Wednesday, May 10, 2006

From Shoeless Joe to Barry Bonds - The Bittersweet Myth of Baseball

Baseball in America is at an historic moment as Barry Bonds nears the magic number of home runs made famous by Babe Ruth and surpassed by Hank Aaron. But as always with the game, the Glory rides with some Despair. This is more than a game - this is personal. This game is different from other sports because it is welded into the history of uniquely American ideals. Lewis and Clark stopped to play some baseball on their monumental journey to map out the nation. The poetry of Whitman and Frost took on the game. Box scores were printed alongside the news stories of Sherman's March.

It is a game filled with myths of innocence and tragedy, of the Everyman and the Capitalist, and the current rage-filled debate about Barry Bonds continues a tradition of scandal and history.

Perhaps it's because it arrives with Spring and the anticipation of leisure days ahead. I can't quote you the latest stats on a certain team, but when the season is upon us, it offers an immense pleasure to have the sounds of the game, either by radio or TV, as I drift thru the ever-lengthening days. I can become intensely linked to a game or let it simply fill the background with the sounds of a distant stadium, that unassailable crack of a bat and the roars or disdain from the crowd.

It's got hot dogs and beer and the language of the game itself is part of the story of American success and failure. George Carlin famously joked that baseball was far different from football. In football your aim is to reach the End Zone. In baseball, the aim is to just Go Home.

Baseball columnist Thomas Boswell once wrote of the game:

"Born to an age where horror has become commonplace, where tragedy has, by monotonous repetition, become a parody of sorrow, we need to fence off a few places where humans try to be fair, where skill has some hope of reward, where absurdity has a harder time than usual getting a ticket."

The names of the legends all have been tarnished here and there, Shoeless Joe Jackson, part of the World Series of 1919 scandal, when allegations of gambling and fixing the game brought national outrage, remains a hero. The notoriously named Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis doled out lifetime bans for Joe and seven of his teammates, in an effort to send out a "no-tolerance message" about gambling in baseball. Despite having a lifetime batting average of .356, Shoeless Joe waits like the mythic outsider at the gates of the Hall of Fame, the fans forever pleading for entry. Of course, his official website also has plenty of ways to get your vote, your sympathy, and your money as you buy from the corporate romanticism.

Similar battles rage for Pete Rose, for the steroid allegations against Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds. Even the tragic innocence of player Lou Gehrig has found fame for baseball and for a disease that carries his name.

Like some tale written by Homer, like Odysseus wandering years searching for home, Baseball brings heroes and heartbreak together in tales that continue to be told and made right before our very eyes.

I played Little League ball way back when - it was easy to join a team in a town so small they had to widen the road to paint a white stripe down the middle. I wasn't very good at the game and it wasn't until playing intramural softball in college someone actually told me how to swing the bat and move my body to make a hit. I was still a bad player.

But forever etched in my mind are those days of the Little League in a dinky park with buckeled board benches and sagging fences. There is this smell of Coca-Cola and ice dribbled into patchy red sand and the sweet scent of new-mown grass, the aromas of chewing tobacco from the umpire who spat like a camel in the Sahara, the steamy and seamy aroma of sweaty beer from drunken parents who often yelled insults at their own children.

None of us care about the adults. We liked the game. We had uniforms. If we were lucky to snag a ball and make a double play or get that thudding shudder in our shoulders when we smacked the ball out of the infield, our hearts galloped like giant horses of mythology, creatures reaching for Glory and History. If we just plain lost the game, we were sad for a little while, but the attention span of a child quickly found some other distraction. On the field, we were all equals, except maybe for one or two boys who we all knew had real honest-to-pete Talent. And most always, those guys were never snobs about it.

We all had a chance.

Bonds nearly pegged home run 714 last night, and the news wasn't exactly great. But the real number is Hank Aaron's 755 home runs.

And for many spring and summer days and nights for many years to come, the Chance is there.


  1. great stuff!!! if you like sports, check out josh q. public

  2. carpenterjd5:49 PM

    I can remember the feel of the new leather glove and bending the brim of a brand new hat. I can also remember the staccato clicks of my cleats as I walked across any concrete surface near the diamond. I love baseball. I don't love pro ball anymore. I have heard about the integrity of the game and It sickens me. There is no integrity in a sport that did not allow African-Americans to play until the late 40's. There is no integrity in a game that claims 'ownership' of players. There is no integrity in a game that allows an owner of a franchise to become the commissioner. I hope Bonds breaks Ruth's mark soon, steroids and all. I'm just happy that he is getting a chance to play at all. If you could discuss it with some of the owners candidly, i bet they would still love to have it the way it was when Ruth played, whitebread and no questions asked.
    Joe, you hit a passionate subject for me. Post about sports more often.