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Jewish World Review June 19, 2002 / 9 Tamuz, 5762

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports

What if fans really
prefer steroidball? | Every U.S. newspaper ought to be required to run a correction any time a story appears referring to baseball as the national pastime.

Baseball has not been the national pastime for half-a-century now.

The correction would read something like this:

"In Monday's edition of the Daily Bugle, a story said that baseball is the national pastime. The national pastime is watching television. The Daily Bugle regrets the error."

That having been said, the current uproar about allegations of steroid use by big-league ballplayers is an important one -- not so much because of what it means for baseball, but because of what the public's potential response will say about the country itself.

The assumption -- in the days since Ken Caminiti said steroid use is rampant in baseball (and then sort of denied it) -- is that if what Caminiti, and Jose Canseco, and others say is true, then fans will walk away from baseball in disgust. If 50 percent or 80 percent of major-league players (the purported percentages vary, depending on who is eager to be quoted -- pretty soon you may read about a slugger insisting that 140 percent of all ballplayers bulk up on steroids). ...

The assumption is that, hearing such talk, the public will swear off baseball forever, and not come back until every ballplayer is medically certified as unenhanced by chemical additives.

First of all, the American public is already swearing off baseball -- take a look at the attendance figures. This has nothing to do with steroids, or even all that much with resentment of the ballplayers' salaries, which now average more than $2 million per season.

If anything, the average fan is not angry about how much the center fielder is being paid; the average fan is angry about the trickle-down effect of this. If the owner is paying his valiant diamond stalwarts an average of $2 million, someone is going to have to come up with that money, and it's not the owner himself. Hence, the startling price of baseball tickets, not to mention hot dogs and frozen fudge bars. The average fan doesn't begrudge the shortstop his $2 million, until the shortstop reaches into the fan's pocket to pick up that $2 million. Which, in a real sense, is exactly what the shortstop is doing.

Baseball has done the just-about-impossible by presenting the world with a cast of characters so unlikable on every side that even a devoted fan can't find someone to wholeheartedly root for in the internal drama. The owners? The fans instinctively dislike and distrust them. The players? The fans would like to be them -- come on: $2 million for playing ball in the sun? -- but sense that the athletes look up into the seats and see not human beings, but automated teller machines wearing shorts and tank tops. The players union executives? Unsmiling actuaries seldom inspire standing ovations.

Which brings us to steroids. The fans will be so upset if players are found to be using steroids, the dominant theory goes, that they will leave.

But what if that turns out not to be the case? What if the public -- as it very well might -- says, in effect:

We don't care if the ballplayers take steroids. We like to see all those home runs. Ruin their health? Hey, that's their problem. As long as they amuse us by smashing enough balls out of the yard, we'll continue to pay at least fleeting attention to the games.

Is that a cynical scenario to imagine? Yes -- but it has been difficult not be cynical about pro sports for quite some time now; these are not the Boys of Summer, these are not easy individuals for the average fan to identify with. If baseball's executives determine steroids really are being widely used, and the eventual result is a bunch of skinny ballplayers lofting soft bloopers into the grass behind second base. ...

Baseball already has enough problems, and the steroids problem seems to present no happy ending. If the public turns out to regard baseball players not significantly differently than it does pro wrestlers or video-game characters -- in other words, maximum-bang entertainment-on-demand, in flashy packages -- and if that public turns out to prefer a steroid-powered product over a purer, meeker one. ...

Maybe it won't happen. Maybe it won't turn out that way. Maybe baseball will become the national pastime again. Just as soon as someone de-invents television.

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JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. His latest book is Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

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