Robert Lipsyte on the Home-Run Wars

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At this site, we’ve been following the sports (and political) seasons thanks to vet sports columnist and Tomdispatch regular Robert Lipsyte: NASCAR and the Republican election loss; the Super Bowl, the religious right, and Pat Tillman (who died for our sins); March Madness and the selling of the universe. Now, we hit the Persian Gulf, shock-and-awe summer of baseball, Bonds, and Bush. The question in ballparks around the country is: Will Barry launch the big one before the government can launch its indictment of him? And the question around the world, as people eye those U.S. aircraft-carrier strike forces in the Gulf is: Will the Bush administration try to solve all its Iraqi and other problems (before it collapses in a heap) by launching the big one in Iran?

It’s true that the big one — even the “walk-off” home run — has settled many a baseball game. But in the context of the summer of Barry Bonds, Lipsyte, whose most recent Young Adult novel is the shocking Raiders Night, suggests that maybe we would be a better world all the way around if we didn’t even have the big one, the home run, in our sports (and war) arsenals. What if we banned all the bombs? Tom

How We Learned to Start Worrying and Hate the Bomb
Mickey Mantle, Barry Bonds, and the Bad Boys of Summer

By Robert Lipsyte

1. Power Comes from the Barrel of a Bat

“Chicks dig the long ball.” — Nike commercial

Like its nation, the national pastime often turns to brute force in a crisis.

The 1919 World Series gambling fix that came to be known as the Black Sox Scandal shook America’s belief in baseball, but Babe Ruth brought it back with the home run. The very next year, his first with the Yankees, he hit 54 homers. Until the Babe, 15 or so dingers would usually lead the Major Leagues.

In saving the game, the Babe also transformed it, ditching the cunning tactics of “small ball” — the sacrifice bunt, the steal, the hit-and-run play — for a reliance on the big bang. In the Bambino, America found its prototype male athlete: the arrogant, self-absorbed rowdy whose excesses, commercial greed, and tunnel vision were justified by winning. The cock-jock has since become a business, entertainment, and political role model.

In the Bambino’s home-run, America found a thrilling symbol of American power — on the diamond and in the world. Boom! Hitting a home run became a synonym for having done the best job possible, for nailing the deal, or the case, or the diagnosis. As it happens, the home run should also have become the symbol for the quick fix that may not hold, the brass ring that diverts us from the pleasure of the process, the big club created to intimidate opponents into submission that so often turns them into resentful insurgents.

The 1994 Major League players’ strike led to the cancellation of the World Series. Again, as in 1919, fears arose that fans had lost faith in the game, and again the home-run brought them back. The 1998 Summer of Swat featured the collegial rivalry of St. Louis’ Mark McGwire and Chicago’s Sammy Sosa, ending in a seasonal home-run record of 70. Roger Maris’ 61 and the Babe’s 60 were left in the dust, but this, too, came at a cost; it became obvious that baseball players, like football players and Olympic athletes, were going for the big bang by enhancing their performance with steroids.

That summer also made Barry Bonds angry and sad. Arguably the best all-around player in the game, on track for the Hall of Fame, Bonds at 34 was having a terrific 13th season for the San Francisco Giants. All-star, Golden Glove, he hit .303 with 37 homers and 28 stolen bases. Yet no one seemed to be paying attention. McGwire’s booming homers filled the air.

One can imagine Bonds fuming at this white meatball, this freckled phony, who surely was on steroids. (Actually, McGwire’s use of the over-the-counter nutritional supplement Andro, which can act like a steroid and was banned in other sports, was no secret in 1998, although the story was not vigorously pursued.) Why wouldn’t the prideful Bonds decide to take steroids — those weapons of mass construction — and also start hitting monster home-runs without end?

