The rumblings started a couple of weeks ago with tweets about pending suspensions for players involved in the Biogenesis case, and yesterday, the USA Today and Yahoo! Sports reported that the MLB is investigating the Biogenesis 90. Of course, since estimates place approximately 90 players (or more) in the documents (but, no one knows for sure, as MLB doesn’t actually have the documents), MLB is using their version of plea bargains to land the big superstars. The wager is simple: if players do not cooperate with the MLB’s investigation, it is reported that the MLB can suspend those players (due to provisions in their collectively bargained agreements with the MLBPA). Meanwhile, if players do cooperate, there is some chance that the MLB might offer immunity in exchange for information. A classic law enforcement technique, in this case applied to a punishment and investigation process that is the exact opposite of “due process” — it is the burden of the players to prove that they did not act with negligence to the Joint Drug Agreement, rather than the burden of the MLB to prove that players were negligent.
Our Impure Baseball Pasts
Throughout these weeks of uncertainty, my mind wandered to distant baseball pasts. Pasts in which outfielders openly fielded bets from the crowd, as well as flyballs; pasts in which players willfully traded secrets about amphetamines, or which milligrams produced which results. Indeed, pasts where ballplayers even fixed games. Reading comments on stories related to the MLB, I thought of this wonderfully flawed past, in which it was no great secret that players cheated or used substances or did whatever they could to gain an upper hand. If you’re sick of a “baseball has always been flawed” line of defense to the steroids era, well, apparently that line of defense has not done enough to educate fans about transgressions of baseball’s pasts.
And yet, while fans place themselves into this imaginary past, where things were better because competition was pure, and players weren’t using substances or cheating, I find my own imagination wandering. Wandering to an outfield in the 1870s or 1880s, in which I bribe the opposing outfielder to let that flyball from my hometown shortstop drop; wandering to a key divisional match-up in the 1910s or 1920s in which a gang of players and I decide the right price for ensuring a particular outcome; wandering to a clubhouse in the 1960s or 1970s, in which I might find coffee brewing “leaded” or “unleaded.”
In each of these eras, my imagination finds wonderful traits about the ballplayers and their performances. These were the ballplayers that we so frequently cite with praise: “they played the game right.” They knew how to hit behind runners; they knew how to pitch artfully; they knew how to play for the name on the front of the jersey, rather than the name on the back. No, it doesn’t matter that we could find mounds of evidence in each of the decades of baseball’s pasts to refute these loving, kind reflections on how the game was played. What mattered then was simple: baseball was a game.
Here’s where I find myself, on the steroids issue, what I keep coming back to: this is baseball. This is entertainment. You can shower it with these wondrous phrases, “The National Pastime,” and uphold the singular beauty of the green, the crack of the bat, the break of the curve, the thrill of the walk-off, the agony of losing Game 7. All of that beauty is there with steroids. Or without it. All of that beauty has been there with cheating; in fact, as baseball has become more professional, baseball has become more popular, baseball has still had cheating, baseball continues to be a crucial source of entertainment. Indeed, we have never followed baseball more; what I gather from our ruminations on baseball’s pasts is that we’re searching for the game. The purity of entertainment.
The Business of Baseball
The business of baseball is not simply confined to the business of collectively bargained agreements. The business of baseball weaves with complex Anti-Trust agreements, with a history of court cases, with Federal testimony and investigations, with BILLION dollar television deals, with publicly funded stadiums. Indeed, fans bemoan the progression of the Player’s Union, and some players protested all along the way — the MLBPA turned baseball into a job, albeit one in which its participants are paid some of the most just wages on the face of the earth; we could all be so lucky to have collective representation that earns us pay for what we’re worth. On the other side of the balance, owners of ballclubs cling to our old ideals and sentiments that our pastime is a civic duty, and they earn righteous subsidies to this event: in some cases, new stadiums receive tax breaks on the land, crooked land assessments, imbalanced rent agreements, and any number of gifts from the public treasury.
If our anger rests with the players for cheating, we may know that their transgressions are of the pure sort of baseball’s past, of the type of transgression that all those players that paved the way committed, too (or enabled and quietly stood by). No, our anger must not rest with cheating; baseball’s cheating has been out of the bag for decades, even in the steroids era. Where was the drug testing outcry after Jim Bouton‘s Ball Four? When Tom House confirmed the decades-long span of the steroids era, even potentially implicating Hank Aaron‘s Atlanta Braves teammates in steroids use, we turned away; no one of consequence on those teams could possibly have used steroids. Not even a June 1969 Sports Illustrated issue on drugs in sports turned on the establishment to anti-cheating fervor. There was something that disconnected our feelings about cheating and fairness from our feelings of baseball; we were not angry about these cheaters. No, our anger must rest elsewhere.
