Manufactured Greatness
20 Jul 2012
Inside the Classics

I think I’ve mentioned a few times before that I’m a bit of a baseball nut. I grew up rooting for the Phillies and Twins (yes, I have two teams, and no, I don’t care what your thoughts are on the acceptability of that,) I have strong opinions on the sacrifice bunt and the hit-and-run, and I’m the sort of stat-obsessed fan who pores over every new edition of Baseball Prospectus and can’t stand any writer who uses embarrassingly flowery prose to make the game all about America, or Beauty, or The Author’s Dead Father.

Because I’ve spent so much of my life paying close attention to baseball games, it takes a lot for a game to really stand out for me. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy an unremarkable game – I do – just that I’m not necessarily going to leave the park head over heels because my team happened to win on a walk-off single in the bottom of the ninth. When you’ve grown accustomed to the ridiculously high standard of play exhibited by your average Major League Baseball team, the extraordinary becomes ordinary and something truly remarkable is required to jolt you to that next level of fan exhilaration that we’re all basically hoping for when we watch a game.

Last September 28 was a truly remarkable day for baseball fans. It was the final day of the regular season, and several playoff slots had yet to be settled. Five teams were playing for their lives in what is usually a day of meaningless garbage games. Several of the games were being played simultaneously. Two of them featured the game’s premiere franchises, the Yankees and Red Sox. By the end of the night, both of those games had finished in spectacular storybook fashion, within minutes of each other. You can read the full blow-by-blow account of how it all unfolded here, but really, this is all you need to know about what an insanely exciting and improbable event it was.

These are grown men. Professional broadcasters. Going bonkers.

Even more remarkably, the 2011 postseason very nearly lived up to the standard set by that night. The scrappy St. Louis Cardinals, one of the teams that had to win their final regular season game to even qualify for the playoffs, would go on to win the World Series in seven games, leaving a trail of better paid and more highly regarded opponents in their wake. The sixth game of that Series ended with a dramatic walk-off home run in extra innings. Even for those of us with no rooting interest in the teams involved, it was the kind of baseball that baseball fans talk about for a generation.

The problem with real life, of course, is that special moments like that don’t come around very often. It’s the same in music, or theater, or anything that’s supposed to inspire as well as entertain. Even when the standard is as high as it can possibly be, most nights will fall short of true, undeniable greatness of the sort that people remember for the rest of their lives. So many disparate elements have to come together in order for near-perfection to be achieved that, most of the time, we’re willing to settle for something just short of it. I don’t buy a ticket to Target Field with the expectation that I’ll remember this game for the rest of my life. I buy it with full acceptance of the fact that it will probably be a perfectly ordinary game, and that this is fine because I enjoy perfectly ordinary games. The fact that greatness could break out is an exciting possibility, but I’m not going to demand my money back if it fails to materialize.

Lately, though, it’s begun to seem as if more and more people expect the extraordinary whenever they plunk down money for a ticket to any live event, be it sport or art or music. Everything has to be a blockbuster or people feel as if they aren’t getting their money’s worth. And this has led, I think, to a trend of those who present live entertainment mounting increasingly absurd campaigns to either manufacture dramatic results, or failing that, convince people that the ordinary experience they’re having is, in fact, extraordinary. (I could very well have this backwards – the shift to blockbuster-style marketing may actually be what’s driving the shift in public attitude.)

You can see it in the way NFL teams pump up the noise and exhort the crowd to go wild for a meaningless second down. You can see it in the way press releases from museums and theaters (and yes, orchestras) toss around breathless superlatives to describe events that haven’t actually happened yet and very likely won’t live up to the hype. And if you ask me, these attempts at manufacturing greatness do a great deal of damage to those of us tasked with striving for it night after night. Because if we’re only worth something when we exceed every expectation, we’re worthless when we only exceed most.

The comedian Louis CK summed up this problem better than I could: Everything is amazing, and nobody’s happy…

Mild language warning – nothing you wouldn’t hear on prime-time network TV.

I know I’m rambling here, and that this probably seems only tenuously connected to the world of orchestras, which is ostensibly what I’m supposed to write about in this space. But the importance of striving for greatness and the risks of not achieving it have been on my mind a lot lately, so I guess I’m just trying to start a conversation to fill in some gaps I haven’t been able to fill in myself.

So help me out: what are your expectations when you buy a concert ticket, or rent a movie, or head to the ballpark? Do you feel cheated if you’re not absolutely transported by the experience? And if so, whose fault is that? The performers who didn’t live up to your expectations? The incessant marketing culture that promises us perfection around every corner? Or yourself, for expecting other human beings to be superhuman on command?

<January 2020>

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