As yet another scandal opens up the national psyche, and we trot out our outrage over the cheaters, it once again reveals our national balancing act of illusion and reality. Our popular fiction. And our non-fiction. There’s the myth -- the purity of the game, the green grass, the dads and sons, the sense of renewal and infinite possibility and it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. And running concurrently, the reality of spitters, corked bats, stolen signs and steroids. White Hats and Black Sox. The rules of the game and the way the guys in the clubhouse know the game is really played. Sure, we love our myths, but we can’t act like children when reality rears its head. Did it really take George Mitchell’s report for people to realize that many of their favorite players suddenly began to look like Brahma bulls with arms like necks, necks like thighs and thighs like tree trunks?
It’s always been interesting to me that when one of these scandals breaks, the conclusion is “a few guys cheated, but we got ‘em.” As opposed to the idea that cheating has always gone on, and occasionally people get caught. The truth is, most of the time they don’t get caught. Imagine all the scandals that never happened because the bad guys got away with it. Only in our popular fiction do they always get busted and brought to justice.
But as one side sheds tears over fallen heroes and the other side snorts “oh, grow up” I think the truth lies in the middle. As long as there’s power, money, and winning and losing in any world, there will be people who will try to figure how to manipulate the system. With baseball, as with politics. Talk about the myths in public while screwing with reality in private. Push the national buttons. Wear a flag pin. Be photographed with the family leaving church on Sunday. Take a proud stance behind God, country, and values – just not too wide a stance. These people have always lived in the world of the staged photo op, the rigged press conference, gerrymandering, and stolen elections, whether in 2000, or 1960. To some extent, this has always been, and will probably always be how and where the game is played, in the shadow world, the world where plausible deniability replaces ethics. The higher the stakes, the dirtier the backroom tactics. Whether it’s a World Series ring or the keys to the oval office.
But recognizing dishonesty doesn’t mean accepting it. This is where the myth comes back into play by serving as a regulator for when dirty tricks get out of control and become the accepted norm. Our myths are there to keep us honest. To keep healthy skepticism from descending into soul-deadening cynicism. It’s not about absolute morality. It’s about ideals and course correction.
Finally, as someone who grew up in Yankee Stadium and still gets a thrill from playing baseball, I would offer a modest proposal: make the players get drunk before every game. Make them stagger to home plate with massive hangovers like Mantle, or exhausted from a night of whoring and cigars like The Babe, and then try to hit one out of the park. Forced intoxication. That would level the playing field and take the game back to the good old days when juiced just meant loaded.