The baseball season gives the fan 162 opportunities to reach definitive conclusions — or a million or so snap judgments that are subject to change. Take the one I came to during the 79th game of this Met season as you will.
Watching Thursday night, as the recently hot Mets receded into coolness versus Gregory Polanco’s Pittsburgh Pirates, tumbling back into last place and plunging seven games below .500, I was reminded of an episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show from forty years ago. It was the one in which producer Lou Grant gathers his WJM news team — associate producer Mary Richards, news writer Murray Slaughter and anchorman Ted Baxter — and expresses his concerns over their newscast’s recent unimpressive track record:
“For the past three years, our ratings have been, week in and week out, absolutely terrible. But lately they’ve started to slip.”
Lou’s solution is to hire a consultant named Bob Larson to shake things up around the newsroom. Nobody trusts the outsider, everybody resents his input, yet he seems to make a genuine difference. Practically overnight, The Six O’Clock News’s ratings shoot up an entire point. That’s a big deal — as Lou explained at the outset of the October 12, 1974, episode, a single ratings point is worth $125,000 (a.k.a. “a quarter-of-a-million bucks,” by Ted’s swift calculation). Given this indisputable improvement, the previously wary Mary comes around to fully appreciating Bob’s impact:
“Y’know something, Murray, I still might not agree with some of Bob’s ideas, but, boy, it sure feels good to be a winner.”
“Yeah, you can say that again.”
“Y’know, yesterday, I opened a charge account, and for the first time, when the girl asked me where I worked, I didn’t mumble.”
“I know what ya mean. For the past two mornings, I’ve been leaving the house humming. Marie thinks I’m fooling around.”
Yup, everybody’s excited and assumes more good times are ahead…which is why it comes as a terrible shock when Bob immediately announces his imminent departure. Lou demands to know why the consultant all of a sudden wants to leave:
“Well, I just figure my work here is over.”
“Whaddaya mean over? We got the ratings up one point, let’s keep goin’, let’s get ’em higher.”
“Well, frankly, with the budget you have and the facilities and the personnel…I don’t think it’s possible.”
“Are you tellin’ us this is as good as we can get?”
“Well, I’m afraid so. I mean this is a nice, friendly, little station. But I’ve done all I can here, and I just feel I’m ready to move on to bigger things, y’know?”
With that, Bob exits and the staff is left to wonder if that’s all there is to their professional existence — until Mary thinks fast and invents a story about a letter the station manager might very well have received from Eric Sevareid. According to Mary’s tale, the CBS Evening News commentator had been in Minneapolis a few weeks earlier — before Larson began consulting — and let it be known he thought the WJM newscast was “the best-written, best-announced and best-produced show he had ever seen locally.”
Their self-esteem properly buoyed, everybody decided to be happy with being a nice, friendly, little station whose ratings were never going to climb a whole lot higher.
Tonight, after the 80th game of this Met season, perhaps I’ll be reminded of something else.