Friday, February 15, 2008

What does baseball say about our culture? And, my home state is better than yours.

Most of y'all out there don't care, but soon Barry Bonds will break Hank Aaron's career homerun record. But a lot of people do care, and we can safely assume that not everyone who follows or cares about sports is a knuckle-dragging Neanderthal. With all the attention Bonds' quest is receiving, we can also assume that some individuals attribute meaning to the quest that transcends a mere sport.

Bonds is an interesting character because we usually treat our great sports heroes—with some notable exceptions (Ty Cobb, occasionally Kobe Bryant, etc.)—with reverence. But Bonds achieved a portion of his greatness under the shadow of suspected steroid use, meaning that even though he will break a long cherished record, he will not be cherished, at least not in the present moment.

Chuck Klosterman, in writing about Barry passing Babe Ruth's milestone of 714 career homeruns, attempts to put the unknowability of how Bonds relates to previous slugging heroes into a general cultural context, stating that Bonds' situation is important because it is representative in its similarity to concurrent events of the era:

In November 2000, the United States held a presidential election, and nobody knew who won, so we just kind of made up an outcome and tried to act like that was normal. Less than a year later, airplanes flew into office buildings, and everybody cried for two months. And then Enron went bankrupt, and the U.S. started acting like a rogue state, and The Simple Life premiered, and gasoline became unaffordable, and our Olympic basketball team lost to Puerto Rico, and we reelected the same president we never really elected in the first place. Later, there would be some especially devastating hurricanes and three Oscars for an especially bad movie called Crash….

In 50 or 100 years, [historians] will search for events within the popular culture that supposedly embodied the zeitgeist of the time. Some of these people will use sports, not unlike the way contemporary historians might use Muhammad Ali as a means to define the 1960s. As these future historians try to explain what was wrong with the world in the early 21st century, I suspect they will use Barry Bonds. Here was a man accomplishing unbelievable things—things so unbelievable that they literally should not have been believed, even as they were happening. But we did not really believe or disbelieve. We just sort of watched it happen, and then we watched it get out of control, and then we expressed shock without feeling a grain of surprise, and then we tried to figure out how we were supposed to reconcile an alien reality we nconsciously understood all along. So if you're wondering how to feel about Barry's passing Babe, here's one option: You can feel like you're experiencing how the present tense will be understood in the future.

We want to understand the world around us, but—to a certain extent—we are passive and therefore do nothing, maintaining the status quo. Part of the reason Bonds and his inflated head are still pumping homers is because we can't take him down; sluggers have traditionally been equated with heroes, and we are too passive, as a collective, to make the leap that propels him into the realm of villainy.

In 1961, Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's single season homerun record.

Like Bonds, Maris was hated, in large part for two reasons: Maris was chasing a beloved ghost, Ruth, and also challenging a more beloved teammate, Mickey Mantle, who finished with 54 dingers that same season.

For various reasons, baseball has captured the eye of writers and movie-makers more so than the other sports. To these artists, something about baseball seems like a highly appropriate metaphor to the world in general, resulting in such great works as Bernard Malamud's The Natural or David James Duncan's The Brother's K.

In one passage, Duncan points to another reason for the animosity shown toward Maris. Maris did not have a great career, but he did have two great seasons. In 1960, he won the MVP, posting a line of .283, 39 HR, 112 RBI. Duncan writes, poetically, that a change occurred in Maris the next season. Even though he posted a line of .269, 61 HR, 142 RBI, seemingly better numbers (except for the slight drop in BA), he was a different hitter. Maris, in his first MVP season, would drive the ball to all areas of the field. In his record-breaking season, he turned himself into a creature who was extremely good at pulling pitches down the right field line, particularly at Yankee Stadium, where the fence measured only 299 feet to right field. Although Maris in one way turned himself into a legend, Duncan writes that he also corrupted himself as a ballplayer.

I decided to look into Duncan's assertion of Maris' transformation into a 299-foot-right-field-at-Yankee-Stadium-homerun-robot.

