Baseball, Faith and Doubt

The New York Times

August 17, 2012

By Doug Glanville

It was impossible this week not to think about the incredible staying power of baseball.
There is something transformational about connecting with the game at the right time in your life — almost always in youth — when you learn to fully embrace its character and every potential: the patience and endurance required, the long season, the triumph, the forgiveness. When you fall in love with this game, there is no doubt.

When will the choices of a Cabrera, a McGwire or a Bonds come to represent the game itself?
Even as childhood fades, we still believe in what the game can impart. That youthful affection can be kept alive even in the face of a midlife crisis or bad news at the doctor’s office. Baseball  gave my sick father hope when he watched me play on television from his hospital room, the same hope he had when I hit my first Little League home run and he slipped me a $10 bill as a reward. Time stops for baseball.
And so the game seems to have an uncanny ability to endure through the great challenges the world brings to us — not just larger events like wars and struggles for racial equality, but internal wounds suffered by the game: from the Black Sox cheating scandal to the age of steroids.
Given all that, the game and its magic appear indestructible. It gives rise to a kind of faith. But even the most faithful at times experience doubt.
Melky Cabrera is no icon. And so his positive drug test and 50-day suspension from baseball this week isn’t the kind of news that evokes a head-shaking nod of recognition. Instead its the kind of news that forces us to accept that the culture of drugs touched all levels of our game, from the journeyman outfielder, to the megastar, to the 25th guy to make the team. It’s the kind of news that plants a seed a doubt, not only about Cabrera — or in another recent case, the 2011 National League M.V.P., Ryan Braun, whose positive test result was ruled invalid upon appeal — but about the essential nature of the game.
Cabrera was far from a household name going into this season. After being jettisoned by his first team, the New York Yankees, in 2009, he moved to Atlanta, then to Kansas City and finally, San Francisco, where this year, almost magically, it seemed no one could get him out.
His run continued right through the All-Star game where he was named the game’s M.V.P.  When Cabrera’s suspension was announced, it seemed almost absurd. Another M.V.P.? The M.V.P. of the All-Stars? Another bright star imploding.
As a player, I learned quickly that in every locker room I would call home, I was surrounded not by the superheros I envisioned populating  the locker rooms of my childhood’s favorite teams, but by people. We had our flaws; we were scared; we worried about longevity and our batting averages. But being thrust inside of this realm of imperfect humanity did not change my hope for the game, even as it shredded some of my ideals. As a professional, I had to mature and accept a dose of reality — injuries, slumps, being traded, being released, being marginalized — while still believing in what I remembered from my days of playing Wiffle Ball in front of my house.
Yet I can’t help but wonder if baseball has a finite currency of some kind. Can it expense its way into irrelevance? Does the resiliency ever wane? Is there some tipping point at which one too many players is accused of drug use, and it is not the player who is blamed, but the game?
I suppose it is a battle we face in most endeavors, where the perception of the individual threatens the collective, when the choices of a Cabrera, a McGwire or a Bonds come to represent the game itself.
This is why I never bought one of the arguments in support of Pete Rose regarding his ban from baseball and the Hall of Fame for gambling on the sport. In comparing him to some of the less admirable men who were in the Hall, the argument goes that gambling was less offensive than, say, Ty Cobb’s racism. But gambling destroys the game itself, to its core. People question if what they see is real because anyone and everyone could be on the take. Was that error intentional? Was that strike really a ball? Cobb reflected a culture of his times, one that through today’s lens, seems disturbing and unfortunate, even dangerous. But the game can shrug that off. Cobb was not baseball. His opinions and prejudices were his own and at times, aligned with those of his times. But gambling on the game is considerably bigger. It brings into question every play, every player and his ability to directly influence the game. It changes the game from pure competition to patronizing choreography. Once revealed, doubt becomes certainty.

Reasonable doubt is doubt that makes us believe that something could have happened to support the possibility of innocence. That’s how Ryan Braun was exonerated. But the true danger is in spiritual doubt. The kind of doubt that creates an existential threat to the game. The day when a critical mass of fans decides that the game is really an incubator of these problems, that it celebrated these transgressions, allowed and even supported them — on that day the game is irreversibly at fault. “Reasonable” becomes certain. That will be a day  that will change the game forever. Maybe even end it.
I would like to think that will not happen, that the game will remain bigger than any individual, that it can retain its aura of divinity and thrive through the very human acts of its participants. Maybe the  game can absorb Cabrera as it has done with a litany of marquee players before.
Still it is probably safe to say that no currency, no matter how magical, is infinite. Eventually, enough players, or a certain kind of player, could send the game downhill, brakeless and irretrievable. We could reach that point where one player’s choice is the final, and fatal, element of doubt that creeps into the game.
I hope we never get there.

Republished from The New York Times

Photo Credit: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images


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