Bill Totten's Weblog

Sunday, April 13, 2008


by Lewis H Lapham

Harper's Magazine Notebook (March 2008)

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville - mighty Casey has struck out.
-- Ernest Lawrence Thayer

It's been three months since former Senator George Mitchell published his 409-page report confirming the use of illegal drugs by many if not most of the players in Major League Baseball, and we've yet to come to the end of being told sad stories of the death of kings. Somewhere the bands are playing for the season's presidential candidates, and in Florida the sun presumably is shining bright, but in the stadium press boxes the hearts are heavy and no birds sing. The makers of tabloid romance paste asterisks into the record books, rule the noble Clemens and the mighty Bonds ineligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame, declare the national pastime corrupted, the hallowed ground despoiled. Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the elected keepers of America's moral accounts entertain the prospect of stricter laws and harsher punishment, baseball players to be put on the endangered-species list, subjected to more rigorous inspections of their blood, their urine, and their souls.

The judgments are un-American and behind the times, the anguish unwarranted and overwrought. What else is the American dream if not the theory and practice of self-invention? How otherwise define the American way of life if not as a ceaseless effort to boost performance, hype the message, enhance the product? Deny an aging outfielder the right to inject himself with human-growth hormone, and what does one say to the elderly philanthropist who steps out of an evening with a penile implant and a flower in his lapel? To the lady in distress shopping around for a nose like the one she saw advertised in a painting by Botticelli? To the distracted child restored to his study of the multiplication tables with a therapeutic jolt of Ritalin? To the stationary herds of industrial-strength cows so heavily doped with bovine-growth hormone that they require massive infusions of antibiotic to survive the otherwise lethal atmospheres of their breeding pens?

In one of the New York newspapers toward the end of December, I came across a letter to the editor from a reader henceforth unwilling to let his young sons participate in competitive sports for fear of exposing them to an environment polluted with unnatural additives. I admired the parent's resolve but wondered where in the society he could find it safe to take the kids. Not to a nearby hospital, or to a local supermarket stocked with chemically preserved applesauce and genetically modified chicken potpie; not to the neighborhood Cineplex presenting computer animations programmed to act like movie stars and movie stars made up to look like robots; not into an Internet chat room frequented by jaded algorithms and naked avatars.

The voices of Christian conscience in our midst still like to draw a medieval distinction between what is "natural" (the good, the true, and the beautiful) and what is "artificial" (wicked, man-made, false). The distinction no longer exists. For better or worse, in one way or another, and to a greater or lesser extent, the whole of our environment - skyscrapers, highways, emotions, orchards, oil wells, terrorists, icebergs, tomatoes organic and inorganic, aquatic plants and Jason Bourne, pigeons, dogs, the smog in Brentwood, and the mountain dew in Colorado - is a virtual reality, fabricated by the hand and mind of man. We shape our tools, and our tools shape us. It's a fair and free exchange, our technology a process of evolution by accelerated means, machines reconfiguring their capacities and states of consciousness in ways comparable to those by which dinosaurs become birds and apes change into Mormon choirs. Vice President Dick Cheney's electronic heartbeat is born in Mudville together with YouTube, the Golden Gate Bridge, and Richard Wagner's Parsifal. The road forward to a better tomorrow is no farther away than the next generation of microchips or the nearest all-night pharmacy.

I don't mean to take anything away from the consolations of philosophy or the joys of motherhood, but how else is Heaven made if not with artificial sweeteners - with the elixir of Cialis and the embalming fluids of celebrity? Given the society's order of merit and measure of value, the hope of salvation is a transformed self somehow worth its weight in gold. Consider the revelation in the desert vouchsafed to the minor-league third baseman, age twenty-two, traveling on a monthly pittance to Texas or Alabama towns so poor or so closely monitored by Jesus that the motels don't sell hard liquor or provide the courtesy of an adult film channel. The young man knows that if in this or next year's season he can hit another fifteen or twenty home runs, lift his batting average by thirty or forty percentage points, his pay maybe will rise to $1 million a year, his travel upgraded to first-class accommodation at an altitude of 30,000 feet, his name and shoe size the stuff of legend among the girls at Scores. A variant promise of redemption appears as if in a burning bush to a thirty-four-year-old relief pitcher who knows that if he can keep his curve ball breaking across the corners of the plate, he stays for another two or three seasons in the big money, long enough to make good his mortgages on the property in Puerto Rico and maybe find himself transported into a broadcasting booth at NBC or ESPN.

Where is the dilemma? How not choose the sportsman's path to glory? The Mitchell report framed the questions on a losing premise - "The players who follow the law and the rules are faced with the painful choice of either being placed at a competitive disadvantage or becoming illegal users themselves. No one should have to make that choice." Why not? Was not that the choice stoutly made by the builders of America's railroads, by the Minutemen at Concord and General William T Sherman marching from Atlanta to the sea? Our television commercials speak of little else except the gaining of a competitive advantage - cell phones equipped with applications as omnipotent as were those available to Zeus on Mount Olympus, headphones piping Mozart symphonies into the ears of six-month-old infants already enrolled on the waiting list for Harvard.

