Throw It Like a Ballplayer

providing baseball commentary and ponderings since April 2010

PEDs: the Liturgy and Daily Life

Posted by dannmckeegan on May 13, 2010

Thursday night on WSCR-670AM, Laurence Holmes [full podcast available] raised the question of why there is little more than a collective shrug when football players test positive for PEDs. I started thinking about it myself, and this is what I came up with:

I don’t think that it is facelessness of so many players that allows us to dismiss PED use in the NFL. Rather, it’s the emotional and temporal natures of baseball and football that create the different receptions.

Baseball games happen every day for six months: one hundred sixty-three (ASG) days out of one hundred eighty-three. Ninety percent of our days from April through October begin with the knowledge that a baseball game might transform the mundane into the miraculous. The ebb and flow of the game, the season, and our emotions are all closely tied together. We get to know the habits of the players, the hitches in their swings and the movement of their throws. Baseball, as a part of our lives, allows us to become emotionally tied to the players who we see possibly more often than even our friends and family.

There are national broadcasts on ESPN and Fox each week, not to mention MLB Network. However, the sport still has that local availability for the teams in each game. This further emphasizes the personal aspect of the relationship. A bad season still lingers, evolving for the remaining days, weeks and months. In moments of both pain and pleasure, it is through the numbers and the Plays with a capital P that our memories are organized.

Football, however, is really not much more for a fan than a weekly event, a habit, a ritual of unrivaled fervor. Everything builds to a Sunday payoff, with three games offering nine hours of games and three more in a studio. While thousands paint their faces, wear costumes, and share in the ritual meal of the tailgate at each home game, the game’s end also ends that week’s communion. Likewise, the Sunday parties, fueled by pizza and beer, build community with the game as a focal object. The sport itself is the liturgy of the ritual.

The Monday Night Football ritual, likewise, is a ritualistic habit: a piece of appointment television that is as newsworthy for its announce team as for its matchups. The Thursday games, of course, are largely for the junkies and the local markets. In a poor season, a football fan can commit himself or herself to nothing more than forty-eight hours of television over a four-and-a-half month span.

The NFL does offer its share of records, Plays with a capital P, and memorable performances and games. However, they all blend together in a blurry memory. Super Bowl winners and losers are forgotten within years, while the World Series remains vivid for a generation. Baseball is about the game itself and our connection to it. Football is not about the game on the field. It is about the connections we make with one another while consuming it.

We take MLB’s drug problem seriously because we take it personally. Each home run, each pitch, can make a season or break a million hearts in an instant. Those memories and numbers and Plays with a capital P that were made under retrospective suspicion have not only offended us as baseball fans, but also deeply and personally hurt us. Seventy-three, seventy, and sixty-six are less our records than they now are scars we all bear.

If we compare this to our attitude toward the NFL, we can see why the drug problem is so much less important to us. The players are seen once a week, dressed for gladiatorial combat in a zero-sum battle where there are only pyrrhic victories. Violence draws as much of a reaction as beauty. To enjoy such a brutal sport, there must be an emotional detachment by the fans. The emotional investment must be in the team, with the players for the team on a lesser plane. The game is so team-based that very few Plays are remembered for each of the individual parts, and only ultimate plays on a national stage – those that effect playoff games and championships – are going to earn a place in the mythos of football. But a player on the field for such a play, sullied by a suspension, does nothing to the play’s myth itself. Consider Jared Allen’s sacks during what should have been the Williams Wall’s suspension.

So what is the final answer? I believe that we actively engage in an emotional relationship with baseball, pitch by pitch. Football, on the other hand, is our altar and religious service during which we forge and reinforce our personal relationships. Baseball is a part of everyday life and, as such, is eligible for questioning. It is on our level. Football, however, requires a less personal connection to the game. The game is less important than the anticipation, the prognostication, the communion of the event, and the retrospection. Because of the closeness to baseball, drug use affects us personally. Football’s inherent separation creates a disconnect between the game and the performances of players, and thus the drug use of those players.

Baseball belongs to us, while we belong to football. Football players who use drugs are only affecting a small part of the entire ritual by violating the rules. Baseball players who use PEDs, on the other hand, violate a personal trust.

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