THIS IS A TEST

Here in the first post-American century, sports fans, it’s a

brand-new ballgame — and I’m not sure how to watch it. In this opening

season of the Post-Steroid Era, I feel like a betrayed spouse determined to

make the relationship work, struggling to balance experience against

hope. Are my guys really clean now? If not, can I live with it?

And I can’t shake the feeling that baseball isn’t baseball anymore,

it’s just another fading allegory for everything else.

As you recall, early in that triumphant world series that came to be

known as the American Century, our greatest long-range missile-delivery

system, Babe Ruth,

symbolized American power. We might not show up until the late innings,

but then we’d go deep.

That was back in the daze. The Bambino’s home-run statistics, way off

the charts in the 1920s, have been routinely overwhelmed by

chemically-enhanced contemporary players. And the most unforgivable

of them, the former St. Louis slugger Mark McGwire, is now a…. batting

coach! What’s he teaching those Cardinals?

In 1954, deep into the Cold War, a leading historian of our national

character, the French-born Jacques Barzun famously declared, “Whoever

wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”

Forty years later, another cultural commentator, Gerald Early, extended

Barzun’s use of baseball games as allegory to baseball’s management and

marketing, its “history as a mode of capitalist production or

commercial ingenuity.”

To that, let me add its

workforce. Immigrants, arriving from America’s baseball colonies — the

Dominican Republic, Japan,

Cuba, Korea — have become critical to the game. Did we win their

hearts and minds?

Meanwhile, the natives seem to be drifting away into football,

basketball, and extreme sports. Who changed our hearts and minds?

Give baseball its due: no sport has ever enthralled so many

intellectuals. Right into this century, media gas bags were still

calling it “the national pastime” (long after football, by most

measurements, had captured that title) and using baseball terminology to

touch base with the man in the bleachers. (See George F. Will.) It was the

ultimate team game of individuals! You didn’t have to be a physical

freak to play! It was a perfect expression of American independence and

exceptionalism! Adios. Sayonara!

Which Pitch to Swing At?

So now what? For more than a dozen years at least, major leaguers

have been shooting steroids and other helpful drugs — and thrilling us

with the results. Then, suddenly, we were supposed to be angry at them

and maybe slightly ashamed of our complicity as well. This season,

however, they have been declared clean and we are supposed to forgive

them for cheating on us, and ourselves for cheering them on.

Can we do it? Should we? What are our options?

Consider these three:

* We can relocate emotionally to an alternate sports universe, call

it Fandora, where the owners, not the players, are our avatars.

* We can believe that baseball as we know it is too big to fail, so

let’s bail it out and slap on the band-aids where necessary.

* We can man up, dig in, and try to make some systemic changes.

(If this sounds too much like the larger American culture for you,

why don’t you just go make some mixed martial art.)

The alternate universe option, also known as fantasy leagues, has

been around for a long time. It was coded onto IBM computers 50 years

ago. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan took us into the new Republican Fantasy

Leagues, a group of clever Manhattanites led by magazine editor Daniel

Okrent — not utterly coincidentally — created the off-world of fantasy

baseball we know today. Using USAToday boxscores, Rotisserie

League members shuffled and dealt existing major league rosters to

create their own competitive teams — and then, in a break with

everything that had previously been considered in the nature of baseball

fandom, began rooting for real players scattered among real teams

rather than for the real teams themselves. Now, à la Reagan, at least

in their dreams, everyone could be a team owner and root for

themselves. Talk about American individualism and exceptionalism!

Thirty years later, fantasy leagues are a multi-billion dollar

business that includes many other sports, countries, computer programs,

and gambling systems, but the sensibility remains the same: it’s better

to be the boss than the worker. Teddy Roosevelt’s hero,

“the man who is actually in the arena,” has been replaced with the

Gekko bonus baby who owns the arena. The actual athlete has morphed into

a Monopoly piece inserted, with his perfectly real (or steroidally

real) stats, into a dream game where fans cannot be betrayed by a

favorite player, or team, leaving town, or turning into a lunatic

philanderer — there is also fantasy golf — or a lying juicer.

Thank You, A-Rod

The second option this season is to embrace the Post-Steroid Era, to

get past the past. Yes, we can! And here’s the fantasy league aspect

of that: we can insist that it’s all different now because we say so.

We’ve won the war on drugs (the ones we can test for, anyway), even if

we’re losing the one in Afghanistan. It’s not as if we’re ‘roid deniers,

it’s that there’s no upside to wallowing.

Let’s celebrate! Drugs are gone! We’re clean (again)! The nation and

its pastime are back and ready to win — like the defending champion

Yankees, thanks in no small part to Alex Rodriguez, once more forgiven

for his lying and juicing!

Of course, there will still be debatable issues. Think of it as the

math of the aftermath. Statistics are critical to baseball. So how do we

deal with records set under the influence? Should there be scarlet

asterisks next to the names of steroidal batters, marking their unfair

advantages to the end of American time? But then how do you deal,

statistically speaking, with the fact that they were facing steroidal

pitchers? A lot of microbrew (and sake?) will float these debates in

sports bars and on talk radio, which is, of course, good for business!

Someone’s business, anyway. There will be a whole new currency of

communication between the generations. Wonk heaven! Ultimately, this

second option — let’s call it the centrist field — might renew

interest in the game.

The third option, meaningful change… well, that’s always the diciest,

isn’t it? Watch out for this one to be co-opted by those who claim that

rigorous drug testing will make baseball whole again.

Drug use was always the symptom, never the disease. You have to start

— surprise, surprise! — with the post-Age of Reagan disparity of

wealth. Greedhead owners get taxpayers to build them new stadiums with

luxury boxes in which they can romance politicians and clients and get

even richer. The poor schnooks are priced out of those stadiums. No

wonder they‘re having tea parties (being unable, after all, to afford

ballpark beer). What if fans and/or players owned teams? What if they

were to start a new league?

On to immigration reform. Like the day laborers waiting to be plucked

off suburban street corners, teenagers in the Dominican Republic line

up at major-league-run “academies” where they are schooled and tested in

hitting, fielding, and throwing. Most will be discarded. The best will

be counseled by “buscones.” Those are the sometimes shady street agents

who keep big league hands clean as they rip off big chunks of signing

bonuses and doctor papers to make prospects seem younger. It’s time to

begin to police this to cut down on the exploitation of the kids.

Kids? Yes, the kids, the Little Leaguers whose characters are

supposedly formed emulating their Big League role models. Isn’t this all

about them? It’s why we need to come back to drugs, so

conveniently blamed on rogue players trying to trick Mother Nature.

Ignored, of course, has been the tacit encouragement of management.

(Don’t ask, don’t tell, just use.) Can we also penalize owners (fines?)

and teams (loss of victories?) for drug use, rather than simply

suspending players for periods during which owners don’t even have to

pay them?

So there you have it, as we await the big inning, the first of the

new season. I won’t join a fantasy league. No Fandora for me. No way

can I identify with the Dodgers’ McCourt or the Yankees’ Steinbrenner.

And the result of a baseball “revolution” is too predictable. It could

only end by extending the owners’ socialism to the rest of us. So

there’s no choice, really. I’ll root with my fingers crossed that we

will not be jilted, betrayed, or played for a rube again. That good

times will trickle down. That this season will be different.