General Baseball

Back to the Future

I was born into the Yankees, saw them win in the 70s when I was too young to fully appreciate it, and sat through the 80s as George fouled a team stocked with baseball genius (Rickey, Willie, Donnie, Winnie). That reactionary decade—when ketchup was a vegetable and the penchant for funding little wars and then lying about them became acceptable—is beginning to feel awfully familiar.

Recent years have seen the Yankees transformed into a convenient public symbol of power and invincibility. At least until two weeks ago. The truth behind that symbol, however, is somewhat more complicated. When the team began to win in the 90s, there was no sense of inevitability in its triumph. I will not soon forget that evening in 1995, when, sitting in a Chicago bar with my oldest friend (he, too, a lifelong YF) we watched the playoffs slip away with a helpless Cone on the mound and Showalter out of options on the bench. Heartbreak. One year later, the golden run began with a touch of fortune (Leyritz!) and a new hero: Derek Jeter, the young Natural.

So now we look for new heroes, on the field and off. Admittedly, it’s hard to be sanguine given recent events. The Yankees, at least, have a beacon at shortstop, a genius with infectious will and positive energy. We hope the nation can find a new leader with similar drive and optimism. At the moment, we’re turning our eyes toward another African-American from the Midwest, Barack Obama, whose words we quote here.

Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope! In the end, that is God’s greatest gift to us, the bedrock of this nation. A belief in things not seen. A belief that there are better days ahead.” Amen.

5 replies on “Back to the Future”

But isn’t one of the problems laying too much faith in these sports “heroes”? Inevitably, that beacon at shortstop or that pitcher with a gimpy ankle will do something too real, in the case of the heroic pitcher it was campaigning for an incompetent con artist of a president. In Jeter’s case, he’s been a solid citizen. But do we want to know who he votes for? Do we want to know whether he’s in favor of civil unions? Do we want our sports heros to stick to athletics, and keep their heroism in the realm of diving into the crowds? I am pretty happy with that, for one, I don’t mind being sheltered from some of the poor choices and judgment of some of these “heroes”.
So how do we come to grips with someone like Curt Schilling, who devotes an incredible amount of time to charitable work and to helping raise money to find a cure for ALS, but at the same time he traipses off to Ohio to stump for our incorrigable and divisive leader who thinks science is a curse? How can he be our hero part of the time? Is it that he’s stupid? Schilling isn’t. The answer is that he’s simply not a hero, in the real sense of the word. He’s done nothing heroic, besides do his job better than most others do the same job. He played courageously, without a doubt, but all he did was play. He hasn’t found the proverbial cure for cancer, in the grand scheme of things.
It’s of this poster’s opinion that our real heroes should almost always come from somewhere off the diamond, no matter how significant the accomplishment of those who play on the field. While the Sox are my “heroes” at the moment for what they accomplished, it’s an admittedly limited achievement, and the word “hero” here means something different than if it were used for someone like Barack Obama or Paul Wellstone. We can’t lose sight of that.

I don’t think I have conflated on and off field heroics. Yes, ballplayers are just men playing a game, albeit at an extraordinarily high level. We understand that. But we also resist the implicit suggestion of SF’s post that the men of the pro diamond can’t also represent something greater in our collective lives, something beyond the quotidian, something larger, something…heroic. That’s part of the game’s tremendous appeal. And it’s the players who violate the pact we make with them—that they should remain idealized ballplaying abstractions in exchange for our worship—who frustrate us, as Schilling did last week. In our age of media intrusiveness, it’s becoming more and more difficult for players to maintain their Olympian distance. Which is often a good thing: as you note, the more we see them as human, the more human–complex, dynamic, interesting–the game becomes. But it also magnifies the accomplishment of players like Jeter, who have honored the pact, and allow us something more….

You haven’t conflated anything. I was just offering my opinion. A catastrophic loss and Yanks fans get all defensive! Amazing!

But it’s not fair to demand that “they should remain idealized ballplaying abstractions “. Who can possibly live up to that requirement? I think it’s on the fan to live in a reality-based world, as opposed to a faith-based world. We have to know our “heroes” are more like us than we think. They’re fallible, just like us. They do one thing as they say another, just like us. They support the wrong candidate, even though they support some of the right causes, just like some of us. They date supermodels, sure, but they also get dumped by supermodels (ok, not like us, but my wife is prettier than a supermodel, so the heck with them). That’s what makes us think that maybe, just maybe, we can be like them. If they were bulletproof, we’d be out of luck. On the other hand, if we still think, after they’ve been shown their true colors, that they are still bulletproof, somehow above the fray, then we only have ourselves to blame.

Can’t we have it both ways? Can’t our real and ideal worlds coexist? Isn’t the beauty of the game that it allows us to live for a few moments on two separate planes? Take heed Oscar Wilde: “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
It was Bart Giamatti’s contention that we understand baseball as a grand, capital-N Narrative. Some days it seems like a nasty work of hardbitten realism; on other it’s a surreal farce. But if we think about the true scope of the game and its history, we must see it as an epic, and epics need heroes—however flawed or tragic.

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