideration. There are, again, plenty of older fans — say, 35 to 50 — whose time in isolation would be made more tolerable if they could relive their youth through vintage broadcasts of games from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s a few times a week.
Which brings me to my second cloud: There are many cool games — across all sports — that are going unwatched.
If we’re going to be so liberal with the “classic” label, let’s dig out some older games that are just fun to watch. They don’t need to be postseason clinchers or nail-biters in the chill of October. They just need to be fun.
When we think about great games, we tend to favor the postseason. That’s understandable, given the stage and what’s at stake. But it sometimes causes us to label “normal” games great, or even classic, solely because of the setting. Just because a World Series game goes 14 innings and ends in a walk-off doesn’t make it a fantastic viewing experience.
With 80 years of televised games, there are countless, perhaps forgotten, regular-season gems that would probably still be plenty entertaining today. Two baseball games that I’ve mentioned in this column — Cubs-Phillies in 1979 and Mets-Braves in 1985 — are 100 percent true classics. Not because of one moment, or because of what the game meant to a team’s season, but because they were super weird and super entertaining. Baseball history is full of super weird and super entertaining. Most other sports are too.
So let’s get weird, and let’s be entertained. There’s plenty of greatness in every team’s archive.
Let’s not limit the scope of greatness to our most recent sports memories and experiences.
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