EIGHT MEN OUT and the Game I Used to Love

July 1, 2009

We watched John Sayles’ movie Eight Men Out last night.  Netflix, of course.  It’s an old movie.  It came out in 1988, right around the same time as Field of Dreams, when  hollywood seemed to be in the midst of a mini-obsession with the Shoeless Joe Jackson story.  Hollywood does this — remember when Tombstone and Wyatt Earp came out within months of each other, after we’d gone years without seeing a movie about Earp?  But I digress….

For those of you who don’t know, Eight Men Out tells the story of the Black Sox scandal of 1919.  Seven players on the American League champion Chicago White Sox — including pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams, position players Happy Felsch, Chick Gandil, Swede Risberg, Fred McMullen, and Jackson, who was one of the game’s greatest stars —  conspired with a group of gamblers to throw the series to the Cincinnati Reds.  The Sox were the overwhelming favorites going into the series, and the conspirators believed that they could make a killing by betting on the Reds and letting them win.  Some of the players were more enthusiastic participants than others.  Jackson always claimed that he went along for the money but did nothing to help the Reds win any games.  Sayles film portrays him as naive, uneducated, and very much a victim of his manipulative, smarter teammates.  An eighth player, Buck Weaver, knew of the conspiracy but took no money and played to win throughout the series.  Sayles portrays him as a victim of his teammates’ malfeasance as well.  All eight players were charged and put on trial, and all of them were eventually acquitted.

By this time, however, baseball’s owners had hired the sport’s first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who vowed to clean up major league baseball.  Landis chose to make an example of the eight Black Sox players and banned all of them from the game for the rest of their lives.  The ban was the only thing that kept Jackson from being elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.

It was a good movie — not great, but good.  And I’ve been thinking about it all morning.  I’m a huge baseball fan.  Or at least I used to be.  The recent revelations about widespread steroid use among some of the games biggest stars have shaken my faith in the game.  Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez — all have admitted using steroids or have been implicated so convincingly that their continued denials have become meaningless.  Other players are known to have used performance enhancing drugs, and several of them have been suspended temporarily.

And yet, over the past 50 years, only one player in Major League Baseball has faced a lifetime ban from the game like the one given to the eight Black Sox conspirators.  That one is Pete Rose, who didn’t use steroids, but did, it seems, bet on baseball games in clear violation of the league’s rules on gambling.  Rose’s ban was handed down by then-commissioner Bart Giamatti, but it was almost as if the ghost of Mountain Landis was hovering over the game.  Baseball has a thing about gambling that can be traced directly back to 1919, and Rose’s ban reflected that.  Now don’t get me wrong:  I’m not defending Pete Rose.  I’m not even suggesting that Rose’s ban should be lifted (although I think that a case could be made for this).  The truth is, never liked Pete Rose.  I always thought that if baseball hadn’t existed he would have spent his life as a small-time thug.

But just as the men who ran baseball in 1919 turned a blind eye toward the corruptive influence of gambling on the game until Landis forced them to face the problem and deal with it, today’s owners and the media outlets that account for much of their revenue, have ignored the steroid problem.  In 1998, when McGwire and Sosa staged their epic joint assault on Roger Maris’s single season home run record, baseball was still reeling from the 1994 strike that nearly destroyed the sport.  Never mind that McGwire’s arms looked like something out of a Popeye cartoon.  Never mind that Sosa had transformed himself from a skinny little kid who could run fast into the most consistently prolific home run hitter the sport had ever seen.  It was all good!  The balls were flying out of the park and the sport was popular again.

I was always a small kid, and I’m a small grown-up.  One of the things I loved about baseball was that there was a place in the game for guys like me.  Unlike football or basketball, which demanded that its stars be huge, baseball could be played and won by smaller players.  Sure, everyone loved Babe Ruth.  But if a guy could bunt and steal a base and slap a key hit to the opposite field, he could win ball games for his team.  The game that I see on TV today isn’t like that, at least not the way it used to be.  Everyone is expected to hit home runs.  And everyone does.  Which means that everyone is suspect.  Look at a major league roster these days and you’ll see guys with Popeye forearms playing every position.  Are all of them juicing?  I want to say no, of course not.  But in all honesty, I don’t know.  When the penalty for using steroids is a fifty game suspension that still leaves intact two-thirds of a multi-million dollar annual contract, it’s hard to see why players wouldn’t juice.  The downside risk is minimal; the upside earning potential is staggering.

But a lifetime ban would balance that equation.  Alex Rodriguez is a great player.  So was Barry Bonds.  Their accomplishments on the field, however, have been forever compromised by the fact that they cheated.  Playing baseball at the major league level is not a right, it’s a privilege.  If placing a bet on a baseball game is cause to strip a player of that privilege, isn’t using steroids?  If Joe Jackson and his fellow conspirators are considered cheaters because they influenced the outcome of games by not trying hard enough, shouldn’t Manny Ramirez be considered a cheater for influencing the outcome of games by making himself into a juiced-up physical freak?  Isn’t it possible that baseball needs to be saved again, even if it means barring from the game some of its greatest stars?

I used to love baseball, but the game lost me when it decided to tolerate lies for the sake of television revenue.  If baseball can lose me, it can lose any and every fan.  I loved it that much.  The only way to get me back is for its leaders to say, “Enough!  If you cheat, you leave, never to return.”  The fact that this hasn’t happened yet tells me that the steroid problem is so big, baseball’s owners and commissioner can’t afford to take such a stand.  There’d be no one left.

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