Beyond baseball's mischief

March 17, 2005|By Eldon Ham

WHERE HAVE YOU gone, Joe DiMaggio? Though disturbing, the new "so-what" spin from Barry Bonds in the wake of shocking steroid revelations by Jose Canseco and others is really a big-league red herring. The real baseball problem is not steroids or even gambling, Sammy Sosa cork or hollowed bats - it's a hollow heart.

With its spitballs, stolen signs, brush-backs and even mystical curses, baseball was always the unruly child of team sports, much more Huck Finn than Billy Sunday yet still as American as Mark Twain, Damon Runyon and Yogi Berra. Now baseball's wink-at-history mischief has slipped over the dark line into a malevolent steroid corruption. But how?

The enigmatic answer begins with the "honest larceny" of the game.

Baseball is unique among all major team sports, for it largely endures not in spite of its relentless thieving mischief but partly because of it; historically overcoming its faults and even taunting posterity by understanding what baseball truly is: a game.

Until now.

Congress is investigating steroids as players run for cover. Disgusted by rampant gambling over a century ago, a Pittsburgh judge in 1887 pronounced baseball "one of the evils of the day," but he certainly could have been addressing the contemporary steroid monster or the game's interim legacy of gambling and racism. But today's steroid mess is different, for this time the game blinked. Baseball lost its nerve.

From corked bats and movable fences to green monster walls, telescopes in the outfield and a midget in the infield, baseball steals everything, sometimes even history. Baseball has no time clock or instant replay, each field is irregular and unique, the outfield walls have no uniformity and every bat is different in size and weight - all of which begs for mischief. The game's unwritten rules - notably, if you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin' - embrace gamesmanship more than any other team sport. But at what price?

Institutionalized racism marked one of baseball's ugliest periods, but baseball's bull-headed, outside-the-box personality also led it to Jackie Robinson and desegregation seven years before the Supreme Court did the same for our schools with Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954. The roguish leadership of Branch Rickey and Bill Veeck led directly to the resounding successes of Mr. Robinson, Willie Mays, Satchel Paige and Larry Doby, probably setting the stage for Brown vs. Board and all that followed.

So what about baseball's latest scourge, steroids? Did baseball's no-holds-barred legacy create such depravity? To the contrary, the steroid monster looms precisely because the game got away from its true roots of unabashed mischief.

In the past, baseball was never afraid to openly make mistakes and learn from them, overtly manipulate the game on the field, tinker with the record books or interfere with history. Baseball corked the ball in 1910 and banned the spitball in 1920 but let spitballers throw it until Burleigh Grimes' last out in 1934. Since then, it has lowered the pitcher's mound, changed the strike zone and even tried symbolic asterisks to rewrite the past.

But the new steroid pandemic was created not through baseball's traditional "here-it-comes-try-to-hit-it" arrogance. Rather, steroids crept in when the game looked the other way and sneakily became hooked on the home run ball at the expense of its players and, ironically, its own unabashed legacy of upfront manipulation.

Baseball, in other words, lost its backbone, its guts and thereby its glory. And worse, it still hasn't learned from the experience. Baseball perpetuates the steroid charade with laughable slap-on-the-wrist penalties ("four times and you're out - but only for a year") while others, such as the Olympics, crack down hard. Had baseball stuck to its heritage and simply juiced the ball and not the players in the first place, the game would not now be lurking in the shadow of steroids, cowering in the dark and bracing for the inevitable: the great steroid asterisk.

The game will survive if its commissioner and the players union stop lurking and start leading with serious testing and penalties. They can juice the ball if they must, but baseball insiders must come to grips with the truth and stop playing dumb with the health of the players and the game. Otherwise, baseball may actually have to answer one of the great rhetorical questions of hardball and posterity: Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? Any answers, Bud Selig?

Eldon Ham is the author of Larceny & Old Leather: The Mischievous Legacy of Major League Baseball.

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