There wasn't a whole lot going on in the sports world on Tuesday night. There were some early-season baseball games, a few hockey games and the women's NCAA basketball championship. Overall, it was a lull after the previous night's frenzy in "North Texas." So ESPN decided to cover an event that happened four decades ago.
Tuesday night marked the 40th anniversary of Hank Aaron's 715th home run, the one that put him ahead of Babe Ruth on the all-time list. To be sure, it was a momentous occasion in baseball history. There are several perfectly sensible ways to honor Aaron's accomplishments: articles, interviews, retrospectives, videos, even a re-airing of the game. Instead, ESPN decided to "reenact" the game.
Despite the name, this was not, in any way, a reenactment. Nobody dressed up as Disco Stu, nobody stormed the field as an 80-year-old Hank Aaron rounded third. (Note: these things should have happened.) Instead, it was a live-blogging of an event that occurred 40 years ago demonstrating, if nothing else, that few people at ESPN understand the concept of live-blogging.
The "reenactment" began with an entry from David Kull, senior deputy editor of ESPN Digital Media: "Welcome to our live blog as we chronicle Hank Aaron's pursuit of Babe Ruth's home run record. Jayson Stark and I are on hand at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium for the Braves' home opener against the Los Angeles Dodgers." This same imaginative presence continued throughout the evening, which never ceased to be awkward considering the only way to experience this was through a device that didn't exist in 1974. It felt like hanging out with your six-year-old cousin who hands you a phone and insists you speak to his imaginary friend, Mr. Stamper.
The live blog updated every few minutes with some historical fact from Kull or Stark ranging from genuinely interesting (samples of racist hate mail Aaron received) to mundane ("Aaron's 714th home run was the first in MLB history hit using a cowhide baseball. MLB switched from horsehide to cowhide in the offseason"). Considering the amount of information to present, the event was ill-conceived; there simply wasn't enough content to last from 7:15 p.m. EST to Aaron's home run, at roughly 9:07 p.m. EST. I understand the novelty that ESPN was attempting to offer, but judging by the sporadic Twitter traffic on the network's promoted hashtag #Aaron715, I wasn't the only one who found it too dull to bear.
It's entirely possible that this was a one-off event, a relatively inexpensive and low-key effort to commemorate a great moment and a baseball giant. But the way the event was described led me to believe otherwise: "ESPN.com to Present Aaron's 715: Live in 2014 to Celebrate the 40th Anniversary of Hank Aaron's Record-breaking Home Run." It sounds to me like ESPN is testing an expansion -- that it no longer considers itself limited to the present. ESPN is going to start covering the past.
Imagine the possibilities: ESPN will no longer be tied to space-time on any given day. The network can cover whatever event occurred on that day in sports history. Don't like what's happening live? Tune in to ESPN Past to see historical games getting the modern oversaturation treatment. It's an effort to modernize sporting history by giving the same exhaustive coverage to games that have already happened, amputating sports from context. Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless bicker about who's better: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays or Babe Ruth.
If this is indeed ESPN's strategy (the network did not reply to a request for comment on Tuesday), you can almost respect the hubris involved. It's the sports equivalent of Amazon Yesterday, a parody video in which Amazon predicts what you will want so it arrives before you've even purchased it. (This was before Amazon announced that it could already do this.) It's bending the fabric of time to justify virtually any type of coverage, something ESPN already does. More than anything else, it's a classic example of ESPN asking itself how much it can milk out of any given sporting spectacle, regardless of whether it's relevant or newsworthy.
The Aaron event was a bender on nostalgia, something Will Leitch wrote about recently for this site, in which he began by stating that "nostalgia is a problem" because we imagine the past through the lens of a bright-eyed kid shielded from the world's nefarious ends. He's right, of course; in the famous words of Ned Flanders, there are some things we don't want to know, important things. Although I can intuit that there was intense media coverage of Aaron's 715th home run, I don't want to imagine it that way. I want to pretend the 1970s were a purer era, devoid of the overhyped sporting coverage we know today, where two goobers could run onto the field and trot the final 90 feet with Aaron. But ESPN, the big blabbermouth, has to ruin this for us. During the live blog, Stark wrote from his magical 1974 computer: "The media coverage has been insane as Aaron has gotten closer to the record. I don't know the exact number of journalists here tonight, but it's similar to a World Series game!"
For better or worse, we're eternally stuck in the present with only brief glimpses into other times. We have photographs, video clips, newspaper articles and grandpa's knee to transport us into different eras, allowing us to see things trapped outside of the moment, where they belong, adhering to reality's complex fabric. Pretending these limits don't exist is a bit condescending and entirely ill-fated. Hank Aaron hit his home run in 1974, not in 2014. It's possible Jayson Stark was at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium on April 8, 1974 -- having just graduated from college a year prior -- but if he was, it would be much more interesting to read a first-hand account than disingenuous live-blog snippets. If he wasn't in Atlanta for the famous home run, then it's even weirder.
It's far too early to tell what ESPN plans for this type of coverage. Hopefully, the network will realize what a poor fit a live blog is for an historical event, both conceptually and practically, and shut the whole thing down. But there's too much potential material for ESPN to ignore. The past is a treasure trove of bankable content.