Thursday, August 19, 2010

Baseball: The Rise and Fall of America's Game

"Baseball was made for kids, and grown-ups only screw it up." - Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Lemon

I read today that baseball great Roger Clemens was indicted for perjuring himself to Congress. It's a sad story, proving that a strong right arm is no indicator of a strong character. But the Clemens story set the wings of memory alight, and I began to soar over the landscape of time, remembering my love for the game of baseball.

One May afternoon in 1967, my 74-year-old grandfather bundled myself and my little brother into his weathered automobile and drove us to Fenway Park in Boston. I was eight years old and my brother Steve was seven. Grandpa was a lifelong fan and was old enough to have seen the greatest legends: Walter "Big Train" Johnson, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, and all the rest. Grandpa was already 21 when Ruth signed as a pitcher with the Red Sox, before he went to the Yankees and became baseball's first great home-run slugger.

He wanted to infect us with his love for baseball, and it worked. From that afternoon we were hooked. On that May day, a rookie southpaw named Billy Rohr was listed as the starting pitcher for Boston. A few weeks earlier, Rohr astounded the baseball world by throwing a no-hitter in Yankee Stadium until two outs in the ninth inning, and he had two strikes on the 27th out before Elston Howard singled to break it up. Alas, Billy Rohr won just two more games in his brief major-league career and the Red Sox lost to the Twins that day at Fenway. But it didn't matter to me. I loved baseball.

Carl Yastrzemski was Boston's Julius Ceasar. He came, he saw, he conquered. He won baseball's Triple Crown in 1967 ---- the last player to do that ---- by leading the American League in batting average, home runs, and runs batted in. And the Red Sox won the American League pennant on the season's very last day, after finishing next-to-last the year before. My fourth grade classes were suspended during the World Series so the kids could sit in assembly and watch the games on a black-and-white television. It was absolutely a magical year.

The late '60s for America were filled with turmoil: the Vietnam War, the draft, the Civil Rights Movement, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. But to me, the late '60s were a time of innocence and childhood joy. And baseball, the simple game of baseball, was the center of it.

I recall after one game at Fenway, while maneuvering through the inevitable traffic jam, we spied outfielder Billy Conigliaro walking down the street. He was walking home after a day at work, and was trailed by five or six lucky kids my age clamoring for autographs. He made a decent salary, of course, but wasn't filthy rich. In an age where it was common for players to stay their entire careers at one club, we expected that Billy, also, would be a Red Sox player for life. He was one of us.

But somewhere along the way, baseball changed. As I grew into a teenager, and life became more complicated, so did baseball. It began to lose its innocence. A court ruled that players could be "free agents" to market their skills, and it wasn't so common thereafter for players to stay in one place. And the owners, hungry for even greater profit, began tinkering with the rules.

They separated teams into two, and ultimately three, divisions in each league to increase the number of high-revenue playoff games. They invented the designated hitter rule, to increase the number of home runs. They lowered the height of the pitching mound to increase the number of runs scored. They virtually doubled the size of team rosters for the annual All-Star Game. They added wild-card playoff teams, smaller strike zones, and --- worst of all --- tacitly encouraged the use of performance-enhancing steroids so that nearly every season, some buffed-up artificial hero would make a run at the "all-time" home run record and line their pockets with profit.

As baseball became polluted it no longer resembled the game I loved. So what if Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs? It wasn't the game Babe Ruth and Roger Maris played. It wasn't the game of Carl Yastrzemski or Billy Conigliaro. The records meant absolutely nothing. It would have been just as meaningful to compare McGwire's home runs to Jim Brown's touchdowns.

I protested against the game's changes, and friends called me a "purist." While the unquestioning herd of America's baseball fans continued to do the things their fathers and grandfathers taught them, I just felt sickened. Somewhere in the mid-1990s I stopped watching baseball altogether.

It's difficult to blame Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire for accepting the owners' invitation to wear Superman suits and live as heroes. But the steroid-built players, and not the owners, will be convicted of federal crimes.

This great American tragedy, the willful destruction of our beautiful game by profit-hungry owners, is in some ways an X-ray of our entire society. I think of the Wall Street speculations that caused our national recession and I see the same characteristics. Eight million jobs and nine million homes were devoured --- yet the profiteers escaped accountability altogether. They, too, tinkered with the rules. They were every bit as aware of the inevitable consequences, but they didn't care. The priority was profit --- and not long-term profit that benefits everyone, but short-term profit that benefited only themselves, and brought serious harm to everyone else.

I'm happy that steroids have been eliminated from baseball. I can actually watch an occasional game without feeling nauseous. And I'm happy with the new financial reforms.

But I know, in Wall Street, in baseball, in corporations all over the country ---- the disease remains and will always remain. For me, baseball is permanently crippled. It can never be what it was, all those years ago, when Billy Rohr took the mound and Carl Yastrzemski arched his mighty bat.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Cross-Burnings and Misty Miracles

"Racism isn't born, folks, it's taught. I have a two-year-old son. You know what he hates? Naps!" - comedian Dennis Leary

In October, 2004, police officers in Middletown, Ohio were called to a fire at an apartment complex on Oneka Avenue. When they arrived they found a burning cross, planted on the apartment grounds in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. The incident electrified the news media all over the state, and even outside Ohio.

