Baseball’s ‘Me’ Decade Comes to a Close

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The New York Sun

As Barry Bonds has limped impotently toward passing Babe Ruth for second place on the all-time home run list, the only real surprise has been how little anyone has cared. His road appearances aren’t even selling out ballparks – two Giants games in Milwaukee last week saw a combined attendance of 36,000, less than the Brewers draw against the Cubs in the middle of August. 715 is proving to be just as anticlimactic a number as 71 was.

While this indifference isn’t inherently interesting, the various explanations on offer are. There’s Bonds himself, of course, who’s now paying the price for two decades’ worth of colossal jackassery. The public’s apathy has also been variously blamed on steroids and home run fatigue, racism, a cynical and voracious press, and other factors that all certainly play their role. All these explanations, though, say less about the game than about our tendency to assign the bugaboos of the day responsibility for anything unusual at all. Is there anything in baseball that someone wouldn’t claim was caused by arrogance, steroids, racism, or the horrible hacks who write for the daily papers?

My own theory – and a theory is all it is – is that Pete Rose and Cal Ripken, Jr. are to blame. After all, neither Bonds nor Mark McGwire nor Sammy Sosa invented the modern record chase, with its gaudy pomp and circumstance, solemn reflections on the nature of immortality, pious invocations of the spirits of past greats, and such not. That’s down to Rose and Ripken. It’s ironic that these two players, who in their day were held up as exemplifying everything good and noble about baseball, did so much damage to the mystique and sanctity of the record books, far more than Bonds ever could. But so they did.

Rose’s chase after Ty Cobb’s all-time hits record was one of the most fraudulent and selfish things to happen on a baseball field. Whatever one thinks of Bonds, Rose was far worse for baseball. Bonds has at least pursued his various records within the context of trying to win ballgames and the pennant, where as Rose played half a decade past the point where he even had any business in uniform just to run a number up next to his name. His slugging averages in the last five years of his career were .338, .286, .337, .319, and .270 – and he was playing first base. For contending teams. And for much of that time he was the manager, penciling himself into the lineup ahead of younger, better players.

This kind of thing was pretty much unprecedented in baseball. There’s a big difference between Early Wynn hanging on for a year as a middle reliever to get his 300th win and Pete Rose hanging on for five as a starter so as to pass Ty Cobb. At the time, the hits record was celebrated as a great achievement, but its insanity – the way Rose put himself above the game by seeking to set a record at great cost to his teams – diminished every kind of record chase.

Just as the fundamental illegitimacy of Rose’s record corrupted the hallowed and inviolable record book, so did Ripken’s. Unlike Rose, Ripken didn’t gamble on games or end anyone’s career by playing aggressively out of control, but like him he put himself above the game in pursuit of a number.

Up to age 30, Ripken was an incredible ballplayer, along the lines of a Miguel Tejada with a much better glove. Afterward, he was just a solid regular whose best attribute, by far, was his durability. Might the Orioles have been better off if Ripken had just taken a day off now and again throughout his career, keeping his game at a higher level deeper into his career? Almost certainly, but the chase after Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games record took on its own momentum and became more important than things like victories and pennants.

Even more so – and this is not Ripken’s fault – his chase after the record occasioned the first really large-scale modern celebration of a new record. The sanctimonious braying about Ripken’s unique manliness; the paeans to our lost virtue and the noble simplicity of earlier times, when black players weren’t allowed in the majors and ballplayers were indentured to owners; the diabetes-inducing music right out of a corny Hollywood spectacle; the fireworks; the half-hour standing ovations; the teary salutes from Bill Clinton. It was a fetid and phony brew, and when it was swilled out again in the wake of McGwire setting his home run record, people rightly wanted no more.

So Bonds set a new single-season home run record and everyone shrugged, Rickey Henderson set a new record for runs scored (that came as a byproduct of honest play, it’s worth noting) in obscurity, and Ichiro Suzuki broke the single-season hits record to a nationwide yawn – entirely understandable reactions all.

Baseball is just not a pretentious enough sport to expect anyone to willingly endure listening to the theme from “The Natural” while watching Bud Selig adjust his hairpiece in preparation for a stuttering speech under the glow of fireworks. They’ve tried it, and discovered it’s not so fun. Bonds will pass Ruth, no one will really care, and the world will continue to spin on its axis while fans flood the parks to watch the Yankees play the Red Sox and the White Sox play the Indians. It’s a great game when no one player gets in the way.

The New York Sun

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