There are many reasons to mourn the end of Eastbound & Down. Danny McBride’s easy, almost casual hilarity, the show’s odd, un-TV-like pace, and the sheer thrill of seeing Will Ferrell on television will all be missed.
But there’s also another thing that the HBO series will take with it when its finale airs tonight, and that’s baseball — or, more specifically, baseball’s place in pop culture.
For years — even decades — people have talked about baseball losing its mantle as America’s favorite pastime, but the topic has flared up again in the past few months. National ratings are down, even for postseason games, while professional and college football continue to dominate; this year’s World Series ratings were among the lowest ever, while the past several Super Bowls ranked as the most-watched events in TV history. These figures have renewed the contentious debate about baseball’s supposed decline, with some pundits declaring it culturally irrelevant and others arguing that it’s healthier than ever.
We’ll leave the in-depth sports analysis to the in-depth sports guys. But if you were to use the likes of TV shows and movies to assess the game’s popularity, well, it does seem like baseball is losing the good fight. And now with Eastbound & Down leaving us, our pastime’s cultural footprint threatens to become that much smaller.
There was a time when baseball was a reliable fixture in pop-culture — particularly on the big screen. The ’80s gave us Ferris Bueller playing hooky at Wrigley Field and Robert Redford as The Natural, the ’70s produced Bang the Drum Slowly and a three-movie franchise for The Bad News Bears, and before then, we had the original Angels in the Outfield and none other than Gary Cooper in The Pride of the Yankees.
Then there was what you could call the golden age of baseball movies: In the span of five years starting in 1988, Hollywood gave us Eight Men Out, Bull Durham, Major League, Field of Dreams, A League of Their Own, and The Sandlot, among many other lesser efforts (looking at you, Mr. Baseball). And we haven’t even mentioned the coolest gang in The Warriors, or even Cheers.
Compare all that with the the last five years, when the true-story accounts 42 and Moneyball were the only movies set on the diamond worth talking about. (Sorry, Trouble With the Curve.) Those two movies were solid, and very successful to boot, but they prove to be anomalies when you stand back and look at the bigger picture.
Overall, since that ’88-’93 golden age, there have been far fewer at-bats, and with varying success; think The Scout, Fever Pitch, Mr. 3000. Meanwhile, football’s been swiftly gaining ground during that time: The Blind Side, Leatherheads, Invincible, Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights (the show and the movie), Varsity Blues, The Waterboy, Any Given Sunday, We Are Marshall, Jerry Maguire, and Rudy all came in the last 20 years. Sure, some were flops, but they still had enough pull to recruit stars like George Clooney to the team.
All of this is part of what’s made Eastbound and Down unique. ABC’s dicey Back in the Game notwithstanding, it’s one of the last pop-culture outlets left that puts baseball in the spotlight. Kenny Powers, pro ballplayer-turned-television personality, lived and died by his fastball. As ridiculous and outlandish as the show may be — and as tangentially related to sports it sometimes got — baseball was always the backdrop. Sure, Kenny as a person is probably the last human being anyone would pick to represent anything. But as a character, he helped put the game back into pop’s crowded conversation — an especially tough thing to do in the age of astronomical NFL ratings and blockbuster video-game sales.
No matter what happens, there’s a part of us that’ll root for Kenny Powers tonight, and we certainly hope he finds the inner peace that’s eluded him all these years. But we’ll also regret losing one of the best baseball comedies of our time — and we’ll be keeping our fingers crossed for an Eastbound & Down movie.