Once again the sports world is abuzz about the start of spring training, and yet another Major League Baseball season. Baseball has a long list of issues on its plate as the season gets rolling along. All of the off-season chatter has centered on the problems arising from the Mitchell Report, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Bud Selig, Brian McNamee, Bob Uecker, Pedro Cerrano, Ebby "Nuke" LaLoosh, Rick Vaughn, and Crash Davis. Those last five names actually have nothing to do with the controversy swirling in baseball, but I threw them in just for the hell of it -- after all, the more the merrier.
Anyway, I am sure that the powers that be in baseball simply cannot wait to get the 2008 season going so they can put all of this ugliness behind them -- "move on" as it were. There are only 2 problems with this line of thinking:
- The start of the 2008 season is not going to put the steroid issues that have been plastered all over the media for the last 6 months "behind" baseball, not even a little, and
- Even if it did cause millions of otherwise reasonably informed Americans to suddenly forget about a story that has been covered with more nauseating detail and intensity than the war in Iraq, that forgetfulness would only be the result of the fact that increasingly fewer people in this country give two shits about Major League Baseball anymore anyway.
I think baseball has a very tough road ahead of it...
The National Pastime
Since the 1800’s baseball has held the distinction of being "the American Pastime" and the confederation of teams making up the Major Leagues have always gone out of their way to remind everyone in the US of its regal status. Baseball was supposedly invented by Abner Doubleday in 1839, of course most people now accept this is a complete crock of unadulterated horseshit. Regardless of who actually invented the game, it was around a generation before the Civil War, and by the time of the war, some people were playing it. I say "some" because at that less-than-enlightened time in our nation’s history, I am pretty certain that a large majority of our country was most definitely not playing baseball because they were slaves, who generally were not allowed to have very much fun or play games.
Anyway, by the time we all stopped shooting at one another, and the aforementioned slaves were finally given their freedom, "everyone" realized that, with no one to try an kill, they really needed some way to blow off a little steam -- how about a nice game of baseball. Of course, "everyone" excludes a few small groups of people. Those living in quasi-urban South were probably not playing, because all of the industrial centers had been wrecked due to the South’s extremely naughty behavior in starting the war, and those folks were occupied rebuilding their cities. You can also rule out anyone living in the rural South because they were poor before the war, and even poorer after the war -- lacking the proverbial pot in which to relieve oneself. Thus baseball wasn’t really a priority for them. Midwesterners really hadn’t jumped on the baseball bandwagon all that much either because they were busy with ... "Midwestern" type things, like growing corn and trying to figure out why the land was so flat (and, at that point in time, even "if you built it," they would not come...). Those living in the west were equally spare in terms of baseball playing activity. There were only about 50 whites and newly freed slaves living in the "Wild West" at that time, and the Native Americans really didn’t have the time to field a team since they kept getting chased and shot at by those 50 whites and newly freed slaves, besides
Bank One Ball Park ... er ... Chase Field, hadn’t been built yet and it was just too damn hard to try and have a proper game with all of those infernal buffaloes running about mucking up the place.
Thus, "everyone" is really better defined as "people living in the State of New York, and a few up the way in Massachusetts"...
Thus, it really wasn’t until some time later that baseball began to be more widely played and watched by Americans. One thing you have to consider, however, is that the reason a lot of folks chose baseball as their preferred recreation was because there really weren’t a whole lot of other choices out there. I suppose if faced with the option of working all day in the field picking crops, getting kicked in the face by a mule, or baseball, then I’d choose baseball as well. After all, the great geniuses that brought us basketball and football hadn’t ... well ... gotten around to bringing us basketball and football, at least not in a recognizable form.
Still, by the turn of the turn of the century, baseball had become an extremely popular way to waste time. By that point professional teams were booming in a select number of big cities -- the genesis of the Major Leagues. Of course there were no teams in the West or in the South, because either there were no people there who cared (in the case of the former) or the people there were still just too damn poor to bother with (in the case of the latter). Nonetheless, colleges and other educational institutions were beginning to play the game, and it was assuming its place as the National Pastime. Thus, baseball pretty much had a monopoly on things.Then suddenly, people discovered some other ways to have fun ...
In the 1880’s, a guy named Walter Camp came along and changed everything. Camp was familiar with baseball, and liked parts of the game. He was once quoted as saying, "I like the fact that you get to use sticks in the game, but can’t understand why you can’t use those sticks to hit the other players." Okay, Camp never actually said that at all, but he should have. Camp was, however, interested in soccer and rugby. Ultimately, Camp decided that soccer was a silly game, required you to run way to much, and didn’t have enough violence to make it worth playing. Rugby, on the other hand, had plenty of wholesome violence, aggression, and teeth rattling contact, but -- as best Camp could figure -- had no rules or object, aside from breaking bones, bloodletting, and mayhem. While he believed that some of the students at Yale could use a little toughening up, he still felt there needed to be a purpose to the contest. Thus, he set about penciling some rules for a new American blend of soccer and rugby called "Football," which was far better than "Sucby."
