The Home-Run Wars | The Nation


The Home-Run Wars

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Editors Note: This story originally appeared on TomDispatch.

2. The Heart of the Order

About the Author

Robert Lipsyte
Robert Lipsyte, a former sports and city columnist for the New York Times, is Jock Culture correspondent for...

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Joe Hill, Joe Pa, Tebow and Wee Brains.

Jock Culture is a distortion of sports.

"All boys love baseball. If they don't they're not real boys."    -- Zane Grey

Mickey Mantle arrived in the springtime of the American Dream, 1951, and the way he wrapped those miner's hands around a bat seemed to confirm that everything was possible and power was the answer. A golden teenager from our Golden West, he was shy, polite, grateful. A poor boy with a dying father named Mutt, he had a sunny look to him.

Twenty-four years ago, I asked him why he thought that some grown men cried when he entered a room. He pretended to think about that before saying, "Maybe my fly was open. Or I had a booger hanging from my nose." When I didn't smile back, he said, "Let's have another drink, Bob."

Barry Bonds arrived in a darker time, 1986, the year that the space shuttle Challenger, the Soviet nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, and Ronald Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal all blew up--a time when we weren't so sure of anything anymore. Barry was born of baseball royalty: Bobby, his father, was an all-star; Reggie Jackson, his cousin, a future Hall of Famer; and Willie Mays, his godfather, was considered a god. Each of them could be difficult, although Barry beat them all for his low fever of surliness relieved by sudden flares of anger.

A dozen years ago, on a story about a San Francisco Giant campaign to raise money for pediatric AIDS that every other player on the club seemed to want to talk to me about, Barry just kept walking away or turning his back. When I appealed to his father, then a coach, Bobby gave me a sheepish grin. "That's Barry. He always gave me a hard time, too."

Mickey and Barry never played against each other (although young Barry described Mickey as a hero of his), but as athletes, personalities, symbols, and lightning rods for our emotions, they remain linked in this year of crisis, the official good and evil poles of our defining sport. Bonds, of course, is being attacked for cheating, for defiling the game with his "steroid use." (More probably, experts guess, he was taking human growth hormone and drug cocktails mixed just for him.) Commentators claiming to represent mainstream white fans tend to suggest--or at least imply--that he is the ultimate symbol of the ungrateful black thugs taking over our games.

On the other hand, Mantle, dead these twelve years, is being vociferously defended against Golenbock's, 7, which illuminates his slobbish, selfish, insecure, and (ultimately) endearingly wicked ways. The commentators, enraged at Bonds, are no less enraged that anyone dare besmirch the fading glow of the last white hero. The coincidence of the home-run record and the irreverent book in the same year seems to be ratcheting up the terms of enragement.

It was possible to feel pity for Mickey, even while wishing you were him, or friends with him, or sleeping with him. His bad legs and his intimations of mortality--most males in his family had been cut down by cancer before they reached 40--gave him that romantic aura of the doomed, even as he exploded from both sides of the plate, made impossible catches in centerfield, and dared to steal on his bad wheels. His vulnerability invited warm feelings. Although he could be famously brusque with sportswriters and fans, we came to understand that he (unlike Barry, of course) needed to medicate himself with booze and women; he was playing in pain.

For Bonds, from the start it was hard to feel anything but a distant awe. He regularly treated not just fans but sportswriters--the very people whose job it was to make him iconic--with vicious contempt. Far more telling was his locker-room persona. He was aloof, and when he tried to be one of the boys, he was awkward. He demanded special privileges. He did not share his knowledge of the game. Teammates hated him.

In his fascinating biography of Bonds, Love Me, Hate Me, Jeff Pearlman --who claims 524 interviews, although his central character typically refused to talk to him--tells how Barry's college teammates at Arizona State, given the chance, voted their star off the team. The coach vetoed the vote, a lesson for all. On his first major league team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, disgust with his attitude boiled into at least one clubhouse fist fight. While his current San Francisco teammates seem to resent his disregard for the team, they do appreciate the money and success he's brought the club.

Mantle's teammates loved him. He often said he wanted to be remembered as a good teammate and he was that, funny and generous. Jim Bouton, the twenty-game winning pitcher who wrote Ball Four, the acclaimed baseball memoir, has never forgotten the way Mantle laid a carpet of towels across the clubhouse to Bouton's locker to celebrate the rookie's first victory.

It's poignant that Mickey and Barry, handsome, rich, extravagantly talented, should both have been so unhappy. Both had Dad issues; Mutt Mantle was a hard-driving baseball father and Bobby Bonds' alcoholism was a major complicating factor in his career and his family life. Mantle claims to have been shy and sometimes acted it. Bonds threw up a belligerent defensive shell.