That steroids bring with them an element of risk is a fact that must be faced. What true American would want it any other way? Too easily we forget Marine Corps Sergeant Dan Daly at the Battle of Belleau Wood, leading his men into a storm of German machine-gun bullets with the heroic cry, "Come on, you sons of bitches - do you want to live forever?" How often do we hear the phrase "visionary risk-taking" in the speeches of our A-list business leaders (to explain, among other things, the brief but brilliant blowing of the subprime-mortgage bubble), read the message emblazoned on the pages of The Wall Street Journal, see it shining in the moonlight over Las Vegas?

The bull market for prescription drugs amounts to the sum of $249.3 billion a year; add to it the money spent on illegal drugs (at least another $63 billion), as well as the capital lost on state lotteries and legal gambling ($85 billion), and we find a strong majority of our fellow citizens bent on the quest for immortality. Visionary risk-takers one and all, willing to take their chances with a surgeon's knife, to buy a mansion in Arizona with non-existent credit, bet the marriage on the jack of diamonds, dance to the music of Ecstasy. How does one say to such people that the game isn't worth the candle, or that the candle can't be burned at both ends?

As with most other questions of interest to the society, the answers follow the money, and when carried with the bats and balls into the locker rooms of Major League Baseball, they move up in grade from the temporal to the spiritual. The product is entertainment, but the brand is the democratic ideal made flesh, Adam at play in the fields of the Lord before partaking of the contract with Steinbrenner, the belief that America in 2008 is somehow just the way it was in Chicago in 1907, when the Cubs were tossing the baseball around the diamond from Tinkers to Evers to Chance. The performance-enhanced memory sells tickets and souvenirs; as with most other forms of modern poetry, it needs a little help from its friends. Exceptional talent is as rare among ballplayers as it is among bond traders and politicians, and if the sandlots don't grow Rousseau's noble savages in an abundance sufficient to seed and staff the myth of America's idyllic boyhood, what happens to the gate receipts?

The chance of rain in the forecast threatened to delay or call the game during the early 1990s, when Major League Baseball was extending its franchise to twenty-eight teams eager to build luxury skyboxes overlooking the fields of dreams. To cover the spread between the expectations of the newly enfranchised fans and the shortage of number 2, 3, 4, and 5 hitters up to the standard of the immortal Babe Ruth, the owners narrowed the strike zones, shortened the distance to the outfield fences, sent scouts to tap the gene pools in South Korea and Japan. The players made chemical adjustments.

The Mitchell report notes the exemplary degree of cooperation between management and labor ("Everyone involved in baseball over the past two decades ... shares to some extent in the responsibility for the steroids era ..."), but instead of giving credit where credit is due, the former senator from Maine downgrades the sure-footed teamwork into "a collective failure", observes that the commissioners, the club officials, and the Players Association somehow failed "to recognize the problem as it emerged and to deal with it early on". The suggestion is insulting. Nobody was quicker to recognize the problem than the owners in need of crowd-pleasing spectacle to sell at increasingly spectacular prices; nor were the players slow to grasp the fact that a ninety-five-mile-an-hour fastball, no matter what its immigrant status, is always a well-paid wonder to behold. Together they brought joy to Mudville, and with it the sound of music and the sale of caps. Together they kept pace with the broad technological advance occurring elsewhere in the society - with the computer-generated trades breeding money in the credit markets, with the miracles of modern medicine being implanted in the bodies of widows and orphans as well as in the throats of New York real estate tycoons and the hearts of Arab oil sheikhs. That Major League Baseball continued to score game-winning profits despite the fears and suspicions noted in the margins of the official program (more players seen to resemble inflatable beach toys, mandatory and more frequent searches of antisocial urinary tracts, more pain-killing balms and ointments added to the roster of illegal contraband) testifies, as did Karl Rove's marketing of President George W Bush, to the patriotism of the nation's sportswriters and the resilience of the American spirit.

The new season's presidential candidates speak of breaking old barriers and crossing new frontiers, of riding boldly into the future on the eagle wings of change. Let the proprietors of Major League Baseball do likewise. They say they wish to "level the playing field", to bring to a close a "troubling chapter" in the history of the game, above all else to "move on". The fulfillment of their desire lies as close to hand as a note from the friendly team physician. Supply the locker rooms, free of charge and in every color of the rainbow, with the best and brightest that the pharmaceutical industry has on offer, with or without prescription, performance-enhancing, and recreational. The competitive disadvantage disappears, the level playing field regains its egalitarian state of grace. Spread the good news to the paid attendance - Lucy in the sky with diamonds sold with the beer and hot dogs at prices referred to Medicaid - and great would be the joy in Mudville.

To mighty Casey at the plate the ball looks as big as a grapefruit; infielders rigged with silicon circuits in their heads turn double plays at broadband speed; the game might last for three days, running up bonus points for extra innings and providing its fans with the benefits of an extended stay in paradise.

All present in the stadium come fortified with self-improvements both chemical and surgical, fit for service aboard the Starship Enterprise. To the children suffering attention deficit disorder in the distant bleachers, the foul lines become as plainly visible as the replays on the Jumbo Tron; the senior statesmen in the stands, growing hair as strong as Donald Trump's, unafraid of heart failure and immune to the risk of erectile dysfunction, bask contentedly in the glow of usherettes copied from designs in Playboy. Rich in equal opportunity and re-engineered with biofuels, the national pastime recovers its footing as America's foremost source of independent energy and strength, once again embodies, in reconstructed bone and re-integrated marrow, the ever-evolving truth of America's immortal dream.

Lewis H Lapham is the National Correspondent for Harper's Magazine and the editor of Lapham's Quarterly.

Bill Totten


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