January 16, 2014

Baseball, steroids, apple pie and #Cooperstown : American myth vs American reality

Note: What follows is adapted from a recent newspaper column.

The ongoing brouhaha over how to address steroid use in potential Hall of Fame candidates has, as I've noted more than once before, a "big Hall" versus "small Hall" angle to it.

And, as I've noted once before, I'm a small Hall person. Also, I’m a St. Louis Cardinals fan first, a National League fan second, and a baseball fan third. (That explains why I expect DH candidates to at least meet 1B standards on batting on Hall eligibility, if not even a bit higher.)

Seeing the Cardinals just miss on another World Series ring, then address a couple of issues with a free agent signing at shortstop and a trade to shore up the outfield, while looking forward to a passel of talented young pitching arms getting another year of experience, means I’m definitely ready for  pitchers and catchers to start warming up at the beginning of spring training, just a few short weeks away.

At the same time, that Cardinal free agent signing leads to talk about the Hall of Fame vote.
That free agent, Jhonny Peralta, was just coming off a Major League Baseball suspension for having tested positive for the use of performance-enhancing drugs. And, concerns over the use of PEDs have kept all-time home run leader
Barry Bonds and top pitcher Roger Clemens out of the Hall.

It’s a mess. We know, beyond failed tests, that some players have used steroids and human growth hormone for a competitive edge. A couple, like Houston Astros and New York Yankees teammate to Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, have made some sort of confession. So, too, has one potential Hall of Famer, former Cardinals basher Mark McGwire. And, arguably,
Jason Giambi made the most forthright confession of all. (See here for my "degrees of confession" post.)

This all said, the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is a place that is built on innocence and dreams. As a Cards fan, I'll admit that I loved watching the 1998 season. And, some part of my thinking of Roy Hobbs and "The Natural" while doing so.

That innocence and dreams? That's true whether you're a big Hall or a small Hall person. In fact, part of how the symbol fulfillment of those dreams are viewed is what drives the intensity of some big Hall vs small Hall disputes.

I’ve never been there, but I saw a traveling exhibit in Dallas several years ago. And, for a diehard baseball fan, the materials are about nostalgia, innocence, wistfulness and more.

Those materials are also about mythmaking.

Diehard fans know that Abner Doubleday didn’t invent baseball, and that he didn’t even live in Cooperstown, N.Y. in 1839. Alexander Cartwright doesn’t necessarily have a better claim, though.

We do know baseball evolved from the English game of rounders. That said, Google’s Ngram feature and other things show “base ball,” written as two words as it was well into the 19th century, could be found in books in the late 1700s. 

And, those books were written in England. Indeed, the father of King George III of American Revolution fame, Frederick, Prince of Wales, is reported to have taken his cuts, according to recent findings.

In other words, baseball may not be quite so all-American as an old car commercial claimed. We’ll assume apple pie still is, even if hot dogs come from European sausages and not all Chevy parts are made inside U.S. borders.

Today’s baseball is big business for owners and players alike. Fans in seats starting in the middle 1990s showed that. Of course, amphetamines, though likely of a lot less help, were around in baseball’s picket-fence days of the 1950s and ’60s. And, Gaylord Perry then revived the spitball to an art form, followed by Don Sutton earning the nickname Black and Decker.

So, baseball’s innocence has been itself a myth. Even Terence Mann and Iowa cornfields can’t totally erase that. That's why they're a "Field of Dreams," not a "Field of Reality."

At the same time, for Peralta and thousands of other Latino ballplayers from the Caribbean, it's a myth precisely because it's big business. It's part of the myth of upward mobility. And if, especially to counteract poorer childhood diets and lesser-quality athletic facilities than American youth, if they think that steroids, HGH, and other drugs are part of the price to pay on that altar of myth, they will, no less than an African-American kid in a ghetto will badger his mom for Air Jordans, if they're more than just a status symbol.

And, maybe that’s why it is America’s game, still, in a sense. It's about business. Upward mobility. Immigration, with more non-American players than the NBA and far more than the NFL.

Football’s never had the same mythos around it. Its violence doesn’t speak of innocence. And, modern concussion worries may dull its shine. (However, is it much wonder that Canton, Ohio, home of the NFL Hall of Fame, while not as small as Cooperstown, is nowhere near the size of a big city?)

But baseball has a mix of mythmaking, nostalgia, heavy-duty capitalism, timelessness, and dreams realized and spoiled, to fit the bill. A summer day is languid enough to "play two," per Ernie Banks' plea. Give me a Hebrew National, with a side of St. Louis specialty toasted ravioli, both made in America, to go with. And, a wish that more younger people today would learn to appreciate more of that timelessness.

As for the Hall of Fame? A "steroid wing" is not the answer.

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