The Sammy Sosa bat-corking scandal really makes you feel for Roger Maris, who was saddled with an asterisk for breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record honestly, but over a few more games. No doubt in today’s athletic culture of entitlement, the suggestion of an asterisk for Sammy would be met with outrage; already, the idea of suspending him for the mere offense of cheating has met with cries of racism. Sosa’s explanation is that he only used corked bats for batting practice so that he could hit more home runs to entertain the fans. He didn’t use them for games, he claims, until last week, when he picked up his “show bat” by accident.
While the inspection of Sosa’s 76 bats seemed to support his claim, one central question remains unanswered: Why would a man who has managed to hit 500 home runs off the likes of Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson need extra help to hit home runs off old pitching coaches who are lobbing the ball over the plate? Sosa says it’s because this way he could hit the ball even farther for the fan’s delight. As his old teammate Mark Grace scoffed, “I guess he wanted to hit the ball 550 feet instead of 500.”
Sosa’s 76 clean bats, and his clean bats in the Hall of Fame, hardly exonerate him. Only an exceptionally dimwitted player would have cork in more than one or two of his bats at a time. No one will ever know how many of his home runs were hit with a doctored instrument. Likewise, no one will ever know how many home runs would have been hit in baseball over the last 10 years if the game hadn’t become a diamond version of Muscle Beach. But that is what the game has become, and one need look no further than Sosa’s alibi to find an explanation for how we got here.
Sosa wanted to “put on a show for the fans,” which sounds harmless enough. But when sports puts show over competition, it becomes suspect. In the early part of the 20th century, when professional sports were just getting started, moralists opposed commercialization on several grounds. One of their criticisms was that allowing spectators to watch an event demeaned and compromised honest athletic competition. This point of view sounds quaint and outdated to our ears. The moralists were solely concerned with the competition, and didn’t give a hoot about entertainment. But less than 100 years later, we’ve gone to the other extreme: we are much more concerned with entertainment than competition. Sosa’s manager in Chicago, the usually admirable Dusty Baker, expressed the new viewpoint well last weekend, when the New York Yankees came into Chicago for a high-profile series against Sosa’s Cubs.
“I think the world would be disappointed if he couldn’t play this weekend,” Baker said of Sosa. “Go talk to ESPN and Fox and ask if they want Sammy to play.” Sosa did not miss the series.
Over the last few decades, as popular culture’s taste for spectacle increased, professional sports has worked to provide a limitless supply of stimulation and adrenaline for its audience. Baseball lagged behind its more kinetic rivals, football and basketball, which offered more fast-paced action as well as the emotional context for egomaniacal posturing. Baseball struggled to follow along, with its measured (some would say slow) pace and its inability to accommodate emotion into the rhythm of its action. How could the old game compete with slam dunk contests, ferocious hits, sack dances over fallen quarterbacks, and Michael Jordan’s tongue? How to remain relevant in the sports world that Muhammad Ali created –one in which the sideshow is every bit as important as the main event?
The natural solution was the home run, which had saved the game before with the arrival of Babe Ruth. The home run is the best weapon baseball has to stave off irrelevance in the new sports climate of constant sensation. Sure, people might get excited by a great catch in the outfield or a slam-bang play at home, but these moments depend on the right circumstances in a game, and who can be bothered to wait? The home run can happen at any time. In the 1990s, the home run began to happen all the time.
With the home run explosion, baseball’s popularity revived after its suicidal players’ strike in 1994. Baseball players began to more closely resemble football players. They did their best to add what limited elements of narcissism their game could assimilate. The home run hitter’s perp walk, for example, when he tosses his bat aside in disdain and looks up at the heavens at the disappearing ball, enraptured by the wonders of his own strength and brilliance. Even relatively modest players walk and watch their own home runs now. Not long before his death, Mickey Mantle was heard to comment, “Makes me think they never hit one before.” How quaint and outdated of him.
The home run walk has the added appeal of embarrassing the pitcher, thereby bringing in the crucial element of mockery. It also heightens the likelihood of a beanball or some other retaliation, which might lead to a bench-clearing brawl, which is desirable because that will be covered on Sports Center, and the increasingly illiterate hosts who view themselves as equal parts comedians and sportscasters can play it over and over, injecting their numbing witticisms over the footage. What a show!
The fans don’t pay to watch bunts. So increasingly, the players don’t bunt. Or slide feet first. Or run the bases with anything resembling coherence. Who needs to? Sammy or some other Creatine Creation will bring them home.
The game is increasingly obscured by the show. Whatever happens to Sammy Sosa — is an asterisk so much to ask? — that is the real story.