Such is life in these United States that a baseball bat can occasion hours of raging debate, saturation media coverage and a full-page ad placed by people who want your air freight business. “The American League had to trust someone to deliver in a sticky situation,” said a promotional headline in The New York Times. Below was a picture of a soiled bat and the carton in which we were led to believe the cudgel had been packed for safe return. This is enterprise. This is heads-up salesmanship. This is terribly depressing.
But let us review: on a midsummer night, the Royals of Kansas City were tussling in the Bronx with that contingent of millionaires and misanthropes known as the New York Yankees, and, presently, an epic squabble developed. Little commendable can be said about the Yankees’ part in the drama or, for that matter, about the Yankees generally. Here is a team that distinguishes itself mainly by periodically firing its pugnacious manager, Billy Martin, and yet those nods toward good sense are compromised soon enough because the Yankees inevitably rehire Martin amid much sentimentality and spirited advance ticket sales. Each reinstatement is a message sent by the organization and its lumpish potentate, George Steinbrenner, that brawling, bar-hopping and bacchanalia not only are acceptable but represent the sort of high adventure that enhances team unity and builds champions. No wonder so many sad hearts cry out, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?”
Anyway, late in the disputed contest, George Brett of the Royals put his gang ahead with a respectable wallop into the right-field seats. Martin, brash and sly, argued that the homer be disallowed because pine tar on Brett’s bat exceeded the 18-inch limit. Umpires considered the matter gravely, confiscated the lumber and ruled for the home team—a determination that at least made it safe for the men in blue to travel back to their hotel. Brett fumed, puffed out his belly and filled the air with more expletives than did Richard Nixon in those days when he routinely held seminars on the morality of dissent and the manners of a renegade press. At the end of nine innings, the Yankees were ahead.
As a result, the Royals complained to the American League office, and, fol-
lowing deliberations worthy of the Vatican, Commissioner Lee MacPhail reversed the lower court. Brett’s home run bounded back into the record books, and the Royals went ahead in a contest long since abandoned. Subsequently, MacPhail ordered that the game be completed Aug. 18, commencing at the point where the pine-tar incident had left off. The bat? It was dispatched westward, evidently by air express.
Yankee fans—those who earlier had celebrated the majesty of baseball’s judicial system—cried larceny. Steinbrenner coyly suggested MacPhail might not be safe in New York (“Perhaps he should start house-hunting in Missouri,” sneered the Boss), and Martin sputtered about a breakdown in law and order. Newspapers, magazines and television pitched themselves into the controversy anew, and Americans, on front steps and in backyards, examined the question with exceeding care.
'Now that history has ceased to come packaged as theatref Americans seem content to let the world slip by ’
“The spirit of the law must be upheld,” proclaimed a school teacher from New Hampshire. “We are a people of intent, a humane and intelligent culture, bound not by words on paper but by the dictates of conscience and Christian imperative. MacPhail is a philosopher, not a law clerk. He has seized the moment.” The teacher’s adversary, employed in a trade that did not allow for two months meditation each summer, was more to the point: “A rule is a rule. The Yanks was robbed.”
Meanwhile, it was not exactly as if the world had shut down. Ronald Reagan, for instance, determined that conditions in Central America were parlous enough to require the services of Henry Kissinger: Uh-huh, that Henry Kissinger. The former secretary of state now heads a policy committee and, when ready, will inform the White House as to what course the United States might best pursue in those small and bothersome nations threatening hemispheric peace and the sleep of our chief executive. On Kissinger, a batsman like George Brett has nothing. Big Hank is considered by many the most
dangerous of hitters, a fellow who demonstrated in Southeast Asia a knack for blowing the game wide open, if you will, for burning up the base paths and everything else.
Yet at poolside this season we were not arguing the merits of Henry’s new post. If he’s back, he’s back. We take him in stride. Politics have escaped our imaginations, perhaps exceeded them. People would rather talk, with passion, about recipes for Unguine al pesto, natural childbirth, the virtue of Japanese autos, declining prices in the personal computer market, Simon and Garfunkel reunited, prospects for the United States Football League, tuition costs, Navajo jewelry. Politeness counts.
Yes, the professionals—the politicians and social scientists and the odd university don who can spare a moment away from their stockbrokerstill kick around matters relating to foreign policy and domestic planning. A few hearty souls persist in being dragged off by police outside nuclear plants and military bases. Later this month a contingent of diehards will even march through Washington on behalf of peace and freedom, a trip down memory lane if ever one were taken.
But, for most of us, current events have lost their charm, it seems. Our attention span has diminished most alarmingly in the past two decades. Civil rights, Vietnam, even Watergate—it was easy to be alert, on top of things, back then. Now that history has ceased to come packaged as theatre, however, we seem bored, groggy, careless, content to let the world slip by.
Recently President Reagan expressed dismay over reports that significant numbers of Americans were without adequate food supplies. Such news “perplexed” him, the president said, because it was his impression the administration had some nifty programs in place, and, besides, the economy was recovering. Hunger? Gosh, he just hadn’t heard. Who can blame him? Unpleasantness has long since lost its appeal as a topic for proper conversation. The great issues now are likely to deal with baseball bats and big-league jurisprudence. The Yankees may claim to have suffered in the pine-tar case, but think about what has happened to the quality of debate and public awareness by comparison. Robbed? Hey, buddy, we was all robbed.
Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.
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