Take Me Out Of The Ballgame

Of all the four seasons (earth’s perfect quatrain), it is the spring that gives this poem of life its vibrancy. And baseball its music.

The spring’s revitalized sun wakens winter’s sloth and entertains his children well, its warming breath casting the lovers’ spell; and baseball gives rhythm to these rites.

And so it is baseball that turns the cold air warm and the sun so much brighter than the winter’s, glazed and steely; it is baseball that makes the dogwoods flower and the cherries blossom; baseball that makes the masses waken to crave again jumbo dogs and slushies, sudsies and pinstripes. Baseball that makes the old young and the young wiser.

This is how baseball has been in America for more than half its life. And how it also was for me.

But no longer does this game — I should say, rather, Major League Baseball’s (MLB’s) version of it — invigorate me. No longer does it resonate.

Its alienation (its crass infringement on trust) began in 1994, the year of the shortened MLB season: more precisely, the year when greed and egotistical pettiness ended play. On September 14 — almost exactly a month after the players had struck against the owners, the day acting Commissioner Bud Selig had called off all remaining games, including the World Series — devastated (a former player; at the time, a youth-league coach), I found myself suddenly barely clinging to Big League baseball, and this only because of the pure game’s indelible assets: its elegant, civilized form and function; its eminent social and celebratory caliber; and its profound gift of providing pleasure and reminiscence for innocents fortunate to have been born to the game’s graces ever since its own birth in the 1840s, in the time of my great-great-great grandparents.1 Surely, I thought, the professional game would survive the gamers (as it had at other grim intervals; e.g., the 1919 Black Sox Scandal): its fans once more to intervene and preserve The Great American Pastime; and I was right. But that summer, baseball’s professional steward, MLB, had missed a crucial sign and swung badly, outside and low.

Stunningly conspicuous about the 1994 players’ strike was its breathless deceit — the owners, the players, and their favorite mascot, American Capitalism, doing their best finally to strangle the fun out of baseball and solidify it as an extravaganza more about purse and payoff than pastime and pride. Not as immediately conspicuous was its effect on the fans, who, for weeks, months, for some, years afterward, suffered between numbness and bitterness and the woeful indecisiveness that made its nexus: whether to remain loyal to MLB (or even to their favorite MLB team) or bail. The first sign of rebellion didn’t materialize until the next season, as attendance declined. Yet that winter the fans had already begun rising en masse against the business of baseball — and for me, MLB had begun to fade to irrelevance.

But foolishly (as time would prove, also ironically), I, and too many others among the outraged, in 1998 turned the other cheek to MLB’s indignities when Mark McGwire, of the St. Louis Cardinals, and Sammy Sosa, of the Chicago Cubs, slugged away at New York Yankee Roger Maris’s 37-year-old single-season home-run record (61), and then commenced a veritable love affair with the game when McGwire shattered the record with 70 — all the while giddily ignorant of the fact that all along he and his bat had been conspiring with a third force, drugs, to propel all those balls over the walls.

Enter “The Steroids Era,” legacy of that MLB firestorm of dingers. For the next 15 years, more than 100 MLB players would test positive for performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) (including McGwire and Sosa), and nearly as many would be suspected, spawning widespread, and unprecedented, player disgrace (and penalties), fan disgust, MLB rules changes, even a congressional inquiry.

The consequence: fan revolt anew, culminating, this time, in a mass boycott of MLB. True? Unfortunately, false. For despite the now seemingly endless shames that taint Major League Baseball, it continues to draw fans by the tens of millions. How?

To get to the answer, begin with MLB’s latest embarrassment: the drug-related game suspensions of Milwaukee Brewers outfielder, Ryan Braun; New York Yankees’ third baseman, Alex Rodriguez; and 12 other MLB players.2 Many cheats had already preceded these latest among the infamous. But what sets Braun, Rodriguez and the dirty dozen apart is how their indignities, as none before, sweepingly amplify not just the collective shames of MLB in the twenty-first century (icon worship, undue tolerance, enabling, etc.), but especially the fans’ collective response to them: a perpetual trance of forgiveness and forgetfulness, as if every childish player’s slipups this millennium haven’t really been “that bad,” at least not enough to warrant — boycott. Besides, think a majority of fans, if most of the guilty haven’t been caught by now, soon they will be, and then finally the whole bloody steroids era will have quickly ended, and all again will prevail in goodness, and Jupiter will align with Mars, etc., etc. But this is a dream tinged in ignorance.

