By C. Robert Dimitri | Miscellaneous | October 6, 2010 |
By C. Robert Dimitri | Miscellaneous | October 6, 2010 |
With another Major League Baseball postseason upon us, I find myself once again reflecting upon how much - or more aptly, how little - I care. It is a sensation I know well, as it has been with me for the last five Octobers. However, the roots of that disillusionment began 11 years earlier. The Tenth Inning, Ken Burns’ sequel to his critically acclaimed miniseries Baseball, aired this past week on PBS. Watching it and reliving the past 16 years in the world of baseball accentuated this round of reflection.
I remember exactly where I was the night of September 14, 1994. I was driving south on highway 281 toward downtown San Antonio when the news of the World Series’ cancellation was broadcast over the radio. The strike by the players had been in effect over a month, and neither the MLBPA nor the owners would budge in their demands. The passengers in my car were not baseball fans, so I stewed quietly in my thoughts in the driver’s seat. I was unsettled and angered by the announcement.
I never did see Ken Burns’ original Baseball miniseries. I have long intended to watch it. Perhaps the fact that the program originally aired in the following first autumn week of 1994 created a negative association. That would be the first time in 90 years that Major League Baseball did not hold a World Series, and as such the prospect of Ken Burns selling me the longevity and romance of baseball rang particularly hollow.
My interest in baseball did temporarily revive. In 1996 the team that I followed in my youth - the Texas Rangers - won the AL West title. It was their first playoff berth. I recall telling a friend that I must watch that series because my team “needed me.” This entire notion that our watching our teams play somehow affects the outcomes is particularly silly, but it seems to be a universal one. Such emotional involvement did imply I still cared.
In The Tenth Inning historian Doris Kearns Goodwin described it thusly: “The tension is so great for me that I am embarrassed to admit that when the other team is up in a close game I cannot even watch the game. I run out of the house sometimes, and I know that’s crazy. You have this sense that as long as you don’t watch, something bad is not going to happen. And then you just pray that by the time you come back, your worst fears will not be realized, and you’ll suddenly see them up at bat again.”
Perhaps I should have averted my eyes, for the Rangers lost that playoff series to the New York Yankees. The Yankees won many games over the subsequent years, taking four of the next five World Series titles. Therein you have exhibit B for my disillusionment.
Every single offseason of the last decade sees the same theme. The Yankees use their ample coffers to sign the most talented free agent available, the rich become richer, and relatively pitiful franchises like the Royals and the Pirates with their more meager payrolls are condemned to the cellar of the standings. In 2010, the payroll of the New York Yankees exceeded the sum total of the Rangers, Athletics, Padres, and Pirates combined. In my opinion there is something wrong with a system that allows this sort of disparity.
To draw an analogy to the fundamental unfairness of this arrangement, imagine that you are back on the playground choosing teams for whatever game you played in your halcyon youth. You and the opposing team captain have ten kids from which to choose. Instead of alternating choices, though, you are allowed to choose all five of your teammates first, leaving your opponent with the five remaining players. Congratulations: you are now the New York Yankees.
Alternatively, you could consider yourself the Boston Red Sox. This might seem like blasphemy, but at this point in Major League Baseball, there is virtually no difference between the Red Sox and the Yankees. In 2010 the Boston Red Sox was the only team that was within 45 million dollars of the Yankees’ payroll. I do not care which one of the teams has thirty-plus titles and which team struggled through nearly a century of futility. If it was not the Yankees snatching up that prime free agent in the last decade, then it was a reliable bet that it was the Red Sox. I know I was not the only one outside of Boston and New York that was supremely bored by this trend.
Feel free to offer anecdotal evidence that runs contrary to my objection. I can even provide examples for you. Those aforementioned Rangers qualified for the playoffs this season, and the Padres were within a game of doing so. The Yankees won zero championships from 2001 to 2009, and the most notable exception might have been the 2003 World Series in which they lost to the relatively under-funded underdog Florida Marlins. However, consistent championship contention and playoff presence directly correlates with payroll. That nine-year span only saw one season (2008) in which the Yankees did not make the playoffs. The Red Sox qualified for the playoffs six times in that span and won two World Series titles.
In spite of my position, I admit that I watched the 2004 postseason with interest. You could not have any appreciation for the game and its history and not have done so. The Red Sox vibe that year was infectious. Breaking that lengthy championship drought with the unprecedented rebound from a three-game deficit in the ALCS against their personal bugaboo the Yankees is another example of those amazing moments in sports that could not have been scripted. The Tenth Inning demonstrated how much that moment meant to the Red Sox fans.
