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We watched John Sayles' movie Eight Men Out last night.  Netflix, of course.  It's an old movie.  It came out in 1988, right around the same time as Field of Dreams, when  hollywood seemed to be in the midst of a mini-obsession with the Shoeless Joe Jackson story.  Hollywood does this -- remember when Tombstone and Wyatt Earp came out within months of each other, after we'd gone years without seeing a movie about Earp?  But I digress....

For those of you who don't know, Eight Men Out tells the story of the Black Sox scandal of 1919.  Seven players on the American League champion Chicago White Sox -- including pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams, position players Happy Felsch, Chick Gandil, Swede Risberg, Fred McMullen, and Jackson, who was one of the game's greatest stars --  conspired with a group of gamblers to throw the series to the Cincinnati Reds.  The Sox were the overwhelming favorites going into the series, and the conspirators believed that they could make a killing by betting on the Reds and letting them win.  Some of the players were more enthusiastic participants than others.  Jackson always claimed that he went along for the money but did nothing to help the Reds win any games.  Sayles film portrays him as naive, uneducated, and very much a victim of his manipulative, smarter teammates.  An eighth player, Buck Weaver, knew of the conspiracy but took no money and played to win throughout the series.  Sayles portrays him as a victim of his teammates' malfeasance as well.  All eight players were charged and put on trial, and all of them were eventually acquitted.

By this time, however, baseball's owners had hired the sport's first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who vowed to clean up major league baseball.  Landis chose to make an example of the eight Black Sox players and banned all of them from the game for the rest of their lives.  The ban was the only thing that kept Jackson from being elected to baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.

It was a good movie -- not great, but good.  And I've been thinking about it all morning.  I'm a huge baseball fan.  Or at least I used to be.  The recent revelations about widespread steroid use among some of the games biggest stars have shaken my faith in the game.  Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez -- all have admitted using steroids or have been implicated so convincingly that their continued denials have become meaningless.  Other players are known to have used performance enhancing drugs, and several of them have been suspended temporarily.

And yet, over the past 50 years, only one player in Major League Baseball has faced a lifetime ban from the game like the one given to the eight Black Sox conspirators.  That one is Pete Rose, who didn't use steroids, but did, it seems, bet on baseball games in clear violation of the league's rules on gambling.  Rose's ban was handed down by then-commissioner Bart Giamatti, but it was almost as if the ghost of Mountain Landis was hovering over the game.  Baseball has a thing about gambling that can be traced directly back to 1919, and Rose's ban reflected that.  Now don't get me wrong:  I'm not defending Pete Rose.  I'm not even suggesting that Rose's ban should be lifted (although I think that a case could be made for this).  The truth is, never liked Pete Rose.  I always thought that if baseball hadn't existed he would have spent his life as a small-time thug.

But just as the men who ran baseball in 1919 turned a blind eye toward the corruptive influence of gambling on the game until Landis forced them to face the problem and deal with it, today's owners and the media outlets that account for much of their revenue, have ignored the steroid problem.  In 1998, when McGwire and Sosa staged their epic joint assault on Roger Maris's single season home run record, baseball was still reeling from the 1994 strike that nearly destroyed the sport.  Never mind that McGwire's arms looked like something out of a Popeye cartoon.  Never mind that Sosa had transformed himself from a skinny little kid who could run fast into the most consistently prolific home run hitter the sport had ever seen.  It was all good!  The balls were flying out of the park and the sport was popular again.

I was always a small kid, and I'm a small grown-up.  One of the things I loved about baseball was that there was a place in the game for guys like me.  Unlike football or basketball, which demanded that its stars be huge, baseball could be played and won by smaller players.  Sure, everyone loved Babe Ruth.  But if a guy could bunt and steal a base and slap a key hit to the opposite field, he could win ball games for his team.  The game that I see on TV today isn't like that, at least not the way it used to be.  Everyone is expected to hit home runs.  And everyone does.  Which means that everyone is suspect.  Look at a major league roster these days and you'll see guys with Popeye forearms playing every position.  Are all of them juicing?  I want to say no, of course not.  But in all honesty, I don't know.  When the penalty for using steroids is a fifty game suspension that still leaves intact two-thirds of a multi-million dollar annual contract, it's hard to see why players wouldn't juice.  The downside risk is minimal; the upside earning potential is staggering.