Meanwhile, a YMCA instructor in Massachusetts by the name of James Naismith, came up with a game which his students seemed to like a lot. In 1892, he published the rules to this game, but -- deciding that the original name, "Duck on a Rock," was just too silly -- he changed it to "Basketball."
Of course, baseball had been around for over nearly three-quarters of a century, and had been fielding professional teams for nearly half a century. The first World Series -- obviously named by someone who thought the "world" ended just past the Mason-Dixon Line and the Mississippi River (or where you could find lots of beer, thus explaining Milwaukee and St. Louis) -- was held in 1903. As the American Pastime, Major League Baseball considered itself to be the only universal in the sports world, despite its concentration in one area of the country, and the fact that a huge part of the population -- namely those who weren't white -- were prevented from even attending the games. Football and basketball were still new, and baseball settled into a prolonged, and ego-inflating, era of dominance of the sports world.
Then, in the early part of the 20th century, a group of men got together at a car dealership in Canton, Ohio to figure out if football -- which had become a popular college game -- could be played professionally. After their meeting -- which was constantly interrupted by car salesmen getting coffee under the guise of having to "ask the sales manager about that..." -- the National Football League was formed. Despite having to compete with baseball in most markets -- with the notable exception of Green Bay, Wisconsin, for rather obvious reasons -- the NFL began to field teams for the paying fan. Later, immediately after World War II, another group of men formed the Basketball Association of America, which later merged with the National Basketball League to form the NBA. These "insignificant" little leagues were no competition for the grandeur that was Major League Baseball -- or so the baseball cognoscenti told themselves.Ahh, blissful ignorance... Fast forward to today, and the lay of the land has changed significantly.
The single most watched and attended (on a per game basis) sport is the NFL. College football comes close to baseball’s attendance -- largely due to the fact that truly every part of the country has their own teams, and does so by only playing about 7% of the number of games in the Major League Baseball season. Of course, when you play 162 games, it's easy to rack up big numbers. The NCAA Basketball Tournament, is now the most anticipated playoff series in any sport. Hell, at present, watching cars go really fast, turn left, and occasionally crash into one another -- NASCAR’s addition to the world of American sports -- is more popular than Major League Baseball. The powers that be in Major League Baseball, however are still convinced that they are the proverbial "cream of the crop" -- truly the American pastime.
The fact is that Major League Baseball attendance has been flagging for years. While there are a select few teams which are wildly successful on both the balance sheet and the box score, many of the teams are hardly the icons that MLB would like to believe. Aside from the Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and Chicago Cubs, many of the teams in MLB, despite their fancy new stadiums, simply cannot compete with the NFL and college football and basketball.
It was once said that "Football was America’s passion, but Baseball is America’s pastime." That simply is no longer the case. Now, football is both America’s passion and its pastime. One need only look at the television ratings for the NFL playoffs to realize this to be true. In baseball, most people will only watch the World Series if their favorite team is playing. All sports fans watch the Super Bowl, and the Final Four. In completely concrete terms, the "product" being sold is better in these other leagues. Thus, despite what the baseball powers may want to tell themselves, they’ve been sucking hind tit for a while now.
Enter the Mitchell Report...
In 1987, the NFL began imposing penalties for the use of performance enhancing substances, and later imposed a random testing policy. Although former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle thought that the East German female athletes of the 1970’s were "hotties" with all their rippling muscles, deep voices, and beards, he felt that there was no place for whatever it was they were taking in the NFL. The NCAA, long a bastion of dictatorial rule, had outlawed the use of such substances before they even existed. Baseball on the other hand -- largely due to the demands of their players -- took the "What, me Worry?" stance, assuring the nation’s sports lovers that baseball players would never use performance-enhancing substances.
This is the most laughable and myopic act of intentional ignorance in the sports world since the University of Oklahoma hired Barry Switzer...
Finally, in 2002, baseball -- somewhat reluctantly -- banned the use of steroids, and imposed a penalty of a ten-game suspension for a violation of the policy. Wow, let’s not get too draconian there, I mean banning a player for 6% of the 162 game season is getting pretty tough. Yeah right. Under the NFL’s current policies, the first time a player tests positive for any of the banned substances, a four-game suspension is mandatory -- a quarter of the NFL season -- a second test failure results in an eight-game suspension, and a third in a twelve-game suspension. In the NBA, testing positive for steroids or performance-enhancing drugs results in a ten-game suspension (12% of the season) for a first offense, a twenty-five-game ban (30% of the season) for a second offense, a one-year suspension for a third test failure, and lifetime disqualification if they’re caught for a fourth time. Even the NHL has stiffer penalties, a first-time violation of the NHL’s drug policy earns a twenty-game suspension (24% of the season) without pay and mandatory participation in the league’s substance abuse program. A second failure carries a sixty-game suspension (73% of the season). In the NCAA, a violation of the drug use policy results in the player having doughnuts attached to every square inch of their body, and then being locked in a 6’ x 6’ room with Ralph Friedgen, Mark Mangino, and the Great Punkin.