Jump a decade. In this mean season for the nation and its pastime, the home run itself is at the core of the crisis. Sometime soon, Bonds will hit the 756th home run of his major league career, surpassing the record set by Hank Aaron, a decent, low-key, dependable star most fans never cared much about until, in 1973, he began approaching the Babe’s iconic, never-to-be-broken record of 714 homers. As a youngster, Aaron had been inspired by Jackie Robinson and he swept past his contemporary, the golden Mickey Mantle, the consensus Chosen One to beat the Babe, who retired after the 1968 season with 536 homers.

No wonder, then, that Mantle has reappeared this homer season — in a controversy yet. Hallmarked by a generation of fans led by Bob Costas and Billy Crystal, Mantle is often remembered as the face of all that was once right with baseball and America. This season brings a novel, 7: The Mickey Mantle Novel, described by its author, Peter Golenbock, as “an inventive memoir.” Dictating from heaven, Mantle talks about homers and sex acts with equal relish. The book was cancelled by HarperCollins in the wake of the firing of controversial publisher Judith Regan, and recently put out by The Lyons Press. Mainstream commentators seem as outraged by the novel (which, the publishing blog Galleycat points out, would have been merely dismissed as “experimental” had it been about Jesus) as they are about Bonds’ assault on Aaron’s record.

Aaron, who received many racially-motivated death threats as he approached the Babe’s 714, has said that he will not be in attendance when Bonds breaks his. Commentators wonder if Commissioner of Major League Baseball Bud Selig will be there. (In 1974, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn did not show up for Aaron’s big hit.)

The depth of this “crisis” was first signaled several years ago when baseball commentators floated the idea that it might be in the best interests of the game if Bonds suffered a career-ending injury before he got near the 756 mark. They also began suggesting that Aaron’s home-run record was not nearly as historically or athletically significant as Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak of 1941.

Devalue the idea of muscling our way to the top? Was this wordplay or power play? What did George Tenet know when he called the case for Saddam’s WMDs a “slam dunk” instead of a you-know-what?

Baseball is in trouble. Its best and brightest seem to be flaky Shreks (Manny Ramirez), tortured matinee idols (Alex Rodriquez), or hard-case samurais (Roger Clemens). The attempt to drum up interest in the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s heroic integration of the game fell flat; at 8.4% of players, African-American numbers are the lowest in decades (and the percentages of blacks among young amateur players and fans have been falling as well). People complain that the game is too slow, too long, too cerebral; that television doesn’t do it justice; and that ball-park attendance is expensive and often made unpleasant by drunken fans and endless commercials on raucous scoreboards.

More important, the media’s incessant stories about illegal steroids and inflated salaries have created a climate of inconvenient truths in a place that was supposed to be a hallowed sanctuary from all that was truthfully inconvenient about our everyday lives. What’s the big deal? We don’t complain about Johnny Depp’s income any more than we once complained about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s pumped-up muscles. So why begrudge A-Rod and Barry? But then wouldn’t baseball morph from the national pastime into but another entertainment in a world crowded with them?

Baseball apologists tend to dismiss bad behavior as just a reflection of the larger society. How can you truly blame athletes for trying to be better in a performance enhancing culture of Viagra for randy seniors, Ritalin for high school students, and beta blockers for musicians and inspirational speakers? Yet baseball, they also claim, is more than a reflection of the larger society. It’s a special world all its own, worthy of anti-trust waivers, tax breaks, and a place in our collective hearts.

No wonder, in this confusion of motion and emotion, many fans cherish their memories of Mickey Mantle and wish Barry Bonds would break a leg.

2. The Heart of the Order

“All boys love baseball. If they don’t they’re not real boys.” — Zane Grey

Mickey Mantle arrived in the springtime of the American Dream, 1951, and the way he wrapped those miner’s hands around a bat seemed to confirm that everything was possible and power was the answer. A golden teenager from our Golden West, he was shy, polite, grateful. A poor boy with a dying father named Mutt, he had a sunny look to him.

Twenty-four years ago, I asked him why he thought that some grown men cried when he entered a room. He pretended to think about that before saying, “Maybe my fly was open. Or I had a booger hanging from my nose.” When I didn’t smile back, he said, “Let’s have another drink, Bob.”

