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By Thane Peterson The buds aren't even out on the trees yet, and everybody is already flapping their gums about Apr. 1, opening day for Major League Baseball. This year's sappy baseball movie -- The Rookie, starring Dennis Quaid -- has just hit the theaters, and usually level-headed critics are ga-ga about how inspiring it is. A new literary anthology of baseball writing from the Library of America, better known for publishing classics like the collected works of Edith Wharton and Ernest Hemingway, has reviewers all in a lather.
On the evening of Apr. 2, Army General Tommy Franks is even taking time out from leading the war effort in Afghanistan to throw the first pitch at the season opener for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (whatever they are).
Am I the only person in America who thinks baseball is overrated?
I'm not just talking about the modern game, either. You only have to go back to the 1919 Black Sox scandal to know that baseball has always been a bit of a sham. Everybody knows that until the late 1940s, many of the best players were relegated to the Negro Leagues, while sports like track and field were integrating in the 1920s and 1930s.
HALL OF INFAMY. All you have to do is dip into the revisionist sports writing in books like The Best American Sports Writing of the Century (edited by David Halberstam) and Richard Ben Cramer's Joe DiMaggio: A Hero's Life to see how flawed the legendary baseball players were. Babe Ruth was a gambler and womanizer. Ty Cobb was the worst sort of nasty, drunken misanthrope. Joe DiMaggio was a skinflint who hung out with mobsters. These are role models for our nation's youth?
The modern version of baseball -- with rapacious owners and overpaid, occasionally drug-addled "stars" -- is far worse. I mean, who can defend a game that has rewarded Minnesota Twins fans' decades of loyalty by tacitly threatening to shut down their franchise -- unless, of course, they ante up tens of millions to build a new stadium? Back in the 1970s when the Twin Cities first faced the loss of their sports franchises, former Vice-President Hubert Humphrey argued that they had to go ahead and build the expensive Metrodome stadium they have now, or they would end up becoming nothing but a "cold Omaha."
Better that, I say, than to knuckle under to the selfish yahoos who play for and run MLB. Nicholas Dawidoff, editor of Baseball: A Literary Anthology, noted recently that it's no accident that last year's World Series featured the New York Yankees (the team with the richest payroll) and the Arizona Diamondbacks (sometimes called the Arizona Greenbacks because they've gone through so much cash raiding other teams). Baseball these days is all about money. That's why the owners are talking about shutting down two of the smaller franchises, with the Twins and Montreal Expos or maybe a team like the Devil Rays as prime candidates.
ABUSED PUBLIC. And the fans? The players and owners showed their utter contempt for baseball fans when they canceled the World Series back in 1994. They haven't learned a thing about humility since. This year, rumors are swirling that the player's union may boycott the All Star game just to spite Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, who hails from Milwaukee, where the midsummer game is scheduled to be played this year. Or the players might just call another strike -- regardless of the terrible blow it would be to their remaining loyal fans. Déjà vu all over again, I say.
Of course, every major sport has problems. The more fundamental weakness of baseball is that it's BORING. Nothing ever happens. This is a game in which Cal Ripken, Jr., became a national hero and a model of longevity by actually working out and staying in shape. What an innovation that is for a professional athlete!
Last year, Barry Bonds shattered the record by hitting 73 home runs in a single season after never having hit more than 50 before. Some baseball analysts attribute the big difference to Bonds's off-season weight-lifting program and his healthy eating habits, measures that are apparently exceptional for a baseball player. In a time of war, shouldn't General Franks be celebrating a game that requires some actual physical conditioning? At least in basketball and soccer the players have to run around a lot.
I think that's one reason the nation's intellectuals -- baseball lovers like George Will and John Updike -- are always ready to shake their creaky bones into action to fire up yet another portentous essay on how meaningful baseball is. A wimpy writer whose idea of strenuous exercise is hefting the old Mont Blanc a couple of hours a day has a hard time imagining himself starring at some really strenuous sport. But he has no problem picturing himself in a baseball uniform.
In contrast to football and basketball, professional baseball still has some pretty average physical specimens playing. Hey, if legendary owner and showman Bill Veeck can send a midget up to the plate, it's not that far-fetched to imagine a novelist or pundit suiting up.
NO EXCEPTION. By now, some of you are probably wondering if some secret reason accounts for my dislike of baseball -- some tragic lack of athletic ability or chronically misfiring cerebral synapse. There's a little truth to that. As a kid, I was one of the worst hitters in the history of the Meadow Gold (that's a milk company) Little League team in Urbana, Ill. And growing up in Central Illinois, many of my available role models were Cubs fans (need I say more?).
But this isn't personal. I'm just trying to look at baseball with an unbiased eye. The national pastime may really be a metaphor for American life. It's just not the pure and simple life some writers like to wax nostalgic about. The money grubbing that has driven ticket prices sky-high is an example of something endemic to living in the U.S.A. today, from Enron to Presidential campaigns.
And the dark intimations of drug use, including steroids, among baseball players just means that they may be falling prey to the same take-any-shortcut-that-works mentality that plagues plenty of endeavors, including other sports. I don't think baseball was ever as exceptional as its ardent fans like to believe. But even if it was at one time, it isn't any more. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online