Neither had long-term happy relationships with women. Mantle seemed to have been pushed into marriage with a hometown girl on whom he cheated all his life. Bonds has had two marriages, both to women who worked in strip clubs, and cheated on them all his life. I look forward to the shrinks taking their innings. Is there any case to be made that Bonds' narrow genius for the game and his social dysfunction could be symptomatic of a mental illness, such as Asperger's Disease or some other form of higher-functioning autism? I have no expertise here, but I wonder why we can't cut him some slack, at the least consider the possibility that he was taking the wrong meds?

Despite the evidence reported in Game of Shadows, the best-selling investigatory book by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, Bonds has yet to be charged with a crime. Our assumption that he has taken drugs is based on watching him change over ten years from a speedy whippet into a pumpkin-headed hulk while his performance improved unnaturally; in baseball, few people get so much better as they grow older.

It's instructive to compare Barry and the Mick statistically:

In his rookie year in 1951, Mantle, at 19, hit 13 homers. In his last year, 1968, at 37, he hit 18. The arc of those 18 seasons looks natural. From 1955 through 1964 (ages 24 through 33), he had his peak seasons, consistently batting over .300 and slugging a median 35 homers. (In 1961, the year Roger Maris broke the Babe's record with 61 homers, Mickey hit his personal best, 54.)

As a 21-year-old rookie in 1986, Bonds batted .223 and hit 16 homers. This season, at 42, he has been leading the National League in homers. His numbers surged at the age of 35, when he hit 49, then his personal best, with a .306 average, itself better than most previous years. In 2001, however, he set the season record with 73 homers (batting .328) and, for the next three seasons, his homer production would average 45, while he would bat around .350, both highly age inappropriate. Even more astounding, his homers were often traveling farther than they did in his late twenties, the normal time of a hitter's peak power. These aren't the numbers of a superstar in twilight; they are the numbers of a man who has found the Fountain of Swat.

Of course, Barry could not have done it on drugs alone. He worked harder than anyone else, exercising and weight-lifting obsessively, studying and practicing his craft, generally avoiding alcohol, which has ruined so many big-league careers. Because a river of beer floats important sponsors, owners, and ballpark concessions, baseball has not taken a hard line on hard drinking. This season, manager Tony La Russa was arrested for driving under the influence, while pitcher Josh Hancock drove drunk into a tow truck and died. Both were members of last year's World Series' champions, the St. Louis Cardinals, formerly owned by Anheuser-Busch. Beer has just been banned from their clubhouse.

Mantle's heavy drinking--he often came to the ballpark drunk or hung-over--was no secret. The beat writers protected him. After all, losing access to Mantle and his teammates for one or two true stories could wreck a career. Even now, in these more contentious times, sportswriters generally want to write positive stories; they are fans, too.

Golenbock has written several bestsellers about the Yankees, including Dynasty, The Bronx Zoo, and Wild, High and Tight, a Billy Martin biography. He was trying to shape a careers-worth of Mantle anecdotes into a biography when--disclosure--I suggested that it might make a delicious novel. The result: A quirky Mantle monologue from heaven as he tries to convince Leonard Shecter, a real-life sportswriter (who did not like him) to help him with a memoir.

7 is as heartfelt a valentine to baseball as Ball Four ever was. Horrified critics have homed in on a scene in which Mantle has sex with his female counterpart, Marilyn Monroe. It is cheesy in its way, although Golenbock claims that Billy Martin, Mantle's former Yankee drinking buddy and later the club's manager, told him it really happened. In any case, it's a true fan's note: Monroe's abusive husband, the great DiMaggio, was never welcoming to the rookie Mantle when they shared the outfield and, by waiting too long to call for a fly ball, caused the injury that plagued the Mick throughout his career.

I don't know whether the outrage over the novel stems from playing fast and loose with the legend, even though Mantle's drinking and screwing has been reported elsewhere, or from the play-by-play; Marilyn was bored by the Mick's performance.

The fact is this: Mantle did not give the game--and us--his best, yet he has become emblematic of our baseball dreams. Bonds, who has relentlessly tried to be the best, with or without chemicals, has been demonized for his refusal to charm us, to recognize our fandom.

Someday, in the coming apocalypse, when the home-run derbies are finally at an end, the Centerfielder who died for our sins will have to be acknowledged as all too human while the Dark Angel will have to be granted, however begrudgingly, his rightful place by the throne of Our Babe.

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