Braun and Rodriguez, especially, each of the body and mind of the quintessential cheat, consummately portray the severely unbalanced consciences of all of today’s ethically challenged athletes (including, alas, those who shall follow ad infinitum). Their characteristics are as old as humanity, archetypal: first the rule-breaking (stupidity); then the lies (egotism): Braun, “All [of my achievements] are a result of me...carrying myself the right way and staying out of trouble...,” and Rodriguez, “Steroids? Gee, why would anybody take them? What do they do? I don’t know anything about it”; and more lies (narcissism): Braun, “Everything I’ve done in my career has been done out of respect,” and Rodriguez, characterizing, as “not legitimate,” allegations he had used PEDs provided by the Biogenesis clinic in Coral Gables, Florida; and then, upon proof that each, indeed, had violated MLB rules, admission [sort of] of culpability (self-righteousness); and finally, apology (manufactured contrition): Braun, “I realize now that I have made some mistakes,” and Rodriguez, “I got caught up in this ‘Everybody’s doing it’ era...I feel deep regret for that.”

As if this isn’t all trust-busting enough, nearly as disquieting is the ongoing profusion of halfwits (players and fans alike), who, despite the overwhelming evidence, the proof against, continue to stand by their men.

If, from the schoolyard, a child brought home the kind of disgraces that pervade MLB, his parents (that is, the normal ones) would surely ground him for at least a month of Sundays and probably also throw in counseling for good measure. Yet to a majority of fans the attitude persists: Who cares that Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez and so many others have been banned from playing out the season — and that others just like them lurk around the corner. Let’s keep buying tickets!

Are the hoodwinked forgivers and outright disbelievers just as stupid as the deviants they persist in cheering? Many are, certainly. However, I think that most persons who continue to support — emotionally and economically — the tainted players, and this tainted game, are more so moved by a Pavlovian-like earnestness to preserve the game at all costs, not to mention also a conscious (or unconscious) fear of feeling forever heartbroken if they don’t.

But what game? This baseball is business. And today, baseball is Big Business. Gigantic, more-form-than-function stadiums with pristine turf and squeamish butt-challenged seats with no elbowroom stacked in Twiggy aisles five stories high — all this to “enjoy,” in an afternoon or evening, for the mere equivalent (for most families) of one third, or one half, of one week’s earnings (or, if you like more comfy, a climate-controlled viewing station called a box, for a mere one year’s salary). And that’s not all, folks! Outrageously priced watery beers, wimpy hotdogs, box snacks with thumb-sized cardboard prizes inside — all delivered by vendors who regularly impede your view in a continuous marching up and down, down and up, in excessive numbers, like riot police. All told: your esteemed privilege to subsidize this game’s players in the form of loot they wouldn’t need for a dozen lifetimes, let alone just one.

I am sad. I miss this old pastime, uniquely American. Yet in its MLB version, baseball is the former good buddy who stole my girlfriend.

I hope I may never give in to temptation and attend another MLB game. For the love of baseball, I may give half an ear to the MLB version on radio or catch a few innings now and then on TV. But I shall no longer abuse my wallet by dragging it into an MLB stadium.

From now on, I will enjoy baseball’s professional version at fields at which the great game is played with the requisite skills by part-timers (as a “side line”), where the highest seat overlooks a somewhat healthy leap to a flower-lined walking path below, where clowns and children gleefully run the bases between innings, where the food and drink are not much pricier than fast food, and where most of the going tickets are graciously exchanged for all of a five-spot. From here in St. Louis, these are the ball fields of the River City Rascals, performing just west of the city in suburban O’Fallon, and the Gateway Grizzlies, performing not far east, across the Mississippi River in Illinois, on an old cornfield.3

For me, this, now, is baseball such as the professional version ought to be played.

And not at all coincidental is that around the perimeter of one of these ball fields stands a quaint grove of decorative trees. Dogwoods.

  1. The first recorded “base ball” game, June 1846, was played at the woodland-encompassed Elysian Fields of Hoboken, New Jersey. The New York Baseball Club defeated the New York Knickerbockers 23-1.
  2. This summer, MLB levied suspensions ranging from 50 games (for 12 dopers) to 65 games for Braun and 211 for Rodriguez, including the entire 2014 season.
  3. With luck, a team of the Frontier League may play near you.