Here in the first post-American century, sports fans, it's a brand-new ballgame -- and I'm not sure how to watch it. In this opening season of the Post-Steroid Era, I feel like a betrayed spouse determined to make the relationship work, struggling to balance experience against hope. Are my guys really clean now? If not, can I live with it?
And I can't shake the feeling that baseball isn't baseball anymore, it's just another fading allegory for everything else.
As you recall, early in that triumphant world series that came to be known as the American Century, our greatest long-range missile-delivery system, Babe Ruth, symbolized American power. We might not show up until the late innings, but then we'd go deep.
That was back in the daze. The Bambino's home-run statistics, way off the charts in the 1920s, have been routinely overwhelmed by chemically-enhanced contemporary players. And the most unforgivable of them, the former St. Louis slugger Mark McGwire, is now a.... batting coach! What's he teaching those Cardinals?
In 1954, deep into the Cold War, a leading historian of our national character, the French-born Jacques Barzun famously declared, "Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball."
Forty years later, another cultural commentator, Gerald Early, extended Barzun's use of baseball games as allegory to baseball's management and marketing, its "history as a mode of capitalist production or commercial ingenuity."
To that, let me add its workforce. Immigrants, arriving from America's baseball colonies -- the Dominican Republic, Japan, Cuba, Korea -- have become critical to the game. Did we win their hearts and minds?
Meanwhile, the natives seem to be drifting away into football, basketball, and extreme sports. Who changed our hearts and minds?
Give baseball its due: no sport has ever enthralled so many intellectuals. Right into this century, media gas bags were still calling it "the national pastime" (long after football, by most measurements, had captured that title) and using baseball terminology to touch base with the man in the bleachers. (See George F. Will.) It was the ultimate team game of individuals! You didn't have to be a physical freak to play! It was a perfect expression of American independence and exceptionalism! Adios. Sayonara!
Which Pitch to Swing At?
So now what? For more than a dozen years at least, major leaguers have been shooting steroids and other helpful drugs -- and thrilling us with the results. Then, suddenly, we were supposed to be angry at them and maybe slightly ashamed of our complicity as well. This season, however, they have been declared clean and we are supposed to forgive them for cheating on us, and ourselves for cheering them on.
Can we do it? Should we? What are our options?
Consider these three:
* We can relocate emotionally to an alternate sports universe, call it Fandora, where the owners, not the players, are our avatars.
* We can believe that baseball as we know it is too big to fail, so let's bail it out and slap on the band-aids where necessary.
* We can man up, dig in, and try to make some systemic changes.
(If this sounds too much like the larger American culture for you, why don't you just go make some mixed martial art.)
The alternate universe option, also known as fantasy leagues, has been around for a long time. It was coded onto IBM computers 50 years ago. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan took us into the new Republican Fantasy Leagues, a group of clever Manhattanites led by magazine editor Daniel Okrent -- not utterly coincidentally -- created the off-world of fantasy baseball we know today. Using USAToday boxscores, Rotisserie League members shuffled and dealt existing major league rosters to create their own competitive teams -- and then, in a break with everything that had previously been considered in the nature of baseball fandom, began rooting for real players scattered among real teams rather than for the real teams themselves. Now, à la Reagan, at least in their dreams, everyone could be a team owner and root for themselves. Talk about American individualism and exceptionalism!
Thirty years later, fantasy leagues are a multi-billion dollar business that includes many other sports, countries, computer programs, and gambling systems, but the sensibility remains the same: it's better to be the boss than the worker. Teddy Roosevelt's hero, "the man who is actually in the arena," has been replaced with the Gekko bonus baby who owns the arena. The actual athlete has morphed into a Monopoly piece inserted, with his perfectly real (or steroidally real) stats, into a dream game where fans cannot be betrayed by a favorite player, or team, leaving town, or turning into a lunatic philanderer -- there is also fantasy golf -- or a lying juicer.
Thank You, A-Rod
The second option this season is to embrace the Post-Steroid Era, to get past the past. Yes, we can! And here's the fantasy league aspect of that: we can insist that it's all different now because we say so. We've won the war on drugs (the ones we can test for, anyway), even if we're losing the one in Afghanistan. It's not as if we're ‘roid deniers, it's that there's no upside to wallowing.
Let's celebrate! Drugs are gone! We're clean (again)! The nation and its pastime are back and ready to win -- like the defending champion Yankees, thanks in no small part to Alex Rodriguez, once more forgiven for his lying and juicing!
Of course, there will still be debatable issues. Think of it as the math of the aftermath. Statistics are critical to baseball. So how do we deal with records set under the influence? Should there be scarlet asterisks next to the names of steroidal batters, marking their unfair advantages to the end of American time? But then how do you deal, statistically speaking, with the fact that they were facing steroidal pitchers? A lot of microbrew (and sake?) will float these debates in sports bars and on talk radio, which is, of course, good for business! Someone's business, anyway. There will be a whole new currency of communication between the generations. Wonk heaven! Ultimately, this second option -- let's call it the centrist field -- might renew interest in the game.
The third option, meaningful change... well, that's always the diciest, isn't it? Watch out for this one to be co-opted by those who claim that rigorous drug testing will make baseball whole again.
Drug use was always the symptom, never the disease. You have to start -- surprise, surprise! -- with the post-Age of Reagan disparity of wealth. Greedhead owners get taxpayers to build them new stadiums with luxury boxes in which they can romance politicians and clients and get even richer. The poor schnooks are priced out of those stadiums. No wonder they‘re having tea parties (being unable, after all, to afford ballpark beer). What if fans and/or players owned teams? What if they were to start a new league?
On to immigration reform. Like the day laborers waiting to be plucked off suburban street corners, teenagers in the Dominican Republic line up at major-league-run "academies" where they are schooled and tested in hitting, fielding, and throwing. Most will be discarded. The best will be counseled by "buscones." Those are the sometimes shady street agents who keep big league hands clean as they rip off big chunks of signing bonuses and doctor papers to make prospects seem younger. It's time to begin to police this to cut down on the exploitation of the kids.
Kids? Yes, the kids, the Little Leaguers whose characters are supposedly formed emulating their Big League role models. Isn't this all about them? It's why we need to come back to drugs, so conveniently blamed on rogue players trying to trick Mother Nature. Ignored, of course, has been the tacit encouragement of management. (Don't ask, don't tell, just use.) Can we also penalize owners (fines?) and teams (loss of victories?) for drug use, rather than simply suspending players for periods during which owners don't even have to pay them?
So there you have it, as we await the big inning, the first of the new season. I won't join a fantasy league. No Fandora for me. No way can I identify with the Dodgers' McCourt or the Yankees' Steinbrenner. And the result of a baseball "revolution" is too predictable. It could only end by extending the owners' socialism to the rest of us. So there's no choice, really. I'll root with my fingers crossed that we will not be jilted, betrayed, or played for a rube again. That good times will trickle down. That this season will be different.