With a new season upon us for three weeks now, it's time for our semi-occasional assessment of the state of our National Pastime. I can unequivocally affirm that baseball continues to hold a perfect mirror to American society. Unfortunately, this is not a compliment.
I'm having an unusually hard time getting worked up about baseball season this spring. It's not because I'm still jonesing for basketball or because my favorite team is picked to build on its streak of consecutive last-place finishes.
It's because I feel like I've already seen this season play itself out. I have to remind myself that it isn't baseball I'm watching, only the coverage of corporate scandals and the trials of rapacious top executives. These days, the two are becoming more and more indistinct in my mind.
Steroids, for one thing, have put me into a blue funk about the grand old game. Until this year, we fans could remain in plausible denial about the steroid epidemic. Even if some players used them, we could argue, it's not widespread. When that line of defense crumbled, we could maintain that even if loading up is rampant, the titans of the game aren't doing it.
Now we're down to asking, in the desperate tones of no-longer-suspended disbelief, "Say it ain't so, Barry. And Sammy. And Mark."
But we're not like the wide-eyed kid who famously asked that question of Shoeless Joe Jackson in the wake of the thrown World Series of 1919. Even though Barry Bonds, the home-run king, has been convicted of no crime, or even charged, we believe that it surely is so.
Over the weekend, Bonds' name appeared on a list of high-profile athletes who allegedly received steroids from a Bay Area trainer. Two fellow sluggers, the Yankees' Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield, were listed, too, as was Olympic sprinter Marion Jones.
Really, we should have known. We should have known it when Bonds unnaturally morphed into a bristling behemoth, almost before our very eyes, and started ripping homers at an unprecedented pace. We should have known better when McGwire, who admitted to using androstenione, a then-legal muscle-building substance, broke Roger Maris' home run mark. We should have known it when Sammy Sosa became so muscle-bound he looked like he'd have serious trouble shaving himself.
Does anyone really think that the big guys weren't using? Does anyone cling to the hope that the home run explosion of the 1990s was caused by juiced-up baseballs instead of juiced-up hitters, by weak pitching rather than geeked-up batters? Anyone want to buy the Golden Gate Bridge, which I'm currently offering on eBay?
The steroid mess is a prime example of the Enronization of baseball. As the Feds will soon seek to demonstrate in court, Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and the boys in Houston sneaked way, way around the rules to pull off a corporate earnings flim-flam that would have earned respectful whistles from the protagonists of Ocean's 11.
Because of their (alleged) hijinks, which (allegedly) provided Lay & Co. with wealth beyond the dreams of avarice while sinking the retirement dreams of many of their employees, our faith in the corporate wizards of the 1990s was left more shot with holes than the Clanton gang. And as more CEO weasels began turning up under every other rock, we wondered how we could have been so naive as to have trusted them in the first place, especially when corporate compensation systems at companies like Tyco and Adelphia and WorldCom dangled such extraordinary sums in front of the big dogs.
What the accounting and mutual fund scandals did to trust in corporate America, the steroid scandal is doing to baseball.
In baseball, records are sacrosanct. Now, all the recently set slugging records are suspect. Bonds' single-season homer mark now feels tainted. So do the marks of McGwire and Sosa that Bonds eclipsedthe very marks that helped rejuvenate interest in the game. If Bonds surmounts the last remaining homer hurdle, Hank Aaron's career total of 755, we'll wonder whether we should place an asterisk beside his name in the record books.
Steroids aren't the only example of Enronization, only the most prominent one. The malaise is everywhere. It's in Milwaukee, where Bud Selig wheedled taxpayers into building his Brewers a stately pleasure dome in return for the promise of a competitive team. Since Miller Park opened, the Brewers have cut payroll every year, and the team is more hopeless than ever.
The disease is in Gene Orza of the players' union, who was allowed by the feckless Selig effectively to veto a trade that all parties wanted, to protect the union's increasingly untenable turf.
And it's in the camps of both owners and players, who agreed to ineffectual-by-design drug testing policies that are calculated, like the handiwork of some Enron accountant, to provide a fig leaf of legitimacy to hide a morally bankrupt fraud.
Follow the money, and you'll find the problem. The opportunity to reap tens of millions of dollars' worth of stock options helped corrupt CEOs who came to see companies they ran more as their personal fiefdoms than a trust they held. The lure of contracts worth tens of millions similarly leads players to tilt the system by using steroids.
In this way, American society and American baseball continue to walk hand in hand. We live in a culture whose messages tell us to grab as much as we can, for as long as we can, in any way we can. As long as we pay adoringly for people who produce results, with little concern for how those results are achieved, cooking books and cooking bodies will be an irresistible temptation.
We publicly vilify the Ken Lays and the Rigas family and Bernie Ebbers. But as long as we only slap their wrists, and as long as we keep offering astronomical sums to mere mortals, we merely strengthen the message that the percentages favor the cheaters. We can't complain about baseball. Baseball is us.
If I had my druthers, I'd take big money out of the game. Next time baseball's collective bargaining agreement is up for renewal, I'd inform the players that, from now on, salaries would start at $250,000 and max at $750,000. Anyone who wanted to continue playing under those terms would be welcomed back. Otherwise, big-league rosters would be filled with AAA players who would be more than happy for the promotion.
And that would be just fine with fans, tooespecially since, with a drastically reduced payroll, I'd slash ticket prices accordingly and make major league games as affordable for families as minor league baseball. Ballparks would be full again becauseand here's what the players don't getfans come for the experience and to root for their teams more than to see the superstars.
To me, that would be baseball utopia. I understand, of course, that utopia means "nowhere."
Here in America, perhaps a more realistic fallback plan would be to name Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling as baseball's co-commissioners once they get out of work-release. They wouldn't fix any of the problems. But at least they know how to hide them so well we can keep telling ourselves that everything is fine, and almost believe it. n