Thursday, August 11, 2005

The Home Run Hitter As Hero -- An Insomniac's Special

On ESPN and on the ESPN web site Jayson Stark decries the double standard -- Gaylord Perry , for example, openly cheated for about 20 years, all to the tune of 2 Cy Youngs, and a trip to the Hall of Fame.

Jayson cites other examples, and reaches the conclusion that our obsession with home run hitters cheating comes from our desire to keep Babe Ruth's record -- or at least the notion that his record is the real record -- safe.

Me -- I think it is both simpler and more complicated than that.

I think the issue of why we don't care if pitchers cheat has to do with issues of self-identity better explained by movie westerns.

Somewhere in the recesses of our mind, the pitcher, even our own guy, is already advertised as the bad guy. He who throws --- the curveball.

Even our own pitcher, most of the time, is our bully beating up their bully. Often he is an outsider or an outlaw -- harassed by the law (they don't understand). If our pitcher has to resort to any means necessary, scuff the ball, knock down the other guys batter ---(sometimes even the second baseman who is someone small like us) --- we understand. Maybe, we could do what the pitcher does ourselves, but we can't bring ourselves to live like that. Fortunately, thanks to our pitcher, we don't have to.

The craftiest of the craftiest earn our respect and our rewards -- they called Whitey Ford "The Chairman of the Board" -- and paid him accordingly. But it was never Whitey's team -- at least not on the field.

The other fielders and hitters are like the townpeople.

Good fielding is appreciated -- even highly praised as a virtue -- but never enough. Good fielding can only prevent losses. It can not create wins.

We need to score runs to win.

The townspeople can score runs and even win on our own now and then. Three singles score a run. That and other common schemes to score runs are collaborative. The townspeople scrape by anyway we can. We have to bunt, or "steal", or slide in cleats up (it's OK when we do it, but their second baseman did it and our pitcher knocked him down). We'd rather do it some other way, but resources are scarce, and we have to make do. There has to be an easier way. We know there is. If only we had the requisite talent.

But sometimes someone comes along who has the talent. The home run hitter. The home run hitter is the hero -- he is the lone gunman. The sheriff riding into town to handle the mess in the most simple way possible.

Our fair haired boy. He alone is above all the petty struggles of every day life. He alone can get by without device or artifice. On sheer talent alone. A talent that is first God-given, and then usually polished to a pure sheen. Sometimes, that talent has been spent unwisely, or has been dimmed by age and hard living, but never, we believe, spent completely. There still might be something left for us.

Sometimes the home run hitter swings too hard and misses. We don't get to swing too hard and miss. Our job is to put the bat on the ball any way we can. Who would trust us to hit the ball so hard and so far that we could risk a strike-out?

Only our home-run hitter can come in, all alone, and make short work of a long afternoon. The townsfolk can't get on base. One swing and the home run hitter gets the job done.

Or the townsfolk scramble to get on base, if another three of us hit singles -- we already did three in a row, and we still need another three in a row, how is that possible? -- we might win, but certainly not in time for dinner. Can our home run hitter -- the repository of our hopes and dreams -- save the day?

Sometimes our hero tries mightily and fails. Sometimes it seems, not only is the job too much for us, but it is too much for heroes.

But sometimes, sometimes, the hero, due to his very talent, his very purity, of body, mind and purpose (he only wants to save the day -- for us!), can reach down deep into inner places we cannot understand -- and do more than we could do -- either alone or together.

Mighty Casey did not strike out! Mighty Casey saved the day!

How many Mighty Caseys are there? How many could there ever be?

But no. That's wrong. Came a time where it seemed that anyone could be a home run hitter. Everyone was entitled to swing for the fences.

Suddenly, every town had a hero. Every town, it seemed, had many heroes.

Had the world really changed?

All these many heroes, we were told, are just like the heroes of old. It was just that we hadn't recognized them before -- due to old-fashioned media and transportation techniques, I suppose.

Some scratched our heads. We said that these new heroes looked a lot like the villains and physical freaks we had seen on television in those other, newer, sports. We were laughed at, and told to get with the times.

Something was wrong, we said.

What's with the geezer? They laughed. Get some glasses, grandpa, so you can really see what's going on.

Nothing has changed, they roared. The home run hitters today are like the home run hitters of yesterday. Nothing has changed. Feel free to treat your home run hitter with the same innocent love with which you have always treated him. Feel free to allow him to strike out at will. Don't be surprised to find that where some teams were lucky to have one home run hitter, now they have seven. Feel free to allow them all to strike out at will.

But no. Our hero is no hero at all -- he's just another cheater. He's like an evil wizard -- taking special cheating potions -- mixed in special cheating cauldrons -- something that can only be done in dark places.

We have been invaded by a band of evil wizards. How did evil wizards get into our western?

Say It Ain't So.

How can you tell the real heroes from the evil wizards?

That's life, grandpa.

But if baseball is life, then who needs baseball?