Maris hit 223 of his career 275 homeruns to right field, and 122 of those 275 at home.

In 1960, when he won his first of two consecutive MVPs, he drove 13 of his 39 shots over the right-field fence at Yankee Stadium. Of the 39 total, 7 were to center or left.

In his record-setting year, he drove 26 of his 61 dingers to that short Yankee Stadium porch, with another 4 to right-center.

He hit 29 to the not-so-short right porches in other stadiums. Of the 61 total, only 2 went to center or left.

(It took a little digging and some counting on my part, but this information is out there; some folks must have less to do with their time than even myself.)

So there is some truth to what Duncan said: Maris definitely became more of right-field pull-hitter. He already was one, but became the embodiment of that creature.

But why wouldn't Maris, unlike almost every athlete in every sport, be better in the confines of a home game?

Even though he played for the same team as Ruth and Mantle, he did not receive nearly the same admiration of Yankees fans, partially because of the shadow cast by those other two figures.

One thing to remember, as well, is that Yankee Stadium, often called "The House That Ruth Built," was really a house built for Ruth and his own ability to pull baseballs down the right field line. In a way—as a homerun hitting machine—Maris was Ruth.

But one thing about our heroes is that we want them unique: with Superman in existence, we cannot find ourselves as fans of Ultraman or ReallyReallyGoodMan.

And this idea of similarity offers us our metaphor for why sports matters: in many ways it is a mirror of life.

We could point to sports and call them artificial, a system of rules that must be followed. But are our lives any less artificial? Is staring at a computer for hour after hour natural? Are the systems of laws imposed by governments or religions natural?

Sports are played by people, some hated, some loved. And their reactions and interactions inside the imposed systems of those sports are really not that different than ours in our lives. Sports can define us, because sports are us.

People care about Barry Bonds because what they believe about Barry tells them, and everyone else, a whole lot about themselves.


Edward McClelland recently wrote a review of a biography of Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold; McClelland's article is titled "Russ Feingold Is Not from the Real World."

McClelland describes an argument between Hillary Clinton and Feingold where Clinton says that Feingold—with his sometimes out-of-the-mainstream beliefs—does not live in the real world.

McClelland says, "As a matter of fact, Clinton was right. Feingold does not live in the real world. He lives in Middleton, Wisconsin."

The article is less a book review and more of a discussion of how place, and the people who live in that place, formed Feingold's progressive beliefs.

A passage:

The upper Midwest—specifically Wisconsin and its sister state, Minnesota—has long seen itself as the conscience of America. Both states have a tradition of clean government and social reform, imported by German and Scandinavian immigrants. And both elect senators who, depending on your point of view, are either champions of progress or annoying liberal pains in the ass.

While the article obviously discusses politics, it is still a good read, especially for any of you Midwesterners out there.

A final passage to whet your appetite:

Feingold can get away with such goody-goody politics because his base expects no less. If liberals everywhere were as wholesome as their upper Midwestern kin, Republicans couldn't scare anyone with the "L-word." In Madison, which has sent a lesbian to Congress, and in Milwaukee, which has had three socialist mayors, liberals aren't angry, or decadent, or elitist. They form peace groups at the Lutheran church and volunteer at the nature center. Their cars are rusty, and they need new Rockport walking shoes. They donate to public radio. (The upper Midwest is the heartland of public radio, producing two of its most popular programs, "A Prairie Home Companion" and "Whad'Ya Know?") They are, yes, a little hurt that the United States is solving its problems with violence. Wisconsin, after all, abolished the death penalty in 1853. Up north, the rural contingent cherishes its hunting rifles (as does Feingold, a gun-rights supporter), but it also struggles through the winter on unemployment, and carries ancestral memories of labor struggles in logging camps and mines. On a county-by-county map of the 2004 election, the western shores of Lake Superior are one of the broadest patches of blue in the nation.

Happy reading, and—to reference back to long ago blog posts and my odd love of the movie Signs—swing away.

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