Part 2 of a series.
How can we honor athletes for cheating and then talk to our children about honesty and integrity with a straight face?
Matt Record’s post yesterday arguing that Major League Baseball should admit steroid users to the Hall of Fame gets a lot of things right. For instance: Ty Cobb? Sub-human PoS, no doubt about it. And Matt could have devoted volumes to the abject malpractice of the sports “journalism” industry during Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s pursuit of Roger Maris’s single season homerun record; they chose to ignore what was obviously happening under their noses because the steroid era was good for business, and the less pontificating we hear from them now the better.
And what about the ways in which MLB’s apartheid system kept some of the greatest stars of their time out of the league for decades? If anything, Matt doesn’t stomp hard enough here. Babe Ruth was a legendary hitter, but he never had to stand in against Satchel Paige, whom DiMaggio called the best pitcher he ever faced after playing against him in a 1936 exhibition.
Lefty Grove and Dizzy Dean were two of the premier pitchers of the 1930s, but neither had to deal with Josh Gibson.
The Baseball Hall of Fame maintains he hit “almost 800” homers in his 17-year career against Negro league and independent baseball opposition. His lifetime batting average, according to the Hall’s official data, was .359. It was reported that he won nine home run titles and four batting championships playing for the Crawfords and the Grays. It is also believed that Gibson hit a home run in a Negro league game at Yankee Stadium that struck two feet from the top of the wall circling the center field bleachers, about 580 feet (180 m) from home plate. Although it has never been conclusively proven, Chicago American Giants infielder Jack Marshall said Gibson slugged one over the third deck next to the left field bullpen in 1934 for the only fair ball hit out of Yankee Stadium. Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith once said that Gibson hit more home runs into Griffith Stadium’s distant left field bleachers than the entire American League.
What would these men, and so many others, have accomplished had they had the sense to be born white? We’ll never know, of course, but it’s safe to say that The Bambino stroked a few taters off pitchers who, if not for the color barrier, would have been in the minor leagues. The same goes for MLB pitching icons, who certainly benefited from hundreds, if not thousands, of at-bats against minor league hitters instead of the likes of Gibson.
Matt gets these things right. So right, in fact, that it’s tempting to swallow his whole argument. That, however, would be a mistake.
The problem is that his case for throwing open the doors of Cooperstown to cheaters is a misdirection that asks us to look away from the real issue. In short, we are being asked to accept that since a group of people perhaps doesn’t belong in the Hall, that we should simply abandon our standards.
First off, all those white players who never faced a black or Latino weren’t cheating. As bad as the system was, DiMaggio and Ruth and Gehrig and Shoeless Joe didn’t break any rules that others were adhering to. The fault was on the owners, not the players.
Matt’s point is a valid one in another argument, but it’s irrelevant and misleading in this one.
Second, even if we accepted his reasoning, there’s still something profoundly disturbing with the idea that since one group of people got away with something, everyone should. If we wanted to push this principle to its logical extreme, we might find ourselves concluding that we should legalize murder because people have gotten away with it in the past.
I’d argue the precise opposite. Instead of using historical crimes to justify present crimes, I’d be more comfortable using what we know now to go back and purge past miscreants. Of all the major sports halls in the US, baseball is the only one that has an integrity component. If you want to launch a move to kick Ty Cobb out of the place, call me.
The Steroid Generation was a special case, wasn’t it? Each day, every day, a generation of cynical athletes woke up every morning, wiped the sleep from their eyes, and pondered, with deliberation and malice aforethought, how they were going to break the rules that day. It was premeditated, it was first degree, and it was arguably as bad for the game as gambling. When you roid up, you are attempting to alter the outcome of a contest. You are actively intending to fix the game.
I’m not going to go into a rant about the virtues of team sports and how they can mold character. But I am going to assert that character matters. Honesty matters. The integrity of the result of a sporting contest matters.
And at the risk of marking myself as some kind of archaic geezer yelling at the kids to get off my damned lawn, I’m going to say this: sportsmanship matters. It is important that we as individuals and as a society have values, and if you don’t believe that our sporting culture is an integral component of our society – as both cause and effect – you’re not paying attention.
Matt is a smart, thoughtful guy, and I wouldn’t attribute to him for even a second anything but the most honorable intentions. Truth is, there are a lot of people whom I admire that agree with him on this.
That’s great. But I want to be there someday when they have to explain to their children that it’s okay to cheat if others do it. It’s okay to break the rules if there’s money involved.
I understand how good people can be driven to such a position in a society as corrupt as ours, where the dirtier you are the better you do and where moral and ethical fiber is for punks. Trust me, I get that. I work in goddamn marketing, okay? I’ve had talks with myself where I confronted the ways in which my integrity was putting me at a competitive disadvantage. If I were willing to play the corporate game the way Barry Bonds played baseball odds are my life would be very different.
There are days where I want to cheat so badly I can barely stand it. But when all is said and done, I have to hold myself accountable to the values I think matter in life.
I can’t divorce athletics from society in general. And as such, I can’t accept that its okay to accept, let alone honor, our sporting heroes when they do things we’d punish our children for doing.