The Home-Run Wars
No wonder, then, that Mantle has reappeared this homer season--in a controversy yet. Hallmarked by a generation of fans led by Bob Costas and Billy Crystal, Mantle is often remembered as the face of all that was once right with baseball and America. This season brings a novel, 7: The Mickey Mantle Novel, described by its author, Peter Golenbock, as "an inventive memoir." Dictating from heaven, Mantle talks about homers and sex acts with equal relish. The book was cancelled by HarperCollins in the wake of the firing of controversial publisher Judith Regan, and recently put out by The Lyons Press. Mainstream commentators seem as outraged by the novel (which, the publishing blog Galleycat points out, would have been merely dismissed as "experimental" had it been about Jesus) as they are about Bonds' assault on Aaron's record.
Aaron, who received many racially-motivated death threats as he approached the Babe's 714, has said that he will not be in attendance when Bonds breaks his. Commentators wonder if Commissioner of Major League Baseball Bud Selig will be there. (In 1974, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn did not show up for Aaron's big hit.)
The depth of this "crisis" was first signaled several years ago when baseball commentators floated the idea that it might be in the best interests of the game if Bonds suffered a career-ending injury before he got near the 756 mark. They also began suggesting that Aaron's home-run record was not nearly as historically or athletically significant as Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak of 1941.
Devalue the idea of muscling our way to the top? Was this wordplay or power play? What did George Tenet know when he called the case for Saddam's WMDs a "slam dunk" instead of a you-know-what?
Baseball is in trouble. Its best and brightest seem to be flaky Shreks (Manny Ramirez), tortured matinee idols (Alex Rodriquez), or hard-case samurais (Roger Clemens). The attempt to drum up interest in the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's heroic integration of the game fell flat; at 8.4 percent of players, African-American numbers are the lowest in decades (and the percentages of blacks among young amateur players and fans have been falling as well). People complain that the game is too slow, too long, too cerebral; that television doesn't do it justice; and that ball-park attendance is expensive and often made unpleasant by drunken fans and endless commercials on raucous scoreboards.
More important, the media's incessant stories about illegal steroids and inflated salaries have created a climate of inconvenient truths in a place that was supposed to be a hallowed sanctuary from all that was truthfully inconvenient about our everyday lives. What's the big deal? We don't complain about Johnny Depp's income any more than we once complained about Arnold Schwarzenegger's pumped-up muscles. So why begrudge A-Rod and Barry? But then wouldn't baseball morph from the national pastime into but another entertainment in a world crowded with them?
Baseball apologists tend to dismiss bad behavior as just a reflection of the larger society. How can you truly blame athletes for trying to be better in a performance enhancing culture of Viagra for randy seniors, Ritalin for high school students, and beta blockers for musicians and inspirational speakers? Yet baseball, they also claim, is more than a reflection of the larger society. It's a special world all its own, worthy of anti-trust waivers, tax breaks, and a place in our collective hearts.
No wonder, in this confusion of motion and emotion, many fans cherish their memories of Mickey Mantle and wish Barry Bonds would break a leg.