In describing the heartbreak of the previous season’s 2003 ALCS collapse to the Yankees, writer Mike Barnicle revealed his son’s reaction that was a result of the fanaticism that he had instilled in him: “My son Timmy was then eleven. …He had tears the size of hubcaps streaming down his cheek. And I started crying, and I hugged him, and you know - in my heart of hearts, I was thinking, ‘What have I done? What have I done?’” Timmy smiled in 2004, and other Red Sox fans were able to leave tributes at the graves of their parents and grandparents that had waited their entire lives for what became a posthumous championship.
I find that sort of legacy inspiring. In 2005, baseball would completely erase whatever inspiration I had accumulated. That was when the steroids story exploded, and that was when I gave myself a long break from the game.
I can tell you exactly where I was the evening of August 7, 2007. I stopped at the corner market and happened to glance up at a television there as Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run, breaking Hank Aaron’s record. The only emotion I can ascribe to that moment is disgust. I did not pause to watch any of the “fanfare.” I simply kept walking.
Maybe I had been naïve. I was in the stands at Atlanta’s Turner Field on October 7, 2002, when Barry hit a home run to help clinch that division playoff series. Fans in the outfield stands taunted him with accusations; although I was suspicious, I had the foolish notion of presuming innocence in the absence of absolute evidence. Of course, a modicum of any medical research would have revealed the undeniable fact that Bonds’ altered physique simply was not medically feasible without chemical enhancement. I now think the result of that playoff series is essentially invalid. In my mind, the entire steroids era is an invalid mess.
There is an inherent problem with that logic, and I realize that.
As sportswriter Tom Verducci says in The Tenth Inning, “I’m not a big believer in putting asterisks next to records. You start pulling on this one thread - say it’s Barry Bonds - and it leads to another thread, the pitchers he hit against, the players who were in the field, the players who were competing against him…Who was clean? Who was dirty?”
Maybe I am too much of an idealist. I realize athletes in other sports have cheated too. The testing policy and standards in Major League Baseball, however, were nonexistent and toothless. Compounding the problem is the sacrosanct nature of those magical numbers that we associate with the game. Those holy numbers - 61, 755, etc. - and those sacred box scores with their mathematical beauty are forever ruined. I simply cannot escape that concept.
Perhaps years from now we could have an entire league of players enhanced by legal, safe designer pharmaceuticals, and this debate will seem very quaint. Records will fall with ease, and we could dismiss any raised eyebrows with the idea that this is mankind’s natural progress. It might be no different than the greater general health we associate with better diets, average height increases, and longer life expectancies. Until that time, though, the deceit of Major League Baseball’s steroids era will represent nothing but dishonor to me. I fail to understand how anyone can watch the laughable testimony before Congress in 2005 by the game’s most prominent players and reach a different conclusion. I wish I could dismiss it as simply “laughable,” but “tragic” seems more applicable.
I returned to a Major League game at the end of the 2009 season. What drew me there? I must confess that it was “Star Wars Night” at Dodgers Stadium. I also must confess that beyond those intergalactic trappings, it felt very good to be back at the ballpark. In right field the umps blew one of the worst calls that I have ever seen in my life, and I was out of my seat booing with the most passionate of fans.
I cannot deny the “poetry” and “ballet” of the game that sportswriter Howard Bryant tells us kept him coming back to the game in spite of his disappointment. It still appeals to me on that level, even if I have been indifferent and oblivious to the 2010 season so far.
The new drug testing program instituted by Major League Baseball apparently provides at least some genuine measure of integrity, and the offensive statistics would seem to be returning to pre-steroids levels. Consequently, I am cautiously optimistic, and perhaps I will watch some of these playoff games.
This is the nature of adulthood. The universe chips away at your idealism. You can either collapse under the weight of crushed expectations and resulting cynicism, or you can move past it and adjust accordingly. That does not mean that I have given up on asking that we all strive for the ideal. After all, I still think about the words of James Earl Jones in Field Of Dreams :
“Ray, people will come, Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. …And they’ll walk out to the bleachers, and sit in the shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. …People will come, Ray. …The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. 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. Oh…people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come.”
I hope that baseball will someday elicit that feeling in me again.
C. Robert Dimitri is nothing more than your average American sports fan that has spent far too many hours in front of the television and has absolutely no further credentials. He reserves the right to change any opinions expressed here; unlike the practice of bandwagon sports loyalty, there is virtue in shifting a position when given new information.