What’s more, the NFL currently conducts 12,000 annual random drug tests of its players. The NBA and the NHL randomly test their players four and two times a season respectively.In baseball, the drug test policy went something like this:
Manager: So, umm ... I hate to hell to ask this, Roger, but ... uhh ... you takin’ any drugs? Roger Clemens: Hold on just a sec ... Manager: Uhh ... Roger, what in the unholy hell are you doing? You’ve got a bunch of syringes stuck in your ass! Roger Clemens: Oh, those? Oh, those are nothing... Manager: Damn-amighty ... that’s disgusting! I bet that hurts like hell. Roger Clemens: Nahh, after a while your ass goes numb. Manager: What in hell is it for? Roger Clemens: Umm ... err ... it’s for ... umm ... it’s a flu shot. Manager: You need eight of the sonsabitches? Roger Clemens: Well, you can never be too safe. Manager: So does that last you a while? Roger Clemens: Well, to be safe, I take them four times a week. My family has a real flu history. (cough cough) Manager: Oh, well, I guess that makes sense. So, anyway, Roger, ... uhh ... do you take drugs? Roger Clemens: No sir, not me. Not now, not ever, not eight doses four times a week. No sir, I’m clean. (flexing muscle) Clean as can be. (long pause) Manager: Okay! Works for me. Good talk, Roger...
The fact is that Major League Baseball’s refusal to address the issue until it was too late has put the league front and center in the public media. Furthermore, the long term refusal to take a stand on the issue fostered an environment where the use of such drugs was effectively condoned. As a result, it wasn’t just a select few on the fringe who were using, it was everyone -- even the big stars.
Baseball’s inability to police its league and its players willingness to do anything they can to win, has called into question the very ethics of the league, and forever changed the way most sports fans look at the game. No matter what the owners and league office officials may hope, the start of the new season is not going to cause people to forget about the Mitchell Report, steroids, Congressional hearings and the rest. Images of Brain McNamee shooting steroids into Roger Clemens’ ass and old beer cans filled with bloody syringes are not going to disappear overnight. The thought of Barry Bonds taking steroids via an IV bag in his back pocket during games, isn’t going to miraculously melt into the ether world. Debbie Clemens getting her steroid fix at Jose Canseco’s house during a kegger, is not going to up and vanish like a fart in the wind. The collective consciousness has a longer memory than that. In fact the whole sports world is grounded on memory and the past -- were it not, then we wouldn’t quote statistics as if they fell from the sky like manna from Heaven.
The fact is that Major League Baseball is damaged goods. It is a league which was already falling behind -- slipping into apathy -- and now there is a reason to affirmatively dislike the league. It’s a shame for all the players who didn’t dope up, for all the minor league players who don’t play just for the money, and for all the college, high school, and Little League players who just love playing the game. Be that as it may, baseball is no longer king -- and it hasn’t been for quite a while. Now, baseball is like the slimy step-brother that everyone keeps around -- because they are family -- who is always asking to borrow money, moving from disaster to disaster, and getting drunk at family gatherings. Now baseball is on the outside, looking in.
Baseball is in the process of reacting (as opposed to "acting") to the situation and will, I’m sure, impose the most stringent drug policy of all the leagues -- that’s what happens when you ignore a problem too long. The fact remains, however, that now they are convicts, and no one will trust them for a very long time. In the meantime, all the other sports will continue to occupy the minds and hearts of the nation, as baseball continues to slide. At some level it is sad. A game that was once at the forefront is now a secondary issue. Still, the league brought it on itself. By the same token, all the other leagues out there should be wary. They all have their own problems, issues, and they all have their "weak spot." Those other leagues and sports best learn from baseball, and not go down that path. Baseball was once lord of the sports world in the United States, and it fell -- its replacements can do the same. Hopefully, football and basketball will take heed and try to avoid baseball’s woes. If they don’t, then they are destined to follow. For now, Major League Baseball will do everything it can to patch itself up, and hope that the fans forget. Eventually, the fans will forgive, but they won’t be forgetting any time soon.In the meantime, the stadium is open, the popcorn is popping, the hot dogs are ready, but baseball is out...
Images Courtesy of: Legends of America, Britannica Junior, Answers.com, LOL Jocks, LolaBrigada, Deadspin, The Gothamist,
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