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.

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