The choirs that sing of baseball can get pretty moist--green grass, beautiful proportions, fathers playing catch with sons--sometimes you'd think we were talking about brotherhood, God and Mom and not some game played with a stick and a ball. More bad sentences have been committed in its name than in that of every other sport.
But there have been more good ones too. One of the best is from A. Bartlett Giamatti, who was Commissioner of Baseball back when there was still a Commissioner of Baseball. "Baseball is about going home," Giamatti wrote, "and how hard it is to get there and how driven is our need."
Certainly that need could not have been more driven, more powerful than it was in the political plague year just passing. We needed Mark McGwire in 1998, needed him desperately. He couldn't banish the stain of sleaze that leached through our public life this year, nor could he restore civility to our discourse or turn the media's attention to rotten schools or Serbian brutality. He is, after all, only a baseball player.
But what a baseball player he is, and what a year it was, and what balm he brought to a nation that seemed to spend the year flaying its flesh. It may be true that Babe Ruth said, on being asked to justify his earning more money than Herbert Hoover, "I had a better year than he did." Surely if McGwire were asked the same question regarding the current occupant of Hoover's office, he could make the same reply. And we would respond, "Thank heavens."
Complex societies do not easily find leaders to follow, even causes to unite behind. If Ronald Reagan was our last widely beloved President, you'd hardly know it from the depth of antipathy he provoked in 40% of the population. The good war--the universally endorsed war--is a half-century behind us. Entertainers? Not a chance. Our tastes are too motley, our options too many. And the entertainer's natural vanity is implicit in his choice of a career.
But no one could gainsay Mark McGwire. Nor could we have invented him: he was that close to perfect. He assaulted the most textured record in the most apposite sport--the sport closest to the American bone and yet most in need of a rehabilitation of the spirit. McGwire built steadily toward his moment, through 11 seasons marked by astonishing accomplishment and devastating failure. He remained at once focused on his goal and joyful in its pursuit, during which he embraced his closest rival. He never bragged, never proclaimed that he was the great white hope or the straw that stirred the drink. But--and this may be even rarer in professional sports--neither did he paw the ground in false modesty. He knew he was good, and knowing it made him even better.