The Home-Run Wars
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the St. Louis Cardinals are currently owned by Anheuser-Busch.
1. Power Comes from the Barrel of a Bat
"Chicks dig the long ball."--Nike commercial
Like its nation, the national pastime often turns to brute force in a crisis.
The 1919 World Series gambling fix that came to be known as the Black Sox Scandal shook America's belief in baseball, but Babe Ruth brought it back with the home run. The very next year, his first with the Yankees, he hit 54 homers. Until the Babe, fifteen or so dingers would usually lead the Major Leagues.
In saving the game, the Babe also transformed it, ditching the cunning tactics of "small ball"--the sacrifice bunt, the steal, the hit-and-run play--for a reliance on the big bang. In the Bambino, America found its prototype male athlete: the arrogant, self-absorbed rowdy whose excesses, commercial greed, and tunnel vision were justified by winning. The cock-jock has since become a business, entertainment, and political role model.
In the Bambino's home run, America found a thrilling symbol of American power--on the diamond and in the world. Boom! Hitting a home run became a synonym for having done the best job possible, for nailing the deal, or the case, or the diagnosis. As it happens, the home run should also have become the symbol for the quick fix that may not hold, the brass ring that diverts us from the pleasure of the process, the big club created to intimidate opponents into submission that so often turns them into resentful insurgents.
The 1994 Major League players' strike led to the cancellation of the World Series. Again, as in 1919, fears arose that fans had lost faith in the game, and again the home run brought them back. The 1998 Summer of Swat featured the collegial rivalry of St. Louis' Mark McGwire and Chicago's Sammy Sosa, ending in a seasonal home-run record of 70. Roger Maris' 61 and the Babe's 60 were left in the dust, but this, too, came at a cost; it became obvious that baseball players, like football players and Olympic athletes, were going for the big bang by enhancing their performance with steroids.
That summer also made Barry Bonds angry and sad. Arguably the best all-around player in the game, on track for the Hall of Fame, Bonds at 34 was having a terrific thirteenth season for the San Francisco Giants. All-star, Golden Glove, he hit .303 with 37 homers and 28 stolen bases. Yet no one seemed to be paying attention. McGwire's booming homers filled the air.
One can imagine Bonds fuming at this white meatball, this freckled phony, who surely was on steroids. (Actually, McGwire's use of the over-the-counter nutritional supplement Andro, which can act like a steroid and was banned in other sports, was no secret in 1998, although the story was not vigorously pursued.) Why wouldn't the prideful Bonds decide to take steroids--those weapons of mass construction--and also start hitting monster home runs without end?
Jump a decade. In this mean season for the nation and its pastime, the home run itself is at the core of the crisis. Sometime soon, Bonds will hit the 756th home run of his major league career, surpassing the record set by Hank Aaron, a decent, low-key, dependable star most fans never cared much about until, in 1973, he began approaching the Babe's iconic, never-to-be-broken record of 714 homers. As a youngster, Aaron had been inspired by Jackie Robinson and he swept past his contemporary, the golden Mickey Mantle, the consensus Chosen One to beat the Babe, who retired after the 1968 season with 536 homers.