May 22, 2013
Barry Bonds, Baseball and the Redemption of America
Posted on Jan 17, 2013
By Alan Minsky
Talk about a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.” How else can so much have been said about the worrisome state of baseball and yet an unethical mediocrity like Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig, willing to declare the sport thriving while overseeing two of its greatest infamies (the 1994 strike and steroids), manages to rule the national pastime unchallenged for more than two decades?
There’s no denying that spectacle sports have a grip on the imagination of hundreds of millions of Americans, that sports are a huge slice of our shared culture, and everyone who remotely cares harbors heartfelt opinions on them. The changes that occur in sports resonate. Sure, they largely reflect the trends and trajectories of the broader society, but that doesn’t preclude the possibility that sports can occasionally invert that relationship and convey alternatives.
Baseball remains in crisis after the steroid era. Only the Red Sox breaking of the curse of the Bambino rivals the McGwire-Sosa-Bonds episodes as memorable recent history. Television viewership is down, as is passion for the game. The only possible way for the sport to recapture the heart of the country is for it to embrace a return to human scale.
Baseball’s great charm is that it’s a democratic sport. All the players get their turn in the spotlight. Even more significantly for the current crisis, unlike basketball and football, anyone with a conventional physique has a chance to excel—no need to be sky high or massive. It shares this trait with the most popular sport in the world, soccer. However, in contrast to soccer, which is prospering tremendously as a 21st century spectacle, baseball is mired in a slump.
The barriers in both cases are significant. It is no secret among the general population that the small minority that prospered wildly during the bubbles remains the current beneficiaries of the economic order, while average households struggle mightily to make ends meet. It also is no secret that the 1 percent’s wealth comes largely from investments that revolve around transnational capital, such that contemporary wealth generation no longer benefits the general population in the manner it did through all previous eras in American history. In this regard, the greatest political economic issue of our day is whether American society can possibly be reorganized so that once again it’s working for the large body of the American people.
One thing is certain: For baseball to reclaim its place as a cherished American institution, reflective of society’s striving for democracy, it must retrench with a full-fledged commitment to fairness. In my opinion, that means a zero tolerance policy for steroid use, implemented with the same cut-and-dried clarity as the prohibition on gambling.You can sense the American public turning back to middle-class, democratic values, even as the moneyed interests resist. The people of the country, and the world, just may be ready again to embrace a summer game played by young men in whom they can see their own reflections. To get there, baseball has to have an honest confrontation with its recent past to recognize the still active forces that led it so far astray.
One of the common responses to both Bonds and Clemens is to shrug and say “it’s a shame, they were so great already, they would have made the hall if they never touched the stuff.” Bonds, they say, would have been baseball’s first 500-500 man. Knowledgeable fans would have known to include him in any discussion of the greatest ever. Instead, we have Bonds as the least lovable member of the fraternity of baseball villains, never to be redeemed by sentimental Americana like Shoeless Joe in “Field of Dreams.”
Contemporary American mass media culture seems incapable of processing a complex saga such as that of Bonds or Clemens. Instead, a painless airbrushing of history occurs and nothing is learned. When faced with the tale, people are asked to deflect the tragedy there. Tragedy, one of the most brilliant forms of world literature, makes emotional demands on the audience beyond anything our mainstream institutions can countenance. Tragedy teaches difficult, painful lessons. That doesn’t market test very well these days.
Baseball, as former Commissioner Bart Giamatti used to say, is “designed to break your heart,” beginning each year with the hope of spring and abandoning you in the icy grip of fall. Giamatti was a Red Sox fan. Any fool outside of New York City could tell you the Yankees were hated, and no teams are more loved than the lowly Cubs and the BoSox. Generations of Midwesterners and New Englanders learned painful lessons from the very human failings of their heroes. In the steroids era, it’s the national pastime itself that collapsed. So, what lessons will the nation learn? Or will it choose to feel no pain? Can baseball prosper without an honest confrontation? Can America?
Alan Minsky is a Truthdig contributor and the author of two books on baseball: “Home Run Kings” and “A Game for All Races.” Meleiza Figueroa provided research assistance.
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