[10 February 2008]
Baseball, as the saying goes, is America’s game. That professional teams are populated with Domincans, Japanese, and Mexicans is not a contradiction of that adage, but an underscore of its accuracy: America as the great melting pot is most evident in the roster of the average MLB team.
While America’s cities count a broad spectrum of nationalities in their populace, most of their residents gravitate to people who look and sound similar to themselves, creating a mosaic that is less melting pot (where the ingredients mix to a unified whole) than pizza pie (where the ingredients commingle, but remain individual flavors.) Baseball is a true melting pot because players unite for a common cause, working together not as Puerto Ricans or Argentinians or Haitians, but as Mets or Royals or Angels. Give us your sluggers, your lefties, your tossers of gyro balls yearning to be free agents; America will build no fence that keeps out a .390 batter.
Baseball in the United States, of course, defies simple quantification as a mere game or sport. Checkers is a game; soccer is a sport; baseball? Susan Sarandon’s Annie Savoy says it well in Bull Durham, “I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones…and the only church that truly feeds the soul, day in, day out, is the Church of Baseball.” It is at once a hallowed institution and a contemporary obsession, a stalwart consistency in a world that offers few consistencies. As the character Terrance Mann spoke in Field of Dreams, “America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again.”
Over the past few years, the sanctity of America’s game has been threatened as allegations of steroid use have been hurled at several of the game’s top players, spawning discussion about asterisks in the record book, barrings from Cooperstown, and righteous outrage that confirms fan as a derivative of fanatic. “They’ve stolen my game from me!” said one listener on a radio call-in show, a lament that reminded me of Charles Barsotti’s New Yorker cartoon featuring a superhero at the bar with a sack of money, saying to the disappointed patron next to him, “Oh, grow up.”
Since the inception of professional baseball in 1871, America has experienced perpetual, exponential evolution: Cars, trains, planes, televisions, microwaves, atomic bombs, computers, cell phones, ad infinitum. Yet to many, baseball is America’s “Rosebud”, a memory that reminds us of a purer time, and perhaps allows us to reconcile what we dreamed of being with what we have become. Recently, MLB fans have been chanting a modernized version of “say it ain’t so, Joe”, shocked to learn that the Church of Baseball has been spiking the holy water in the font with human growth hormone.
Sacrilegious? Oh, grow up. Sure, baseball ought to be as pure as Mom and apple pie, but even Mom is buying her apple pies at the grocery store these days. Over the past decade, the country has tolerated both simple and serious corruptions in nearly every aspect of life, often without even a sense of irony: William Jefferson was found with $90,000 in bribe money stashed in the freezer, yet won his next reelection campaign; Enron and Arthur Anderson developed grossly irregular accounting practices that were costing thousands of employees and investors their life savings while CEO Ken Lay assured the public that all was well; Jason Blair parlayed plagiarism and fabrication into choice assignments for The New York Times, promoted by the paper despite Blair’s editor recommending his dismissal. These unrelated examples are not to be equated to steroid use, but rather help illustrate that America’s political values, business ethics, and journalistic integrity have all been subject to recent redefinition by individuals seeking personal advancement.
American culture encourages the assessment of success based on the final score, and taking every advantage to be first (not to be confused with “best”). Individually we believe in fair play, but collectively we desire victory. Doping in sports seems a natural progression for a culture that prefers superstars to mere athletes (the media attention given to Barry Bonds’ pursuit of the home run record confirms America’s appetite for superlative performance), and it would be naive to think that ballplayers making millions for swinging a stick at a ball wouldn’t seek every opportunity to have their contracts renewed and augmented.
Former Senator George Mitchell (author of the Steroid Report and the MLB logo)
Of course, the doping scandal has drawn the attention of the US Congress, which insists on involving itself in this corruption of America’s game, as if Congress is the authority on propriety. (I suppose if you believe the adage “it takes one to know one”, then maybe they are the ideal investigators of malfeasance.) Senators have already subpoenaed many players, with many more to come, and each time I hear about it, I feel like I’m living in a Kurt Vonnegut novel: Various wars on both the front and back burners, an economy slipping into recession, and the nation’s most powerful governing body is resolute in determining the source of Roger Clemens’ fast ball.
To everyone worried that steroids will ruin baseball, I submit that Congress is a greater threat to the game: Government simply doesn’t have a stellar track record of efficient problem solving. Considering the ineffectiveness of campaign finance reform, the wastefulness of pork proposals such as the Bridge to Nowhere and the irrelevant posturing of freedom fries, I’m concerned that Congress’ response to steroids will be misguided and overreaching, seen as an opportunity to make political points by addressing other perceived problems with the sport. Based on policies that congress has proposed, tacitly endorsed or merely tolerated over the last few years, here are the so-called improvements I dread:
Doping: There will be no performance-enhancing substances allowed, period. No steroids, no human growth hormones, no Red Bull. Taking its cue from the Bush administration’s policy of appointing lobbyists and insiders to regulatory positions based on their knowledge of their respective industries, congress will recommend that tests to identify illegal substances will be administered by experts at BALCO, since the laboratory that develops the drug will be best able to identify its use.
The Designated Hitter (DH): Congress will solve this long-contentious issue once and for all, using the same simplification process that the government applies to tax forms. Thus, there will no longer be a division between the American league (DH) and the National League (no DH). Instead, the DH will be used by any team whose win percentage is more than .100 lower than the opposing team’s, and by both teams if the percentage is less .100 but the disparity in total runs scored exceeds 100 runs (in the last 100 games only) or by neither team if the percentages are greater than the lower of the win percentage and runs scored. Simple as that. While Congress will herald this move as a significant step forward for baseball, its enactment will ensure that the record book includes not only asterisks, but also question marks.
The End of the Nine-Inning Era: Using the blueprint formulated for the war in Iraq and Congress’ continued compliance with that blueprint, the length of the game will not be restricted to nine innings because there is no way to predict at the outset how long either team will need to win. The games will instead end when it is determined that the necessary number of runs have been achieved and the opposing team is no longer a threat to the league pennant. When asked by ESPN representatives what the phrase “opposing team” means, since both teams play in the same league, Senators will assert that they refuse to engage in a game of semantics.
Statistical Limitations: Statistics are the lifeblood of the true baseball fan’s conversation. Sure, one can be loyal to their home team, but as fans of the rival will explain, it’s a foolish loyalty considering that team has lost every game in which it was ahead in the 8th inning by less than two runs while a left handed reliever faced three or more consecutive right-handed batters. (Duh.) Unfortunately, exhaustive statistics can create a sense of factual accuracy that makes it impossible for the coach of a team with a 4-40 record to demonstrate to the press that things are looking up. Sympathetic to this concern, congress will enact a three-stat rule that allows a manager to name only those stats that they want discussed, in the same way that government officials can claim a victory by citing a minor increase in average hourly income while leaving out that unemployment reached a two year high.
I’m sure some readers will accuse me of being an alarmist, that Congress would not intervene so excessively in a private arena. To those naysayers, I have only this to say: Oh, grow up.
Congressman Tom Davis warms up prior to the 2006 Congressional Baseball Game