Poor baseball. These two words keep running through my mind lately, the way a line from a song gets stuck in your head. Poor baseball. Poor baseball. Oh, pity poor baseball.
It is our beast of burden. We ask the sport to do so much work for us, and when it fails, we beat it mercilessly, often until we are beating ourselves. That is because the work we ask baseball to do is moral, and the punishment for doing it poorly or not at all is severe.
Last week, I read Rameau’s Nephew, by Denis Diderot, and Trading Manny, by Jim Gullo. These books found me more than I found them: I rescued the former from a thrift store years ago and have only just now gotten to it; the latter was sent to me by the author.
These books have nothing in common. Diderot’s, which dates from the 18th Century, is an imagined dialogue between a version of himself (“the Master Philosopher”) and the title character, a roué of the Parisian society scene whose uncle was a composer. Gullo’s is brand new, not even officially out yet. It is a book-length personal essay about trying to shepherd his young son, and not incidentally himself, through baseball’s steroid crisis.
Despite the vast difference between these books, there is a thin but surprisingly strong connector. His name is Jacques Barzun, and the first evidence of how thin-yet-tough the connector is lies in this very basic detail: Jacques Barzun, the venerated French-born American historian and scholar who was on faculty at Columbia University, his alma mater, for about 50 years, is 104 years old.
It is Barzun’s translation of Diderot that I salvaged from the thrift store, and it is also Barzun who uttered one of the most famous sentences ever about the National Pastime: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.” He wrote that in the year of The Catch, 1954. Barzun turned 47 years old that November.
As with many famous lines, though, there is more to it: “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules, and reality of the game."
A curious way of putting it. Learning the rules is an appropriate enough task, but what does Barzun mean by “the reality of the game”? He seems to be implying that baseball is more than just a pastime. It’s real. (The Shot Heard ‘Round the World, for example. Or Babe Ruth, on why he was demanding a salary higher than President Hoover’s: “I had a better year than he did.”) What happens on the field has the weight of history on it; thus the game’s heavy dependency on its numbers. These things go in the annals.
So it is not surprising that what happens off the field has heavy, enduring consequences, too. The premise of Gullo’s Trading Manny is that when Ramirez, Gullo’s young son’s favorite player, tests positive for a banned substance in 2009, it is the final insult dealt to the already outraged Gullos after the Mitchell Report and all of the other steroid-related fallout of the mid- and late 2000’s. A long and exhausting quest to embrace the sport again ensues, with the best guidance coming from Dirk Hayhurst, not yet the author of The Bullpen Gospels at the time the Gullos, who move mid-book from Seattle to Oregon, meet him as a Class Triple-A Portland Beaver. It’s Hayhurst who finally looks them in the eye, in one of their meetings with the bestselling author-to-be, and declares what the Gullos really needed to hear but what no one in baseball would tell them, despite their repeated entreaties: PEDs are wrong and you shouldn’t use them.
I lack the gland that secretes moral outrage over PED use. My response to the word “steroids” is something like Rameau’s to the word “melody”: “When I utter the word ‘melody,’” he says, “I have no clearer idea than you and most of your colleagues when you say: ‘reputation, blame, honor, vice, virtue, modesty, decency, shame, ridicule.’” In my rather baffled sanguinity about PEDs I find myself wondering more about the loudness of the furor itself than whether records are tainted, whether Mark McGwire should be in the Hall of Fame, and so on. The Gullos have multiple problems with steroids—using them is (to them) cheating, and can kill you, among others—but what it really seems to come down to is what Scott Brosius tells them when they visit with him in McMinnville, Ore., where he is now the head baseball coach at his alma mater, Linfield College.
“Look at what it does to your character,” Brosius says. “Look at what it does to how people see you.”
Trading Manny finds the Gullos often seeking an audience with ballplayers, ex-ballplayers, broadcasters, Bud Selig, and others. (They even pursue a ghost, making a pilgrimage to Weiser, Idaho, where Walter Johnson began his professional career in 1906.) Especial ire is directed at Jamie Moyer, who does nothing actively wrong but, through his foundation’s PR spokesman, “respectfully decline[s] the opportunity to be interviewed for your book.” The Gullos want answers, confirmations, and reassurances, and they keep not getting them. They want access, if nothing else; they want to think of these players as people. When Gullo takes his son to spring training in Arizona, he is “struck by the easy familiarity that fans have with ballplayers—the way we think we know them despite only watching them play and reading about them in the paper.”