But a lifetime ban would balance that equation.  Alex Rodriguez is a great player.  So was Barry Bonds.  Their accomplishments on the field, however, have been forever compromised by the fact that they cheated.  Playing baseball at the major league level is not a right, it's a privilege.  If placing a bet on a baseball game is cause to strip a player of that privilege, isn't using steroids?  If Joe Jackson and his fellow conspirators are considered cheaters because they influenced the outcome of games by not trying hard enough, shouldn't Manny Ramirez be considered a cheater for influencing the outcome of games by making himself into a juiced-up physical freak?  Isn't it possible that baseball needs to be saved again, even if it means barring from the game some of its greatest stars?

I used to love baseball, but the game lost me when it decided to tolerate lies for the sake of television revenue.  If baseball can lose me, it can lose any and every fan.  I loved it that much.  The only way to get me back is for its leaders to say, "Enough!  If you cheat, you leave, never to return."  The fact that this hasn't happened yet tells me that the steroid problem is so big, baseball's owners and commissioner can't afford to take such a stand.  There'd be no one left.


( 26 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 1st, 2009 03:55 pm (UTC)
Netflix, of course. It's an old movie. It came out in 1988,

Having just finished the fifth part of a six part series I'm writing about Silent film comedians (so far: Ben Turpin, Mabel Normand, Roscoe Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton, Chaplin is next), the idea of a 1988 film as old seems rather humorous. I think the earliest film I've watched while doing my research is 1909's Mr Flip in which Turpin takes the first filmed pie in the face. The most recent film was 1966's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (not including filmed biographies).
Jul. 1st, 2009 04:06 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I can see that. Still, compared with what we usually rent from Netflix, this one was old. Not all of us are watching silent movies....
Jul. 1st, 2009 03:59 pm (UTC)
hired a new commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis

And a nitpick, Landis was the first commissioner. Your phrasing makes it sound like he took over an already existing position.

Otherwise, I pretty much agree with all of it. As a Cubs fan, even as Sosa belted another out of the park during his heyday (and I was there for #400), I'd tell my daughters, "He really isn't that good a player."
Jul. 1st, 2009 04:08 pm (UTC)
You're right. Edited for clarity. Thanks.
Jul. 1st, 2009 04:08 pm (UTC)
Movies: Ed and The Truman Show came out at the same time as well. FYI

Pujols...even if he doesn't, many will wonder.

The players union is getting rid of Donald Fehr. Maybe that will change things a bit. Not like there's a public outcry. They knew all along as well and just didn't care.

And, why is Manny playing minor league ball to keep in shape? I don't think he is being paid, but why is he allowed anywhere near a ballpark during his suspension?

Oh...and if a pitcher is suspended 5 games it should be for 5 starts and not the next 5 games that the team plays. Meh...

Love of the game: Whenever the topic came up, I would say that I can stand watching NCAA's March Madness and that I enjoy watching football, but that my real 'love' was baseball. I think, even if it is somewhat different, is the same thing that people have for soccer where they understand all the nuance of the game and get excited by a good pass up the field that doesn't end in anything. Yep, watching a well-executed backup play can be as interesting as watching some guy hit a 400-ft home run. Seriously. Unfortunately, no one has time to practice backing up 1st or 3rd base when they need to practice hitting for the rafters...

And, finally, now that Bonds is gone, I can start rooting for the Giants again. Not like THAT will help...
Jul. 1st, 2009 04:16 pm (UTC)
Ed and The Truman Show. Had forgotten that pair.

Getting rid of Fehr might help, but I'm not sure he was the major obstacle.

Manny: Yeah, I totally agree. Same with the pitching thing. A five game suspension for a starter should be a 25 game suspension. Otherwise it's meaningless. But they are actually measuring the suspensions in dollars not games. Pitchers facing a five game suspension lose 5/162 of their pay, just as an outfielder would if he was suspended for 5 games. But your point is well taken.

And I would rather watch a suicide squeeze than a grand slam any day of the week.

As for Bonds, I was actually a big fan before he started juicing. I know he was a jerk, but he could flat out play. From the late eighties through to 1998, he was the best player I had ever seen. He could hit for average and power, run, field -- he was the total package. He didn't need steroids to be great (unlike Sosa). But he put up amazing numbers in 97-98 and no one noticed because he wasn't hitting 60 home runs. A man with his ego couldn't take that. It's sad in a way.
Jul. 2nd, 2009 01:27 pm (UTC)
Manny is playing minor league ball because the union negotiated that provision into the rules for suspension. Their argument was that, after a 50 day suspension, a player would have to spend at least 2 weeks playing his way back into shape in the minors, which would then extend the suspension to 64 days. So the compromise was to allow players to serve the last two weeks of the 50 game suspension in the minors.
Jul. 2nd, 2009 03:02 pm (UTC)
I've always sided with the players in baseball's labor disputes, perhaps because coming from NY I'm hyper-aware of what a jerk Steinbrenner was. But in this instance I wish the league had told the union to go screw themselves. It's not the league's fault if players are suspended and then don't keep in shape during their suspensions. Just my opinion. And I realize that you weren't saying it was right, but rather were just explaining why Manny's playing in the minors. Thanks for the info.
Jul. 2nd, 2009 04:48 pm (UTC)
I've always been on labor's side in baseball too, but Fehr really blew this one. The union is supposed to be about health issues as well as money.

