The Home-Run Wars
3. Last Licks
"You can win or you can lose or it can rain." -- Casey Stengel
Pushing seventy, I still dream of centerfield and sing with John Fogarty, "Oh, put me in, Coach--I'm ready to play today."
Football is war for wide bodies; basketball is hip-hop for stretch bodies; but baseball is an elegant display of virtuosi. The philosopher/commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote that baseball was "not a territorial game; it is not about conquering; I do not send a team out to capture the other team's goal or ground. Baseball may not even be truly a team sport; it may really be a game an individual plays with a group."
Poor Bart died in 1989, his fifty-one-year-old heart attacked, some thought, by Pete Rose's threat to the integrity of the game. Rose, one of the best and most passionate ever to play, holder of the record for base-hits (4,256), had bet on his own games--although he lied about it for years. (Now, for $350 you can buy from Peterose.com a signed baseball on which, after your name, has been written, "I'm sorry I bet on baseball.")
Mickey, dying, asked forgiveness for his drinking and for being a lousy family man. (He also raised awareness of the importance of organ donations.) It's hard to believe that Barry will apologize for anything, even if there's money involved. Can you imagine a Bonds public service announcement warning youngsters off steroids, human growth hormone, and whatever else the clever chemists are cooking up for their millionaire clients?
It's probably too late--and in this "larger society" useless--to ban performance enhancements anyway.
But it is exactly the right time to ban the home run.
First of all, it would be righting an almost century-old wrong. Early in the twentieth century, the home run was considered a crude gesture devoid of true craft, when players thought about it at all. Remember, pre-Babe, the leading slugger of 1913, Frank "Home Run" Baker, led the American League with 12 homers.
The world changed. Baseball was ever less about strategy, smarts, and speed--who steals home anymore?--and somehow everyday life was no longer about persuasion, compromise, and trust; or international politics about debate, diplomacy, and détente.
By the time I became a fan in the 1940s, the Ballantine (beer) Blast or the White Owl (cigar) Wallop were already a major part of the game and a homer could suddenly turn the tide of a taut pitcher's battle, just as a mega-bomb could end a war. Duck and cover, this one is going, going, gone. What was the Cold War, if it wasn't about two powerhouse sluggers waving big bats that could clear the bases forever?
Will banning the home run lead to banning the bomb?
Maybe not, but it could save the game. If baseball is truly our national pastime, mirror, and harbinger, it could follow the nation down the drain if we don't do something. Waiting for baseball's current wave of Latin and Asian guest workers to keep the game alive for us seems like the same pathetic passivity we've been showing these last years to the lying, cheating, vicious antisocial attitudes of the present government.
A simple fix (for baseball anyway): Any ball hit out of the park is an out. Only the rare inside-the-park homer, typically a combination of speedy running and sloppy fielding, an example of very small ball, would still be a four-bagger.
This would probably not end the use of performance-enhancing drugs, which, despite the bad rap sluggers get, are mostly a pitchers' weapon anyway.
There are no slam-dunks, but if we could take life just one base at a time, wouldn't that be going deep in national pastime terms? By getting back to small ball, to planning and thinking, we might start finding pleasure in the process, not just the outcome, in incremental victories rather than staying useless courses waiting to be saved by one big bang.