Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Our national pastime

Posted by digglahhh on 15 April 2007

It’s no accident that the canonical dismissal of George Bush (the first, as it happens) was a baseball metaphor—that he “was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” As baseball is a metaphor for life, life is a metaphor for baseball. Professional sports, for better and for worse, are reflections of the societies in which they are played.

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson walked past baseball’s color line onto the infield of Ebbet’s Field. As another season of major league baseball hits its stride, it’s time to look at the dark truth lurking inside our sunny conception of baseball as “the national pastime.”

1.Disparity of resources

It seems obvious that richer teams will do better, but the question of whether dollars-spent translates linearly to success in the Major Leauges has been the subject of much debate. Within the mid-range payrolls, there is plenty of room for savvy general managerial skills to make a bigger difference than finances, but at the top and bottom of the distribution there’s not much argument. The teams with the very highest payroll are often the best and the teams with the lowest payrolls are almost always the worst.

The NFL, which has created an unparalleled following with it “any given Sunday” excitement, has a pay structure in which the gap between the sport’s highest and lowest payroll is smaller than the gap between baseball’s highest and second highest payrolls. How égalité!—perhaps a little too much so. Baseball’s notion that certain teams have inherent market advantages, and deeper pockets, independent of quality of play is more in keeping with the ideological underpinnings of American society. As is the reluctance to institute salary caps (à la the NFL) or meaningful revenue sharing systems. The supporters of the free market are almost always those with the most bountiful resources and in baseball, not surprisingly, more often times, the invisible hand dons the World Series ring.

2.Better living through chemistry

Is it surprising that performance-enhancing drugs have run rampant throughout the sport? The hankering for home runs over pitching duels is a poignant metaphor for contemporary cultural values. America has chosen, as its pastime, the most individualistic of team sports. It is the one that is most closely tied to numbers and the one in which you can most precisely measure an individual’s performance. Unlike basketball, hockey or soccer, a play begins as an individual showdown between batter and pitcher. The switches from offense to defense are deliberate and orderly, not instantaneous and unpredictable. Baseball’s individual nature and reliance on precise statistical would make it capitalism if it had to be portrayed as an economic system. Soccer’s low scoring, team-oriented style that produces many unsung heroes has a socialist feel to it. Americans are not interested in soccer, though it is the most popular sport in the world.

If the biochemical hybrids that are assaulting some of the sport’s most esteemed records are objects of public scorn, they still exemplify our love affair with simulacra, and our reactions to the subsequent scandals exemplify a national cognitive dissonance. In this country, images of success and health are a greater priority than the real thing, hence eating disorders, stomach stapling, personal “deficit spending” and myriad other behaviors endemic to and reflective of the U.S. value system.

As consumers of sport, culture, or product we Americans revere outcome more than process. So, we destroy our health, minds and integrity to show the uncritical and awestruck observer how pretty, wealthy or strong we are. Those who raise suspicion are dismissed as bitter, jealous or Luddites. It is in just as much bad taste to question the achievements of a player who comes out of nowhere to put up forty plus homerun seasons, as it is to disparage corporations using “creative accounting” practices to create an inaccurate picture of their wealth. Then when the inevitable scandal ensues, we tar and feather the perpetrators for taking advantage of our trust and innocence. The public was simply mislead by Mark McGwire, and Kenneth Lay on Enron’s “success” too… To an astute observer, only the naive could have been genuinely shocked to find that baseball players were using disingenuous means to succeed, all the while getting praised for their conditioning regimens or that our government was manufacturing a war on an innocent country all the while proclaiming to be the defenders of all that is moral.

3. From green card to line-up card

For decades, America has attracted the best and the brightest from around the world. When we provide laboratories and tenured chairs for scientists who go on to earn Nobel Prizes, everybody wins. When we strip-mine India and the Philippines of most of their trained nurses, only we win.

Baseball exhibits more than a little of each of these models. Should we be surprised to learn the dirty truth hidden beneath the veneer of successful Latin American ballplayers? The decrepit ball fields of Latin America are pillaged for any semblance of athletic talent. Players are harvested in bulk and coerced to sign English contracts without translation. Once property of professional teams, these players are exploited just like any other natural resource indigenous to Central and South America. The Vladimir Guerreros are then paraded as the Horatio Algiers of professional sports. The truth is that Latin American scouts fish not with rods, but nets, insuring that the success of a statistically insignificant minority will define the situation of a wretchedly under-served majority. It is far simpler and cheaper to harvest Latin players in bulk hoping to find some diamonds in the ruff than to invest time, money and risk into domestic prospects who have legal and financial counsel and command market value for their potential.

Many are quick to dismiss these concerns by saying the game provides Latinos with opportunities beyond those available in their homelands, yet that destitution exists largely because of American foreign policy in the first place. Latino youth are herded by droves into MLB organizations, completely unaware that they are entirely expendable. Even those who prove themselves must contend with the pride of front offices, eager to justify the investments in domestic blue-chippers that they choose to make.

4. “All men are created equal”

Some champion baseball’s history as a bastion of progress and equality, noting that Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier seven years prior to Brown v. Board of Ed. However, from first team to last, it took another 15 years for, the Boston Red Sox to finally sign a black player. Front office racism resulted in several teams passing on Robinson himself, as well as Willie Mays and other legends of the game. The first black coach wasn’t until 1962, the first black manager, 1975. Thirty-seven years after integration, Hank Aaron received death threats while chasing Babe Ruth’s career homerun record. Today, black players comprise a mere eight percent of players on Major League rosters and six percent of players on Division I collegiate baseball teams.

Avenues that open the game up to women are limited, girls are encouraged to pursue softball at a young age (that’s where the scholarships are) and MLB has not taken much initiative to develop a women’s professional league, like the NBA did.

Baseball’s identity as a national pastime goes beyond the innumerable youngsters who pound their mitts on Little League diamonds and sandlots. It speaks to who those children are and what they are willing to sacrifice on the path to the Big Leagues. It speaks to the American Dream, and the way most of us watch it speed by, like a 98 mile per hour fastball, without a realistic chance of us catching up to it.

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