Barry Bonds arrived in a darker time, 1986, the year that the space shuttle Challenger, the Soviet nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, and Ronald Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal all blew up — a time when we weren’t so sure of anything anymore. Barry was born of baseball royalty: Bobby, his father, was an all-star; Reggie Jackson, his cousin, a future Hall of Famer; and Willie Mays, his godfather, was considered a god. Each of them could be difficult, although Barry beat them all for his low fever of surliness relieved by sudden flares of anger.

A dozen years ago, on a story about a San Francisco Giant campaign to raise money for pediatric AIDS that every other player on the club seemed to want to talk to me about, Barry just kept walking away or turning his back. When I appealed to his father, then a coach, Bobby gave me a sheepish grin. “That’s Barry. He always gave me a hard time, too.”

Mickey and Barry never played against each other (although young Barry described Mickey as a hero of his), but as athletes, personalities, symbols, and lightning rods for our emotions, they remain linked in this year of crisis, the official good and evil poles of our defining sport. Bonds, of course, is being attacked for cheating, for defiling the game with his “steroid use.” (More probably, experts guess, he was taking human growth hormone and drug cocktails mixed just for him.) Commentators claiming to represent mainstream white fans tend to suggest — or at least imply — that he is the ultimate symbol of the ungrateful black thugs taking over our games.

On the other hand, Mantle, dead these twelve years, is being vociferously defended against Golenbock’s, 7, which illuminates his slobbish, selfish, insecure, and (ultimately) endearingly wicked ways. The commentators, enraged at Bonds, are no less enraged that anyone dare besmirch the fading glow of the last white hero. The coincidence of the home-run record and the irreverent book in the same year seems to be ratcheting up the terms of enragement.

It was possible to feel pity for Mickey, even while wishing you were him, or friends with him, or sleeping with him. His bad legs and his intimations of mortality — most males in his family had been cut down by cancer before they reached 40 — gave him that romantic aura of the doomed, even as he exploded from both sides of the plate, made impossible catches in centerfield, and dared to steal on his bad wheels. His vulnerability invited warm feelings. Although he could be famously brusque with sportswriters and fans, we came to understand that he (unlike Barry, of course) needed to medicate himself with booze and women; he was playing in pain.

For Bonds, from the start it was hard to feel anything but a distant awe. He regularly treated not just fans but sportswriters — the very people whose job it was to make him iconic — with vicious contempt. Far more telling was his locker-room persona. He was aloof, and when he tried to be one of the boys, he was awkward. He demanded special privileges. He did not share his knowledge of the game. Teammates hated him.

In his fascinating biography of Bonds, Love Me, Hate Me, Jeff Pearlman — who claims 524 interviews, although his central character typically refused to talk to him — tells how Barry’s college teammates at Arizona State, given the chance, voted their star off the team. The coach vetoed the vote, a lesson for all. On his first major league team, the Pittsburgh Pirates, disgust with his attitude boiled into at least one clubhouse fist fight. While his current San Francisco teammates seem to resent his disregard for the team, they do appreciate the money and success he’s brought the club.

Mantle’s teammates loved him. He often said he wanted to be remembered as a good teammate and he was that, funny and generous. Jim Bouton, the 20-game winning pitcher who wrote Ball Four, the acclaimed baseball memoir, has never forgotten the way Mantle laid a carpet of towels across the clubhouse to Bouton’s locker to celebrate the rookie’s first victory.

It’s poignant that Mickey and Barry, handsome, rich, extravagantly talented, should both have been so unhappy. Both had Dad issues; Mutt Mantle was a hard-driving baseball father and Bobby Bonds’ alcoholism was a major complicating factor in his career and his family life. Mantle claims to have been shy and sometimes acted it. Bonds threw up a belligerent defensive shell.