An old friend of mine, Lee Lowenfish, wrote a book called Imperfect Diamond about the history of baseball's labor relations. He's so disenchanted about the way the union handled this issue that he turned around and wrote a book about management. (At least that's how he describes it. The book is actually a bio of Branch Rickey.)
Jul. 2nd, 2009 04:36 pm (UTC)
Sounds reasonable...except for the fact that I think he should be banned from baseball altogether I'm not sure that forcing him to play back into shape AFTER his suspension is over is that much more of a punishment.

But thank you for explaining the reasoning behind allowing him to play in the minors.
Jul. 1st, 2009 05:36 pm (UTC)
I hear you. I have watched less baseball this season than any other, for the reasons you stated.
Jul. 1st, 2009 10:24 pm (UTC)
Sad isn't it? I miss the baseball of my youth. I miss getting up every summer morning eager to look at box scores and piece together the previous night's games.
Jul. 1st, 2009 05:51 pm (UTC)
I hope you'll fire this off to the commissioner, and maybe Frank Deford over at NPR Morning Edition while you're at it. A skilled writer with a heartfelt opinion is a powerful thing.
Jul. 1st, 2009 10:24 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Estellye. I'm not sure that Selig would be interested, but maybe I'll send it off to Deford. I love his work.
Jul. 1st, 2009 07:37 pm (UTC)
I'd agree with you re. Pete Rose, but what I did like about him was that he always seemed to me to be an example of what it was possible to accomplish if you take mediocre talent and combine it with incredible drive and passion. He didn't have the raw talent of the people around him on the Big Red Machine, but he sure as hell put 150% of himself into baseball.

But yeah, as a person he not exactly a stellar role model.
Jul. 1st, 2009 10:26 pm (UTC)
You're absolutely right, my friend. He worked his tail off everyday. No one in baseball history went further on so little talent, and I don't mean that in a derogatory way. He wasn't a great athlete, and he didn't look natural doing anything on the field. But he was always a great player and he always gave everything he had. You have to respect that.
Jul. 2nd, 2009 01:29 pm (UTC)
My thoughts as well. A thug, but the first guy I'd have signed as a free agent back in the day because of the fire in his belly.

Jul. 2nd, 2009 03:03 pm (UTC)
My first signing would have been Joe Morgan. Don't think much of him as an announcer, and I hate his politics. But what a player! And a good influence on and off the field.
Jul. 2nd, 2009 04:49 pm (UTC)
Joe would have been right there as well. And Johnny Bench and most of the rest of that team.

And then I would have added the Mets pitchers.
Jul. 2nd, 2009 07:00 pm (UTC)
Seaver and McGraw, definitely. Other great players from that era: George Brett; personal favorite of mine, Ken Singleton; I always liked Don Sutton, too, if for no other reason than because he once got into a fight with Steve Garvey, which recommends him in my book; Rod Carew; Willie Stargell; Billy Williams; Reggie Smith; Gaylord Perry; Jim Palmer, though I couldn't stand him as a person.
Jul. 2nd, 2009 07:00 pm (UTC)
Oh, and how could I forget Mike Schmidt. Not my favorite by a long shot, but along with Morgan probably the best player of the bunch.
Jul. 2nd, 2009 07:11 pm (UTC)
Don't forget my fave, Jerry Koosman. 3-0 in the World Series. Not as great as Tom Terrific, obviously, but pretty good when the chips were down.
Jul. 2nd, 2009 07:22 pm (UTC)
Koosman was good, as was Matlack. And then they also came up with Ryan and Gentry. Really, an unbelievable amount of young pitching talent. They could use some of that now....
Jul. 3rd, 2009 01:26 am (UTC)
They could use a good physician now.
Jul. 2nd, 2009 01:35 pm (UTC)
I'm sorry to say it, but I think enhancement is here to stay. And it won't be long before the same arguments start cropping up in the "brainpower" fields as well as the "musclepower". There's an article in the current Atlantic Monthly that takes just this tack.

Then again, what would Philip K. Dick have been without enhancement? (Better or worse, who knows?)
Jul. 2nd, 2009 03:04 pm (UTC)
Scary thought, but you're probably right. Better line up now for our implants....
( 26 comments — Leave a comment )


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