September 18, 2004


Our Asterisked Heroes (Douglas Kern, Summer 2004, The New Atlantis)

Attenuated heroism—in baseball and elsewhere—is our future. Performance-enhancing drugs already allow today’s athletes to surpass the records of yesteryear, and the pharmacological and genetic enhancements of the future may one day make today’s champions look average. But as our greatest athletes grow ever more capable, we may eventually look backwards for our examples of heroism. In the champions of old, we will find achievements born of something greater than science and personal choice; we will find a drama of heroism and tragedy that progress itself may now be flattening out of existence. [...]

Definitions of heroism are elusive; examples of heroism are plentiful. The heroes of myth—Perseus, Odysseus, King Arthur, and Hercules, to name just a few—were not always perfect exemplars of goodness, but all of them accomplished great deeds with noble purpose. Few would question the selfless heroism of soldiers who stand their ground in battle or firefighters who rush into burning buildings while everyone else is rushing out. But can we really speak of a baseball record as heroic? A sports accomplishment saves no lives, imparts no wisdom, and lends no timeless beauty to the world. It derives its sole merit from the drama that it embodies. Athletic competition commands our attention and excites our passions, and for that reason alone we should take it seriously.

Every spectator sport reflects back to the world symbols and portents of the drama inherent in all life. The drama inherent in baseball uniquely captures the drama of ordinary life in America. It is a drama of daily labor and ordinary toils, mundane in themselves but vital in their accumulation. It is a drama rooted in the certainty of failure: the best batter will fail to get on base more often than he will succeed, and the best pitcher will give up three runs for every nine innings pitched. It is a drama of repetition and domesticity, not martial grandeur. Youth is served in the spring; the old and lame depart in the fall; and man toils under the sun in the ­summer.

Unlike football, basketball, soccer, and hockey, baseball does not partition the playing field into “ours” and “theirs”; teams do not march up and down an imaginary battleground, seizing and surrendering territory. Unique among all team sports, baseball moves in a circle. The drama focuses on the home—leaving from it, defending it, returning to it, just as all men do in the paths of life. Baseball is bourgeois life, at once made smaller and grander.

But the real drama of baseball—the heroic dimension of baseball—is beyond bourgeois. To hit a single home run in a major league baseball game is to defy the edges of the expected; nearly all home runs fly past the boundaries of the baseball field, well outside the prescribed zone of play—outside of the realm that the stadium itself defines to be normal. One home run is a great victory. To surpass all men in all recorded history in home runs struck in a single season is beyond belief. And beyond belief is where heroism is found.

In the Fall 1990 issue of The Public Interest, Donald Kagan defends the heroic understanding of baseball from the allegedly anti-heroic vision extolled by George F. Will in his 1990 bestseller, Men at Work: The Craft of Baseball. Kagan argues that the appeal of baseball lies in the splendor of heroic accomplishments: the majesty of home runs and bat-splintering hits and acrobatic catches. He rejects Will’s preference for careful, analytical, base-to-base baseball, speculating playfully that Will prefers plodding, anti-heroic baseball because Will detects in himself more of the gritty worker than the dashing, heroic champion.

Will dismisses these arguments in his rebuttal, noting that Kagan, as a professor of classics at Yale, is a man accustomed to the company of gods. (Kagan’s article and Will’s response also appear in Will’s 1998 compilation of baseball essays, Bunts.) For men without gods for fathers, Will suggests, the modest baseball achievements that spring from thought, experience, and perception provide a sufficiently satisfying and heroic spectacle.

Will reasons carefully and intelligently, but Kagan wins the debate. We may watch individual baseball games to enjoy contemplative, strategic play, but unlikely heroic exploits inspire us to pass the tradition of baseball on to our children. Heroism cements the irrational attachment from which abiding love springs. Sturdy, determined players who make the most of their skills will always have a prominent role to play, but in the end they are the squires to the Lancelots and Galahads of the game. The four thousandth stolen base, the three thousandth game started—our minds tell us that these milestones are important. But a game-winning home run? A diving catch to save a perfect game? A headfirst slide into home? Those accomplishments speak to the heart of heroism. [...]

Science threatens to peel away this uncertainty. In his 2000 collection of essays, Hooking Up, Tom Wolfe discusses a machine that can accurately gauge the I.Q. of any given person, simply by monitoring the subject’s brainwave activity while staring at a tack on a wall. Despite the machine’s proven accuracy, no one wanted to buy one. Why not? No one wanted to know his own I.Q. with such an incontrovertible degree of accuracy. A mediocre score on an ordinary I.Q. test can be attributed to any number of factors: an upset stomach, an inability to test well, family problems, math anxiety, and so on. But from the verdict of the machine, from the verdict of science, there is no appeal.

True self-knowledge is a terrifying thing. We crave uncertainty when it comes to our abilities—for the mystery of uncertainty makes room for miracles of achievement. Uncertainty allows for the possibility of heroism. No act would be heroic if it were wholly preordained. Great heroic acts—be they home runs, battles narrowly won, breakthroughs suddenly realized, sacrifices spontaneously made—all thrill us in part because the possibility of failure was so strong. We cannot know if the champion will find within himself the resources to triumph this time, in this struggle, even if his will is strong, even if he has triumphed before. But genetic engineering reduces such uncertainty. In the future, to know a man’s genes with scientific precision will be to know his propensities, limits, and intrinsic advantages with an accuracy that mere observation cannot rival. Ordinarily, we can only guess at the measure of a man. We can only examine a man’s actions, words, and demonstrated abilities in the hope of understanding some small fragment of the enigma that is each living person. But in a world remade by genetic engineering, the mysteries of human nature and human ability are replaced with the irrefutable certainty of gene charts and case histories. The tension between success and failure is less compelling when the thumb of artificial improvement is placed on the scale. And so, for want of uncertainty, heroism is diminished.

Baseball, in particular, should aggressively defend the integrity of its timeless records by testing for performance enhancers. But Mr. Kern's idea that artificial advantage lessens heroism is probably not true. In a fair fight between David and Goliath we well know that David would get whipped. But he had a sling, which was effectively like bringing a gun to the fight. It hasn't seemed to diminish his aura of heroism much. Similarly, Arthur had Excalibur, Robin Hood his long bow and so on and so forth. We've never been overly disturbed by our heroes exploiting superior technology to their advantage.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 18, 2004 6:47 PM

Well, baseball's records aren't exactly timeless...

Even without steroids, blood doping, amphetamines, etc., conditions have changed mightily over the century-plus that pro ball has been played.
Changes to equipment, to the field, to the talent pool, even to adding a weight room.

Comparing statistics across eras is already more art than science.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 18, 2004 11:59 PM

Another example:

Indiana Jones shooting the swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Arc.

Posted by: Thom at September 19, 2004 1:16 PM