Neither had long-term happy relationships with women. Mantle seemed to have been pushed into marriage with a hometown girl on whom he cheated all his life. Bonds has had two marriages, both to women who worked in strip clubs, and cheated on them all his life. I look forward to the shrinks taking their innings. Is there any case to be made that Bonds’ narrow genius for the game and his social dysfunction could be symptomatic of a mental illness, such as Asperger’s Disease or some other form of higher-functioning autism? I have no expertise here, but I wonder why we can’t cut him some slack, at the least consider the possibility that he was taking the wrong meds?

Despite the evidence reported in Game of Shadows, the best-selling investigatory book by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, Bonds has yet to be charged with a crime. Our assumption that he has taken drugs is based on watching him change over ten years from a speedy whippet into a pumpkin-headed hulk while his performance improved unnaturally; in baseball, few people get so much better as they grow older.

It’s instructive to compare Barry and the Mick statistically:

In his rookie year in 1951, Mantle, at 19, hit 13 homers. In his last year, 1968, at 37, he hit 18. The arc of those 18 seasons looks natural. From 1955 through 1964 (ages 24 through 33), he had his peak seasons, consistently batting over .300 and slugging a median 35 homers. (In 1961, the year Roger Maris broke the Babe’s record with 61 homers, Mickey hit his personal best, 54.)

As a 21 year-old rookie in 1986, Bonds batted .223 and hit 16 homers. This season, at 42, he has been leading the National League in homers. His numbers surged at the age of 35, when he hit 49, then his personal best, with a .306 average, itself better than most previous years. In 2001, however, he set the season record with 73 homers (batting .328) and, for the next three seasons, his homer production would average 45, while he would bat around .350, both highly age inappropriate. Even more astounding, his homers were often traveling farther than they did in his late twenties, the normal time of a hitter’s peak power. These aren’t the numbers of a superstar in twilight; they are the numbers of a man who has found the Fountain of Swat.

Of course, Barry could not have done it on drugs alone. He worked harder than anyone else, exercising and weight-lifting obsessively, studying and practicing his craft, generally avoiding alcohol, which has ruined so many big-league careers. Because a river of beer floats important sponsors, owners, and ballpark concessions, baseball has not taken a hard line on hard drinking. This season, manager Tony LaRussa was arrested for driving under the influence, while pitcher Josh Hancock drove drunk into a tow truck and died. Both were members of last year’s World Series’ champions, the St. Louis Cardinals, owned by Anheiser-Busch. Beer has just been banned from their clubhouse.

Mantle’s heavy drinking — he often came to the ballpark drunk or hung-over — was no secret. The beat writers protected him. After all, losing access to Mantle and his team-mates for one or two true stories could wreck a career. Even now, in these more contentious times, sportswriters generally want to write positive stories; they are fans, too.

Golenbock has written several bestsellers about the Yankees, including Dynasty, The Bronx Zoo, and Wild, High and Tight, a Billy Martin biography. He was trying to shape a careers-worth of Mantle anecdotes into a biography when — disclosure — I suggested that it might make a delicious novel. The result: A quirky Mantle monologue from heaven as he tries to convince Leonard Shecter, a real-life sportswriter (who did not like him) to help him with a memoir.

7 is as heartfelt a valentine to baseball as Ball Four ever was. Horrified critics have homed in on a scene in which Mantle has sex with his female counterpart, Marilyn Monroe. It is cheesy in its way, although Golenbock claims that Billy Martin, Mantle’s former Yankee drinking buddy and later the club’s manager, told him it really happened. In any case, it’s a true fan’s note: Monroe’s abusive husband, the great DiMaggio, was never welcoming to the rookie Mantle when they shared the outfield and, by waiting too long to call for a fly ball, caused the injury that plagued the Mick throughout his career.

I don’t know whether the outrage over the novel stems from playing fast and loose with the legend, even though Mantle’s drinking and screwing has been reported elsewhere, or from the play-by-play; Marilyn was bored by the Mick’s performance.