Perhaps our sudden anger at the perception of cheating ballplayers is our greatest way to mourn the lack of amateurism in sports. Few of us will have stories of playing amateur ball and going to try out for a minor league club (as my grandfather has shared with me, for instance). As professional leagues became more professional, the preparation for those leagues followed suit, preparing specialized athletes that are better-trained, in better shape, and more prepared for professional careers than ever. That takes our game away from us. Despite the fact that we might individually shell out a couple hundred dollars a month for supreme sports cable packages and any sports tickets on top of that, ballclub owners largely turn to the public to finance their stadiums — which, even though they are filled with fanatics, represent a rather small (but vocal) minority interest in the community. That takes our game away from us. Even those just wages that players earn, taking those well-deserved slices of that TV money (after all, name me one fan that pays to see an owner at the stadium), separate those performers from our ranks; gone are the days when you might be pulled out of the stands to play, if absolutely needed (and if that seems crazy, it was still only about a century ago that that might happen at a ballgame). That takes our game away from us.
Anger and Pastime
Our anger at cheaters in professional baseball shows our wounded sense of pride about our national pastime. People are always quick to point out the hypocrisy of that position, given fans’ relative comfort with the idea of football players doping, but football wasn’t our pastime. Football was always entertainment; it was the young upstart that knocked baseball off its throne while baseball was immersed in its labor uprising. Football is a carnival, celebrations, kick-offs, momentum, with nearly 120 faceless gladiators lining the sidelines for their chance to enter the action. No, there is nothing sacred about the player that makes the most special teams tackles, or even the player that throws for the most yards; special teams hits or yards gained are not home runs, they are not hits. Our pastime always spoke to us as a pastime because even as a team sport, baseball always centered on an individual showcase — the batter not only faces a mean hurler on the mound, but eight other fielders to rob him. Baseball was stacked and unfair from the beginning, so even cheating doesn’t seem immaterial in that regard; the beauty of baseball is that showdown, it is those green pastures in which the batter places the ball, the diamond on which he slides to steal a base. Those individuals stacked against one another are no longer amateurs; they are no longer cheaters, poor citizens, immigrants, outcasts, Negro Leaguers,
local boys, soldiers, or even entertainers; they are professional entertainers. That is our anger; we love baseball, perhaps more than ever, but perhaps we watch with dismay, disbelief, or a daze — is this our pastime?
Our anger needs to be criticized, even if its sources are legitimate. For, is not our anger misplaced? Why do we not spend our votes, time, energy, and words on millionaire and billionaire owners that rake in $250 million a year in TV rights and demand public stadiums? Perhaps we never identified with owners; or rather, we identify owners as the kind, civic souls from decades past that ensured our good, amateur boys had a diamond on which to slide. Owners were just those kind, civic-minded business men that those players organized against, ruining things for good. At the end of the day, maybe we’re not angry about owners taking tax money for stadiums because we distrust infrastructure and government and that’s just another example of the government misusing its resources. There’s always been a dynamic between owners and players in baseball, however, and I gather that it’s only the two generations of the labor era in baseball that have turned fans decidedly pro-ownership, rather than pro-labor.
We want our ballplayers!
This is where I am concerned about baseball fans’ responses to cheating in baseball. In siding with the institution, now, rather than our ballplayers, we side with the part of history that is excluding qualified ballplayers from the Hall of Fame; taking our tax dollars to fund their special interests; taking our cable money and then going on witch-hunts after the stars we pay to see. Now, I believe, is the crucial time for baseball fans to become pro-labor; let us not act so outraged at transgressions that are at least five decades in the making. Let’s embrace baseball as we know it, and demand that our stars stay on the field; we want our ballplayers! If we recognize that the game that we loved was not ever pure, but rather the amateurism, the connection between ourselves and the entertainers was pure, we can once again convert those entertainers into ballplayers. Oppose ownership, not players. We pay to see the players, it’s about time we started supporting them again. Enough with the constant attention to JDA and CBA battles, to inquisitions on steroids, to this lack of due process, to this blown confidentiality, to going after stars, to this praise for ownership and ownership interests; give us back our ballplayers!
News resources cited when mentioned (via link).
Some news resources retrieved from Badger State Sports
IMAGE (CNN): http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2011/11/22/