I was the City Prosecutor, and this is my story.

A month or so prior to this event I was sitting in my office on a Tuesday afternoon doing weekly "warrant duty." Once a week we opened the office to permit complainants to make their case and issue an arrest warrant against someone who, they said, had done them harm.

The most regular visitors were businessmen who wanted to arrest someone for bouncing a check. (I really hated doing that, but that's a subject for another blog.) Most of the others had already called the police without achieving, to their way of thinking, a satisfactory result. So they came once a week to persuade me to arrest their ex-husband, their neighbor, their boss, whomever. For me, Tuesday afternoons were difficult duty. Perhaps once or twice a month I found sufficient evidence to arrest someone, but usually I had to say "no."

On this particular afternoon in September, an attractive middle-aged mother arrived with her young daughter. They patiently waited their turn on the bench outside my office, and when called they sat down in front of my desk. Mrs. Miracle, a 40-ish blond-haired, polite and well-spoken woman, told me that her 19 year old daughter Misty was being harassed by an African-American family who lived a few blocks away. I questioned Misty as to the evidence of harassment. "Were you assaulted?" No. "Were there any witnesses to the harassment?" A cousin. "Did the harasser track you down somewhere, follow you around, etc?" No.

I liked Misty. She was pretty, smiled and laughed easily --- she could have been your favorite dental assistant, or your favorite waitress at your favorite restaurant. But there was insufficient evidence of criminal wrongdoing, and I sent her away disappointed.

A few weeks later, I learned that Misty had been arrested for assaulting a juvenile. The day after that the cross burned, and the primary suspect was Misty's father. Michael Miracle and four other males were fugitives for a short while but ultimately were arrested and prosecuted. Misty was not present at the scene.

Middletown is a very typical medium-sized American city, with 50,000 residents, about 14% of which are minorities. The poorest residents tend to live in neighborhoods clearly delineated by color, and the street Misty lived on (Mohawk Street) defined the "boundary" between Caucasian and minority neighborhoods.

The burning cross inflamed the African-American community. Racial tensions frayed the nerves of nearly everyone in the city during the period between Misty's arrest and her trial date. On the date of her trial some of the cross-burning fugitives were still at large. The place was a barrel filled with dry gunpowder, but fortunately --- and to the great credit of all of Middletown's residents, and most particularly the ministers and other leaders of the African-American community ---- nobody lit a match. They believed in the system and wanted to see it work.

Misty's trial date arrived and the small courtroom was packed, with TV cameras, media, and community leaders. As I remember, the facts of the case were these: Misty was standing in the front yard of her home with two girlfriends, when a 15 year old African-American girl riding her bicycle turned onto Mohawk Street. Misty walked out into the street and confronted the girl, slapped her a few times, and the juvenile victim rode away. The victim was not seriously injured.

It wasn't exactly the crime of the century but for its bearing on racial tensions. It wasn't exactly a difficult legal case; the facts were well-supported. Yet still, I was more nervous prosecuting this case than any other.

For some reason, Misty's attorney permitted her to take the stand. Generally that amounts to bad courtroom tactics because the playing field belongs to the attorneys. The defendant doesn't get to say whatever it is he or she wishes to say. Attorneys during cross-examination are permitted to ask "leading questions"; i.e., simple questions which have a "yes" or "no" answer. For example, "You walked out into the middle of Mohawk Street, correct?" "And your purpose in walking out into the street was to confront the 15 year old victim on her bicycle, correct?"

Defendants can never win that argument. Perhaps Misty's defense attorney considered, with Misty's case being hopeless anyway, her bearing and personality would win sympathy from the court.

So I began a dispassionate, legally accurate cross-examination of Misty Miracle and the courtroom turned deathly quiet. I heard cameras whirring; I could hear Misty breathing as I examined my notes. I asked the questions necessary to cover the elements of the crime, and received the expected answers. Everything that had to be done, was done.

But something was missing. I found myself --- and this is not to my credit at all as an attorney, who should always remain cold and detached --- I found myself drifting into normal conversation with Misty.

"Misty, why .... why did you walk out into the street when you saw this girl?"

"Well she was in my neighborhood. She was on my street", she answered.

And then, in what may remain as the only Perry Mason moment of my career, I responded --- and sensing I hadn't said it just right, repeated more accurately ....

"Maybe she had a reason to be on your street. Maybe she had a right to be on your street!"

Misty was quiet. The courtroom was still. "No further questions, Your Honor."

The Judge passed sentence. He gave her the maximum 180 days in jail. And she served every last day. On the facts of the case she didn't deserve anything like that. She deserved maybe 3 days in comparison to other offenders, or perhaps a few days more because the victim was a juvenile. I don't suppose for a moment that she ever said, "Dad, will you please go burn a cross in that girl's front yard?" But when your actions, inadvertently or negligently, cause an entire city to fly to arms, you can't quibble about the length of your sentence.

Misty was demolished on the witness stand, and relative peace returned to Middletown. As the courtroom emptied and I collected my papers, I felt only sadness. People lined up to "congratulate" me. Pffft. I knew that I had done my job; I knew that the media and the community heard what they wanted to hear. But I thought only of poor Misty Miracle, serving 180 days in the Middletown jail.