Perhaps this “easy familiarity” comes in part from the physiques of most baseball players, who generally don’t seem to come from another race, as football and basketball players tend to do. (As a result, perhaps some of the PED hysteria comes, subtly, from the cartoonish bodies some users develop. We no longer recognize ourselves in them.)
Well, we don’t know them, of course. For every forthright, confessional Hayhurst—who according to Gullo was, tellingly, hated by his teammates in the majors when they found out he was writing a book they might be in—there are hundreds of ballplayers who live deliberately and comfortably in a world quite apart from ours—even from their own teammates. An irony, unspoken in Trading Manny, is that one of the farthest out of the outliers, before any of his PED usage was made public, was Manny Ramirez himself. In Ben McGrath’s New Yorker profile of Ramirez from 2007, his teammate David Ortiz describes him as “a crazy motherfucker.” McGrath continues: “Then he pointed at my notebook and said, ‘You can write it down just like that: “David Ortiz says Manny is a crazy motherfucker.” That guy, he’s in his own world, on his own planet. Totally different human being than everyone else.’” Last year, Ramirez not only tested positive again for a banned substance, abruptly retiring right after the season started, but he was later arrested after a domestic violence incident in which his wife claimed that Ramirez hit her in the head.
“After a time, however, I came to be known,” Diderot’s Rameau tells him. “They said, that’s only Rameau.”
Ah. Manny being Manny.
“When people make up their minds to keep company with the likes of me,” Rameau continues, “common sense should tell them to be ready for the blackest disloyalty… Knowing us, they can’t complain. There’s a tacit agreement that we’ll reap benefits and return evil for good, sooner or later. Isn’t that the agreement between a man and his pet monkey?”
Ramirez is no pet monkey, of course, except insofar as all athletes are our public playthings, performing tricks for us to admire. The betrayal the Gullos feel is a result of discovering, and deploring, that great deeds are not always performed by men of great character. The proportion is often—usually, it sometimes seems—inverse. (A tidy irony: the first time Ramirez faced Hayhurst in the majors, he homered off of him. You could look it up. The second—and last—time, he nearly hit another one.)
“Observe that greatness is usually the result of a natural equilibrium among opposite qualities,” Rameau says.
Diderot, in immediate rebuttal to Rameau: “Spare me your reflections and get on with your story.”
For Barzun and baseball, the story ends unhappily. “I've gotten so disgusted with baseball,” he said a few years ago, “I don't follow it anymore. I just see the headlines and turn my head away in shame from what we have done with our most interesting game and best, healthiest pastime.”
Barzun’s complaint had to do with money—“the commercialization is beyond anything that was ever thought of”—and the Gullos are similarly appalled: apart from his feelings about steroid use, little Joe despises Alex Rodriguez, who leaves the Gullos’ hometown Mariners for Texas’s quarter billion dollars. “He only plays for money,” Joe says. When Rodriguez later admits to PED use, the boy has an I-told-you-so moment: cupidity and cheating (or “cheating”) are linked in his moral picture.
Football and basketball and the other sports, equally infiltrated by problems of money and (almost surely) PEDs, are mysteriously exempted. Fed up with baseball halfway through Trading Manny, Gullo and his son stop following the sport: “I bought him a box of football cards; the NFL season had begun.”
Baseball alone trudges forth with these moral millstones around its neck. Poor baseball.
It’s because the game itself is moral, I think: “the rules, the reality of baseball,” linked in Barzun’s construction, are joined because the rules of the game itself are moral. The diamond, its beautiful symmetry, is moral. The pitcher-batter opposition is moral: that unblinking moment of truth that begins almost every piece of action, hundreds of times a game. Strikes and balls are moral, because of the way bases on balls degrade the action. The time between plays for contemplation; the threes and nines; the role of luck, which is both astringent and corrupting, gift-giving and soul-taking; even the manager, dressed in the same uniform as his players and thus condemned to suffer his own decisions in the same array as any of his men.
And especially, in the spirit of 104-year-old Jacques Barzun, the absence of a clock, which allows every player potentially infinite opportunity for redress, success, failure. The game is moral because it is outside of time, and thus immortal. Poor baseball.