From the Permission to Boogie Blog
The World Series began last night, but never mind that.
A more interesting baseball story is unfolding in Boston, where just a few weeks ago the Red Sox finished playing baseball, but kept right on making headlines. (I’m serious this time, no sarcasm.)
In case you’d forgotten, baseball’s regular season ended last month, punctuated by the unprecedented collapse of the Sox down the stretch. The smoke has not yet cleared, but already heads have begun to roll. Manager Terry Francona was shown the door; the man who brought two World Series titles to Boston chased out of town amid a swirling of salacious rumors. Theo Epstein, the former general manager, will likely take the same position with the Cubs in a matter of days.
But the most intriguing result of the post-collapse airing of grievances in Boston has been the charge levied against a few members of the pitching staff: drinking during games.
A moment of clarification. There was no mid-game frat party in the dugout at Fenway, but there were four pitchers in the clubhouse. The story goes that Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Josh Beckett retired to the clubhouse during a game (on a day they were all not pitching) for a nice frosty beer. Relatively innocuous, right?
Wrong. This is a scandal.
The outrage over BeerGate, as it will no doubt come to be known, boils down to the backlash that invariably follows a breach of baseball decorum. (Remember how many folks were upset when Justin Verlander’s no hit bid was broken up by a bunt – a bunt?! – back in May?)
This phenomenon, as silly as it may seem, is entirely justifiable, considering the true source of baseball’s appeal. Unlike football, which derives its entertainment value from violence, and basketball, which is a pure athletic spectacle, baseball is a slow, methodical game. There is no shortage of drama, to be sure, but baseball lacks the visceral excitement of sports with a higher degree of physicality. It makes up this difference by offering fans a rich tradition and mythology.
This premium on the past leaves very little room for divergence from the classical in Major League Baseball. The classical heroes like Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, and Hank Aaron are revered for their embodiment of the ancient hero archetype: masculine, stoic, and unflinchingly courageous. The unsavory bits of history that are largely papered over. The racism that permeated the game for decades (Ty Cobb, anyone?) has been replaced in baseball folklore by the triumphant story of Jackie Robinson and anecdotes about Satchel Paige tearing up the Negro Leagues.
Joe DiMaggio is the epitome of the classic American hero. Simon & Garfunkel pined for “Joltin’ Joe”. He is simply not remembered as the guy who carried on an allegedly abusive relationship with Marilyn Monroe and faced criminal charges alongside Frank Sinatra.
This elevation of certain baseball players to athletic deities and the erasure of their imperfections applies only so far as they maintained the purity of the sport. Baseball history is a narrative that very rarely extends beyond the diamond, so only the mistakes that truly harm the game become legendary (see Joe, Shoeless).
Pete Rose, baseball’s all time hits leader, undermined the sanctity of baseball by betting on games. He will be kept out of the Hall of Fame for the foreseeable future.
Barry Bonds, the all time home runs leader, and all the other major figures of the “Steroid Era” will likely never be recognized for their successes.
Rose, Bonds, and the others disrespected the game, and they are crucified for it. Dwight Gooden missed the 1986 World Series parade because he was too high to attend, but he will be remembered in the long run only for his on-field success. It’s all about respect.
Which leads back to Lester, Lackey, and Beckett. Whether their beer drinking had any impact on the outcome of a single game down the stretch is irrelevant. (It didn’t.) To a significantly lesser degree, the Sox staff broke the same rule that Rose and Bonds broke: they broke baseball’s honor code.
Baseball demands to be taken seriously. Sure, guys act like goofballs all the time (Brian Wilson), but winning games is almost always priority number one. A beer in the clubhouse is something that is beyond simple goofing around; it represents a sort of flippancy that has no place in baseball. When a few pitchers put having a good time ahead of winning games, it is a breach of baseball’s seriously enforced set of unwritten rules. Ridiculous as it may seem, baseball players have a responsibility to the tradition that sustains the game.
A beer in the clubhouse is a big deal.
Permission to Boogie airs Thursday nights on The Lab at 10pm.