I got reading this and I thought, Why not?
Like every American kid, when I was growing up, I loved baseball. Like most kids who grew up where I did, baseball meant the New York Yankees (there were a few kids who followed the Mets, but I always considered them odd, even though one of them went on to be our class valedictorian). Watching those great Yankees teams from the mid- and late-1970’s was a thing of beauty. We all had our heroes: Reggie Jackson was a favorite, for sure; Pete Rose wasn’t a Yankee, but he had a kind of panache, like a ball player from the 40’s and 50’s; I liked Mickey Rivers, first a Yankee, later a Texas Ranger outfielder who had a strange stance but was a consistent if no flashy player. I, along with most of my friends and acquaintances, was saddened by the untimely death of Yankee catcher Therman Munson.
I know I didn’t give much thought to who these men were off the field. I listened to the commentary, sure, and quite a bit of it seemed even then determined to make of these men doing something difficult yet beautiful a thing apart from the rest of us. Isn’t that part of the appeal of sport to young people? We stand at the plate, or in the field, or lined up at scrimmage, or whatever our game of choice happens to be, and as children we employ our imaginations, thinking, I’m like (fill in the blank), and I’m going to hit that ball/catch that pass/score that basket like nobody’s business and that will make me, like (fill in the blank), great.
Part of the issue with myth-making is it’s rooted in love: love for the sport, first and foremost, and with that love a deep affection and admiration for the people who play. These people are doing something we love, we know enough about to understand the many difficulties inherent in it; therefore, watching people do it well brings out our sense of admiration for them.
Also, why should we care what kind of person these folks are off the field? Does it matter that Wilt Chamberlain used the celebrity that came from his ability on the basketball court to sleep with thousands of women? Does it matter that Ty Cobb was a drunken racist? Does it matter that Pete Rose wasn’t nearly the nice guy we kids thought, but a hot-headed gambling addict whose obsessions destroyed his career and legacy?
I would go a step further and ask if there is a qualitative difference between the presence of performance-enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids, and, say, amphetamines, a drug so common for so long in baseball it wasn’t even considered a problem? What about alcohol? Shoot, how about all those players who seem to think chewing tobacco is as much a part of baseball as fielding a fly and throwing out a runner?
Too often, these discussions are rooted in child-like, hazy, rose-tinged hero-worship. When I was growing up, as great as those Yankee teams were, I was constantly reminded of people like Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, and Whitey Ford, the mainstays of the superb 50’s-era Yankees. Yet, these men were no more saintly in their private lives than anyone else. All they had was their immense gifts, honed by years of practice, at doing baseball so well it became something beautiful.
I’m older now, and my days of following baseball are over. I have no emotional investment in those players from my youth whom I admired. I recognize their abilities without thinking this makes them “other”. So, I usually pass by these kinds of things such as whether or not Barry Bonds’s home run record should be qualified because of his use of anabolic steroids. It seems to me that, despite his personality quirks and the PED’s, Bonds was a gifted athlete who excelled not just at home runs, but other metrics that determine whether one is not just a good baseball player. We can admire Hank Aaron’s achievement without for one moment considering that Bonds’s is in any way less. Indeed, even having the discussion seems, to me at least, to betray a preference for seeing these athletes as something other than what they are: Men who have a talent, honed by practice and experience, to do something extraordinarily well. In that sense, they aren’t that much different than great carpenters, welders, accountants, attorneys, or musicians. The only difference?
We don’t have accountant trading cards. Maybe we should.