Pop Goes the Culture
By Paul Tatara
It’s that time of year again, sports fans—spring training is upon us. I didn’t put an exclamation point at the end of that sentence because I probably won’t get truly excited about my Cleveland Indians until somewhere near the All-Star break. Before that, I’ll check the box scores and take in whatever highlights I might catch when I’m unwinding late at night. I’m way too busy to fully immerse myself in RBI, ERA’s, TBF’s, and GDP’s for a full 162 games . . . especially since I have no idea what TBF and GDP even mean.
There was a magical time, though, when I couldn’t wait for the season to get going. That time is now known as “the 1970s,” and a large chunk of it is almost certainly more appealing in retrospect than it was when it was actually taking place. But even if the ’70s weren’t wall-to-wall prime rib, I know for certain that baseball was far more enjoyable back then.
Understand, I’m not one of those guys who argue that players were more agile and powerful back in the day. That simply isn’t true. Many lesser players from the Me Decade wouldn’t even make the cut in 2008. But all you have to do is watch a game from the ’70s on ESPN Classic to see that a great deal of the charm has been systematically excised from professional baseball. And, just like everything else that gets my goat these days—I can’t tell you the last time I had a proper goat—this can be at least partially blamed on computers.
In 1974, if you were watching, say, Boog Powell step up to the plate in a tight situation, a simple graphic revealing Powell’s batting average, home runs, and RBI would silently appear, you’d ponder them, and they’d go away. Today, a CGI robot walks across the bottom of the screen, swinging a missile in place of the more socially acceptable bat. An electric guitar squeals to a crescendo, and the robot slams a few flaming pitches over a fence. This segues to rivets being driven into metal while the player’s stats are constructed before your very eyes. Then the stats explode, sending orange and silver particles flying into outer space.
Then the guy grounds out.
Of course, I’ve yet to mention the very small problem of . . . wait for it . . . steroids. I’ll just ignore the fact that you can’t trust any hitting or pitching record set in the past 15 years, since there are guys who write that article in Sports Illustrated every single week. I’m far more concerned with Congressional hearings.
Bob Gibson was a mean S.O.B. who pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1959 to 1975, winning 20 or more games in five of those seasons. In 1968, he had an absolutely hellacious 1.12 ERA. In a very real way, Gibson was the predecessor to Roger “I Said My Wife Took Growth Hormones” Clemens, down to his dour, intimidating presence on the mound. But a special government committee never convened in Washington, DC to determine why Gibson may or may not have had an abscess on one of his butt cheeks.
That just happened to Clemens. If you somehow didn’t hear about it, go to Google and type in “Roger Clemens”+“abscess.” I just did, and it tallied 962 mentions. (I also entered “Roger Clemens is an asshole.” That only appeared nine times, which seems pretty low.) Now, I’m as romantic as the next guy. I want to embrace the Roger Kahn ideal of The Boys of Summer, the image of the joyous man-child forever sniffing the new-mown infield and rubbing Neatsfoot oil into his perfectly broken mitt. But here comes Roger Clemens with a syringe-induced pustule on his hiney and that’s all shot to hell.
So I have to force myself to return to a simpler time. I remember when my Alabama Little League team won the big enchilada back in 1973—the itty-bitty trophy is literally sitting a foot away from me on my desk while I type this, a cherished remembrance of a sun-dappled childhood. As a celebratory gift, our coach loaded my team into a couple of vans and drove us to Atlanta to see the Braves play the Reds. During the game, a Cincinnati outfielder tore after a fly ball that seemed to hang in the air forever, arcing higher and higher.
Would it go foul, or would it fall fair? As the ball arced foul, the outfielder flung himself over the wall. Even though he missed it, I was awed by this all-out attempt to play the game the way it should be played, with grace and honor and dignity. I’ll always remember the heroic image of that outfielder disappearing into the crowd, diving for a ball that was just out of reach, never thinking surrender.
The outfielder’s name was Pete Rose.
To read more of Paul Tatara’s musings visit www.wallofpaul.com