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The Myths of Baseball

With myths shattering all throughout the sports world, is there any role left for mythmaking in baseball?

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Jared Wickerham

Like most folks who write about baseball on these here Internets (certainly those of us who started in the last five years or so), I owe a large debt, one could even say (sorry) a tremendous debt, to Michael Schur. Schur, for those who've been asleep for the last half-decade, is the head writer for the best show on television, and one of the founders of the eternally brilliant, though now defunct, site Fire Joe Morgan. That site's combination of humor, sabermetrics, relentless profanity, and unapologetic Red Sox fandom inspired me, and I've no doubt hundreds of others, to start writing about the wonderful absurdity that is professional baseball. What I didn't fully realize is how well that site fit into a long and proud tradition of New England contrarianism.

There's still some debate among historians of the Revolutionary period as to whether Thomas Jefferson or John Adams had a larger personal library. What's not up for debate is that Adams saw his library less as a display piece and more as a philosophical Danger Room. Every book in the Adams library is filled to the brim with margin notes, scribbled evidence of our second president arguing point-by-point with authors he'd never meet. John Adams, in addition to being a prime mover in the Continental Congress, an architect of our alliance with France, and one of the pillars of the early Republic, was America's first fisker. He was obsessed not only with being right, but with puncturing the myths of the time. Indeed, he saw them as an impediment to the progress of the nation.

The history of our Revolution will be one continued Lye from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin's electrical Rod, smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod- and thence forward these two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislatures and War.

What was fascinating about Adams's worries regarding the mythology surrounding the Revolution is that he feared it would unnerve the next generation. If the nation had been founded by infallible demigods, how could mere mortals possibly maintain or improve upon their works? Adams had a profound understanding of the damage myth-making could inflict, and sought to balance it with reality at every turn. We've seen this unfortunate tendency in politics, of course, and while I could certainly blow through four or five thousand words on that, that's not the reason you're here. You're here because you give a damn about sports. And if there's any realm of American life that's gotten a cold trout-slap to the face in regards to myth-making lately, it's sports.

What's remarkable about the fake-girlfriend scandal and the juiced-biker scandal isn't merely that they occurred. Neither lying nor lying a whole lot more to cover up the initial lie is new. What's remarkable is the complicity of the storytellers. Neither Lance Armstrong nor Manti Te'o lied alone. There were agents, friends, and family willing to help. Worst of all, there were reporters. Reporters who filed inspiring stories of grief-stricken linebackers and cancer-defeating cyclists without once asking that most basic of questions: is it true? Am I speaking honestly to my readers? Or am I telling them about Ben Franklin's magical lightning rod?

Neither linebacking nor cycling is involved in baseball, of course, and baseball's why you're here. But myth-making is central to baseball. Hell, its very founding is a myth. Neither Abner Doubleday nor Cooperstown had anything to do with the origin of the sport, and yet that's where they built the Hall of Fame. Upstate New York is pretty damn scenic, though, and Abner Doubleday is one hell of a name. So is it really any surprise that we're watching baseball's mythmakers craft an improved history of the last two decades?

In this magical tale, good and virtuous ballplayers (played in the film by Derek Jeter, Cal Ripken, Jr., and Ken Griffey, Jr.) were surrounded on all sides by evil ballplayers who had gained their strength through deceit. The evil ballplayers destroyed the hallowed records of the sport, and ran roughshod through the once-innocent realm of baseball. But they were barred from entering the Hall of Fame by the writers, who saw through their lies and defended the integrity of the national pastime. No player ever cheated again, and every child could once again go to the ballpark with a smile on their face.

This myth leaves out, of course, that baseball turned a blind eye to the cheating for over a decade. It leaves out that past generations of players had found their own ways around the rules to gain some edge, any edge, over their opponents. It leaves out the complicity of the writers who fawned over the record-setting homers and the age-defying career arcs while shouting down any mention of the unmarked supplements in every locker. It leaves out the fans who can always find a way to justify their support of a uniform, whatever the man in that uniform has done.

It leaves out the influence of past myths. We celebrate past heroes of the game, who pitched 350 innings or played 1,800 straight games without a DL trip, and we expect the same of the players on our team. We ignore that Sandy Koufax retired at 30, not because he couldn't throw a curve with the same bite, but because his doctors said he would lose the use of his arm. When we expect our athletes to be superhuman, is it any wonder at all they go looking for the artificial means to make it so?

And for all that, for all the absurdity that myth has inflicted upon baseball, what is baseball, if not a myth? We take from baseball the joy, the grief, the lessons that we choose. We all in theory reserve the rights to find a new team, a new outlook, even a new sport. If we choose to see the past heroes of baseball as immortals, if Ted Williams is forever that perfect swing, Willie Mays that basket catch, and Lou Gehrig that last noble speech, then that's how it was. As these things go, myth-making in baseball is relatively harmless, far less so than myth-making in, say, gun rights.

It's here, of course, that we come to the obvious question: where do we want the line drawn? What do we really want from our writers? Much as we bloggers pile upon the intentions and habits of beat writers and traditional columnists, they're the ones operating in that bizarre land between the noble myths of baseball past and the sweaty, dip-fueled realities of baseball present. For a century or so, the myth was good enough. Now we've all been given the choice, we can wander out of the cave and into the light if we wish. So now that we can dispel the myth, should we? For that matter, can we? So much of what we know and love about baseball has been built upon those myths, is it possible or even desirable to get rid of it?

As John Adams would be swift to point out, baseball's a game. When you see or read people imbuing deep moral significance to it, they're probably trying too hard. A game can reflect fascinating things about human nature, and we can take lessons from it. It can symbolize the society around it, by the mere fact of who's allowed to play. Most importantly, it can bring us joy. That was the element of myths that Adams forgot: they can be paralyzing, crushing the present and future under the judgment and expectations of the past. But they can also inspire. That baseball is around the corner makes the winter no shorter, but it reminds me that spring will come.