Coming on 1 a.m. , with everyone else in the house long since asleep, I stood in front of the tube, punching my fist in the air, silently cheering on the fans in Milwaukee who were booing baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and heroically chanting "Let them play! Let them play!"
Baseball's 73rd All-Star Game had dissolved into a pathetic joke, a phony tie ordained by the lords of a profit-possessed business, zillionaires so utterly detached from normal American life that they didn't even know that they had done something terribly wrong.
With the two teams fresh out of pitchers, neither manager wanted to risk straining the arms of the millionaire athletes they had on the mound for a game that had gone into extra innings. So it seemed perfectly natural to the commissioner and the players on the field that the game would simply be called off; after all, it's just an exhibition game. Never mind that 42,000 people had paid $175 to be there, or that millions more had stayed up deep into the night to watch on TV. Who could possibly care about them?
Never mind that the dwindling band of fans who see something pure and special in baseball might really believe that the rules of the game are sacrosanct, and that you play until someone wins. Never mind that to a fan's mind, the beauty of baseball is that you never know how a game might end, that it's part of the deal that when a game is tied, the players play on.
But the players were on the field laughing while the commissioner was deciding to call it quits.
Americans want to believe. We want to trust our institutions. But they won't let us. The players and chieftains of baseball think our attachment to the game is cute and immutable; they figure we'll even suffer the insult of a strike and come running back for more. The president a former baseball team owner thinks it's ridiculous that at a moment when corporate corruption threatens to sink the stock markets, he is asked to account for his own questionable behavior. The boss of WorldCom thinks it's manly to take the Fifth rather than answer a congressman's question about whether he can sleep at night.
We've always known that those who have made it think they have it made. Everything's coming to them. They'll do what's best for themselves and say it's what's best for baseball. And the rest of us will just come along. After all, what are we going to do, strike?
The American miracle is the great American myth of mobility, the deep belief that we can all get there someday. So we usually don't resent our "betters." We vote and behave as if we really might be in their shoes someday. So a tax cut for the rich doesn't seem nearly as outrageous as it might to a European who grows up in an entrenched class system. And a president who puts his corporate buddies first seems all right to us, because if we play our cards right and catch some breaks, maybe we too can get to be insider traders someday.
But every dream comes to an end, and we're teetering too close to our breaking point in too many areas of life. Sure, baseball is just a game, but our attitudes toward it reflect our views toward everything else government, business, work, religion. The disconnect between the government and the governed, between the CEOs and the shareholders, between the owners and players and the fans who pay their way is growing, and one day you wake up and the only question you have is, "Who's going to fleece us today?"
Our clueless captains of industry, sports, government and even faith think they can blithely change the rules, pad their pockets and play with our trust. And maybe they can.
As I channel-surfed through the night the All-Star Game became just one more farce, in the same half-hour when Selig pulled the rug out from under the fans, over on Fox News Channel a "risk management" expert was telling Brit Hume that all the president needs to do to skate through the corporate accounting scandal is to look like he's taking the corruption seriously. Just make the right noises and the rest of us will smile, cut him a break and grab another bag of pretzels.
Because that's what we do, and the big guys know it.
Until one truly scary day, maybe we don't.
Copyright 2002 St Paul Pioneer Press