Thursday, August 09, 2007

Baseball and Barry Bonds

Baseball is not one of the guy sports I watch much, but I roughly know the rules and can follow a game and even admire certain stunts. On the other hand, baseball fascinates me as a parable about the American culture (including its male focus).

There is Babe Ruth and the curse he supposedly put on Red Sox and the 1920s betting scandal and its later repeats. There is the whole interesting history of racial integration as it was reflected in the integration in professional baseball, including the advantages and disadvantages of it for black players, white players and the owners in general. Then there is baseball's many equivalents of the American desire to have lone heroes, combined with the frank admission that lone heroes are nothing without the team, though even then the team is usually mythologized into one manager or a small number of players.

Professional baseball used to practice something which is quite illegal in ordinary jobs: players could be indentured and could not leave the team if they wanted to do so. The "free agent" aspect is a diluted form of this indenture. On the other hand, the owners of the teams can in some ways act as the sole seller of a product (televised games) and also as the sole buyer of the best players' services (though they still face competition from each other). This gives them some monopoly and some monopsony power. The combination of the two means that the players might at the same time look oppressed by the owners' power and also earn very large salaries.

These economic aspects are also part of the American baseball mythology. But most fans prefer the other mythological stories, the ones about individual heroes, team spirit, modesty and great achievements against all odds. And the ones about records and racial fairness and baseball as the unifying thread which weaves all Americans into one patriotic community. Or even the more scandalous stories about Ted Williams' mean temper or the larger-than-life egos of many team owners.

What I find fascinating about this all is not just the stories which are often quite good but the way baseball serves as a mirror which shows Americans as either better than they might be or sometimes much more horrible, but in either case somewhat caricaturized. Even the players' wives are caricaturized in the media, often in an almost "Stepford Wives" way. They become nothing but supportive wives, waiting.

Those long ramblings (why on earth am I writing about baseball???) are to explain how I react to Barry Bonds' recent breaking of the old home run record and to the discussions about his possible drug use, his race and the whole question whether records from different eras are comparable in any meaningful sense. I see these stories as reactions to various baseball myths, perhaps also as attempts to tug the myths to certain new directions.

But baseball may no longer be the American myth of the younger generation. Of course it never was the most applicable myth for many, many Americans.