The fact is this: Mantle did not give the game — and us — his best, yet he has become emblematic of our baseball dreams. Bonds, who has relentlessly tried to be the best, with or without chemicals, has been demonized for his refusal to charm us, to recognize our fandom.

Someday, in the coming apocalypse, when the home-run derbies are finally at an end, the Centerfielder who died for our sins will have to be acknowledged as all too human while the Dark Angel will have to be granted, however begrudgingly, his rightful place by the throne of Our Babe.

3. Last Licks

“You can win or you can lose or it can rain.” — Casey Stengel

Pushing 70, I still dream of centerfield and sing with John Fogarty, “Oh, put me in, Coach — I’m ready to play today.”

Football is war for wide bodies; basketball is hip-hop for stretch bodies; but baseball is an elegant display of virtuosi. The philosopher/commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote that baseball was “not a territorial game; it is not about conquering; I do not send a team out to capture the other team’s goal or ground. Baseball may not even be truly a team sport; it may really be a game an individual plays with a group.”

Poor Bart died in 1989, his 51-year-old heart attacked, some thought, by Pete Rose’s threat to the integrity of the game. Rose, one of the best and most passionate ever to play, holder of the record for base-hits (4,256), had bet on his own games — although he lied about it for years. (Now, for $350 you can buy from a signed baseball on which, after your name, has been written, “I’m sorry I bet on baseball.”)

Mickey, dying, asked forgiveness for his drinking and for being a lousy family man. (He also raised awareness of the importance of organ donations.) It’s hard to believe that Barry will apologize for anything, even if there’s money involved. Can you imagine a Bonds public service announcement warning youngsters off steroids, human growth hormone, and whatever else the clever chemists are cooking up for their millionaire clients?

It’s probably too late — and in this “larger society” useless — to ban performance enhancements anyway.

But it is exactly the right time to ban the home run.

First of all, it would be righting an almost century-old wrong. Early in the twentieth century, the home run was considered a crude gesture devoid of true craft, when players thought about it at all. Remember, pre-Babe, the leading slugger of 1913, Frank “Home Run” Baker, led the American League with 12 homers.

The world changed. Baseball was ever less about strategy, smarts, and speed — who steals home anymore? — and somehow everyday life was no longer about persuasion, compromise, and trust; or international politics about debate, diplomacy, and détente.

By the time I became a fan in the 1940s, the Ballantine (beer) Blast or the White Owl (cigar) Wallop were already a major part of the game and a homer could suddenly turn the tide of a taut pitcher’s battle, just as a mega-bomb could end a war. Duck and cover, this one is going, going, gone. What was the Cold War, if it wasn’t about two powerhouse sluggers waving big bats that could clear the bases forever?

Will banning the home run lead to banning the bomb?

Maybe not, but it could save the game. If baseball is truly our national pastime, mirror, and harbinger, it could follow the nation down the drain if we don’t do something. Waiting for baseball’s current wave of Latin and Asian guest workers to keep the game alive for us seems like the same pathetic passivity we’ve been showing these last years to the lying, cheating, vicious anti-social attitudes of the present government.

A simple fix (for baseball anyway): Any ball hit out of the park is an out. Only the rare inside-the-park homer, typically a combination of speedy running and sloppy fielding, an example of very small ball, would still be a four-bagger.

This would probably not end the use of performance enhancing drugs, which, despite the bad rap sluggers get, are mostly a pitchers’ weapon anyway.

There are no slam-dunks, but if we could take life just one base at a time, wouldn’t that be going deep in national pastime terms? By getting back to small ball, to planning and thinking, we might start finding pleasure in the process, not just the outcome, in incremental victories rather than staying useless courses waiting to be saved by one big bang.

Robert Lipsyte, the Jock Culture Correspondent for, is a former sports journalist for the New York Times as well as CBS and NBC network news. His most recent book is the controversial Young Adult novel, Raiders Night. Lipsyte’s education in baseball began at the feet of Casey Stengel when he covered the 1962 Mets. He can be reached at [email protected].

Copyright 2007 Robert Lipsyte