Two recent articles beautifully de-construct two myths central to contemporary baseball discussions, one Hank Aaron vs Barry Bonds and the other on Cal Ripken vs. “the modern ballplayer.”
This baseball season, it fell to the sporting press to drag a reluctant Hank Aaron once more into public view, the occasion being Barry Bonds’ slow-motion pursuit of a stationary number. Now, anytime an old baseball personage hobbles back into frame, he is invariably described in awed, petrifying language better suited to, say, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The treatment of Aaron hasn’t been any different. A spin through the sports pages over the past few months reveals that he is a man of “cool dignity,” “quiet dignity,” “innate dignity,” “immense dignity,” “eternal dignity,” “unfettered dignity,” “unimpeachable dignity,” the very “picture of dignity” who “brought so much dignity to baseball” and who, “having exuded dignity his entire life,” continues to this day “exud[ing] class and dignity.”
Craggs has no disagreement with characterizing Aaron as dignified. It’s the uses to which Aaron’s dignity is being put that are troublesome:
…what’s unfortunate about Aaron’s latest turn in the public eye is that he has been reduced to a sportswriter’s cheap trope. The great slugger’s dignity is of interest only insofar as it can be picked up by the likes of George Will and swung in the general direction of Barry Bonds….As Barry Bonds continues his gimpy, joyless pursuit of such glory as he is eligible for,” Will wrote, “consider the odyssey of Mobile’s greatest native son.” Or as a Cincinnati Post headline pronounced: “Safe To Say Bonds No Aaron.” Of course, with Aaron, it has always been thus. It is the singular curse of his career: to be treated like a sandwich board for the prevailing attitudes of the day.
Craggs points out that Aaron’s long been subject to this sort of treatment – his very quietude and lack of clear definition makes him an easy mark for deployment in whatever moral battles of the day social commentators are waging.
Hence, the resurrection of Aaron (including a hagiograpic piece by Tom Verducci for a recent SI cover):
Now here is Aaron, once again, this time in the midst of the galloping national hysteria over anabolic steroids. In Aaron, we have our cardboard hero, propped up in the corner to stand in exquisite counterpoint to Bonds. He is not the only one dragooned into this particular mess—”Ryan Howard, No Asterisk,” went one preseason headline—but it is most certainly Aaron who is shouldering the psychic load. Even the flatness of his career, strangely, now earns him praise.
“[N]ot one of Aaron’s single-season home run totals is among the 68 highest of all time, yet he pounded more in his career than any other player in history—and without suspicion of chemical enhancement,” wrote Tom Verducci in this week’s Sports Illustrated cover story, blithely sidestepping the very real possibility that Aaron popped amphetamines like Chiclets along with, you know, everyone else in baseball. To even consider that would, of course, call into question a rather large piece of the argument in favor of baseball’s current war on steroids—Maintain the sanctity of the record books! Ferret out the cheats!—something sportswriters evidently have little interest in doing. Instead, they summon a hero from the past to redress the supposed sins of the present. “I guess,” Reggie Jackson told Verducci, “you can call him the people’s home run king.”
As I remarked the other day in discussing Pat Tillman’s examplr, sports media (and not them alone) find it easiest to traffic in two-dimensional portrayals, which would be more tolerable if they didn’t portray themselves as journalists intent on telling it like it is. We can expect publicists and propagandists to ignore the third dimension. For sports media to do it makes them either childish or disingenuous.
It was during this time (the 1990s) that Ripken became a secular saint. Here was a man who stood for old-fashioned American values. Born and raised in Maryland, the son of a humble baseball journeyman, he played for his hometown team and made his name not with the obscene physical talent of a Henderson, but because of his hard work and dedication, best symbolized, of course, by his signature trait Â– his overwhelming need to just show up for work. No pampered, spoiled athlete he; this was someone with whom any factory worker or policeman or smalltown mortgage broker could identify, someone who just punched the clock every day and tried his hardest, quietly and with pride.
This was, of course, the most ridiculous nonsense it’s possible to imagine. Cal Ripken was 6 feet 4 inches, 225 pounds., built like a god, and blessed with enough athleticism that he probably would have been a truly great basketball player. He wasn’t the best possible version of David Eckstein or Joe McEwing, but the most physically gifted player in the sport. What made him unique was the overwhelming effect of his personal dedication and discipline on his unparalleled natural gifts; by all accounts, no one worked harder. But the myth of Ripken located his greatness in his will, as if will were sufficient to command the greatest heights of achievement. It isn’t.
Noting the inescapably racialized aspects of Ripken’s sainthood, Marchman writes:
I greatly admire Cal Ripken, but despise this myth. It grounded his appeal in resentment of supposedly lazy and greedy (and often black) modern players who didn’t appreciate the gifts with which they were born and the rewards to which those gifts entitled them. That all the boogeymen and preening villains to whom Ripken was contrasted throughout his career, from the joyous Henderson to the odious Bonds, all worked just as hard as he did, and enjoyed the rightful fruits of their labor no more than he did, never really seemed to register. This weekend, we can honor him without pandering to this myth and thus implicitly denigrating players who were never held out as representative of values that existed in a mythic, hazily remembered past. The man was an incredible baseball player with an iron will, and he remains an icon of simple decency. That’s more than enough, and more than worth honoring in its own right.
I don’t know whether Ripken is actually a decent man, since I don’t know him personally, though he seems to be almost universally admired. I do know that he received special treatment, including separate accomodations, on Orioles’ road trips, during the latter years of his career, a situation that earns other athletes the “prima donna” moniker and that he was a greatly over-rated player his last several seasons in the majors, having managed an OPS-plus of better than league average in only one of his final five seasons (during all of which he played third base, a position requiring good offensive production). In any event, Marchman has it right – the gushing testimonials to Ripken’s character and will are frequently the coda to a lamentation about today’s athlete (as if players always used to play in two thousand plus straight games, before the age of the spoiled athlete). Ripken was a truly great player, especially in his prime as a shortstop, and has a bullet-proof public persona. But, he’s another two-dimensional icon in the eyes of sports media, not flesh and blood. (as an aside, for more on the Hall of Fame credentials of Ripken and co-inductee Tony Gwynn, you can read a post I wrote on in January on the subject).