The Politics of Immortality


I’m a hopeless baseball romantic. I want the game that I love to be and stay pure, clear and exceedingly healthy. I want its players to be pure hero, its past to consist of legend and grandeur. If baseball is our National Pasttime, it should be held to the highest standards, and should reflect the best our great country has to offer.

But baseball, like many things, doesn’t shine that way. Even in its very early, post-Civil War days, professional baseball’s very existence was threatened by gambling, drugs and drunkenness, fights (among fans and with players), and unscrupulous business men (including club owners).

Some of our greatest baseball heros may have been mythic between the lines, but off the diamond was a different story. They were drunks. Racists. Philanderers.

We worry about the current state of the game, and the players that play it. We worry about players who may have gambled while still active. We worry about an era when some players may have used articificial means to accelerate their performance. But what we worry about today is nothing new. We can agrue the degrees, but the “crimes” are the same.

This week, Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn received two of the highest voting percentages ever as they’ll be welcomed into the Baseball Hall of Fame this coming July, and justifiably so. Both were uniquely talented players, among the best to ever play the game, and two great baseball ambassadors.

Mark McGwire, two years ago considered a lock for the Hall, received less than 33% of the votes required to gain admission.

Baseball was on a dangerous precepice when its players were locked out in the early 90’s, and Cal Ripken was given much credit for helping to bring fans back when he finally broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-game streak. But it was McGwire’s home run chase in 1998 that truly cemented the game’s renaissance as the National Pasttime.

And part of what made that story so wonderful was McGwire himself. He was a good guy. A family man. His emotions towards the end of 1998 reminded us that he was struggling with pressure like any of us would, and it drew us to him all the more.

Many Hall of Famers had brilliant individual careers. Impossible personal achievements. But no matter how much I love the game of baseball, I would not want my children to meet some of those men.

Ty Cobb was not a very nice man. Neither is Eddie Murray. Neither is Reggie Jackson.

Mickey Mantle was a drunk. Ted Williams swore like a sailor. Joe DiMaggio slept around. And yet they are all baseball heroes, and Cooperstown immortals.

MgGwire was a good man, and his achievements on the field defined a trying time for the national game. His impact on baseball’s resurgence is hard to ignore.

Who among us can define the limits, or requirements, for immortality? Is it about maintaining an untarnished image, a pure existence, a flawless career?

What is more important? Achievements? Statistics? Character? Impact? Morality? Memorability?

The gloss of immortality is never as reflective as history and mythology allows, making real-time decisions of greatness even more difficult. But that doesn’t mean our collective judgement of such greatness, morality and immortality isn’t itself flawed and inconsistent.