Commentary: How Baseball Lost The Magic
By Chris Tucker, Commentator
Dallas, TX –
The depressing parade goes on: Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and now A-Rod himself, the Great Clean Hope who was supposed to serve as the game's savior and disinfectant by seizing the home-run record from the tainted Bonds.
Given the sordid accusations, exposes, and confessions of the past ten years, young people must be surprised to learn that baseball was once seen as special and pure, embodying that small-town innocence we hope still exists somewhere in America.
Like many other long-time fans of what used to be the national pastime, I feel the jarring collision of the romantic illusions of baseball running headlong into the Green Monster of reality. But in one sense, the steroid scandal is consistent with the mythology of baseball, which is filled with stories of players who turned to something beyond themselves for help.
Consider two fictional examples from Damn Yankees and The Natural, in which the heroes draw their strength from alliances with the supernatural.
In Damn Yankees, based on a much better book called The Year The Yankees Lost the Pennant, middle-aged fan Joe Boyd makes a deal with the devil to become the phenomenal Joe Hardy, who will lead the hopeless Washington Senators to victory against the mighty New York Yankees.
And of course everyone knows the story of The Natural, in which Roy Hobbs, played by Robert Redford, rises to fame wielding a magic bat made from a lightning-blasted tree.
Both players become instant superstars, but the movies are not only about great catches and towering home runs. They're also about good and evil. The protagonists come to see that it's not just about them, their fame and their wealth. They learn that they must use their prodigious talents for good, even if this means risking their careers and their lives.
In Damn Yankees, Joe Hardy resists the seductive talents of Lola, the temptress who is supposed to make losing his soul seem like one hell of a bargain. In The Natural, Roy Hobbs, who hails from the unspoiled heartland, battles the forces of big-city corruption before returning to the fertile cornfields of his youth.
Played out against this romantic background, baseball's doping scandal seems like a betrayal on several levels, because these players have made their own deals with a pharmaceutical devil, literally transforming their bodies into something unnatural, sacrificing honor and good name on the altar of chemistry.
In one of the most chilling moments in Damn Yankees, Joe Hardy hears fans and sportswriters saying he is sure to be voted into the Hall of Fame. This fills him with shame, because he has betrayed the spirit of the game. No matter how the fans cheer, he knows he has turned himself into a kind of monster.
The late John Updike once wrote a brilliant piece about the last game of the Boston Red Sox star Ted Williams, who, as Hollywood might have it, hit a home run on his final time at bat. As Williams jogged around the bases, he refused as always to acknowledge the fickle crowd, prompting Updike to write: "Gods do not answer letters."
Unfortunately, they do answer subpoenas. What a pity that so many gifted athletes, not content with their own bountiful gifts, had to grab for more, seeking glory in a syringe. How sad that their hubris and self-destructive choices have brought shame on this once-beautiful sport.
Chris Tucker is a Dallas writer and literary consultant.
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