GRAVER: Looking to Cooperstown

Gravely mistaken

I was never going to be recruited to Yale for baseball. Over the three seasons I played on my high school varsity team, my career average never topped .200, and it wasn’t because I was facing the next generation of all-star prospects.

And yet, after last week, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds may well have about the same chances of getting into the Hall of Fame as I do. Over winter break, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America made a resounding rejection of the legends of the “Steroid Era,” voting nobody into Cooperstown for 2013. Among the rejected group were the all-time leader in home runs (Bonds), the pitcher who amassed the most Cy Young awards in history (Clemens) and someone with 600 career long balls (Mark McGwire).

For our generation, there is a particular, profound distinction — and accompanying heartbreak — that comes with this group of players. They are not just a distant era’s group of elite, but they were our heroes, the group of titans that championed the baseball diamond in our childhoods. We won’t get a second batch.

I remember getting the chance to meet Mark McGwire when I was in first grade. Although a Yankees fan at the time, I wore a Cardinals hat all day and giddily counted the minutes until meeting the man who had just struck 70 home runs. He was an idol, larger than life in a fashion both perplexing and permanent.

But now, that memory is joined to those of watching these men trade their jerseys for courtroom suits, and their bats for depositions. In the place of the fascinated admiration of many childhoods lies an acute vacuum where these giants once towered.

The fall of a baseball hero holds a particular brand of tragedy. For many American children, our first impression of our national identity comes through the introduction to our national pastime. Many of us will never forget the first time we craned our necks at the towering coliseum before us, steeped in tradition and wonder, the trance only broken by a father’s hand, leading us inside so that we wouldn’t miss batting practice.

Yale University historian J.H. Hexter once wrote, “Baseball is society, played as a game.” There is something exceptional to the sport that makes it almost instinctually American. It exudes an aura that connects, with a natural fluidity, to our national psyche, aggregating experiences into a near muscle memory of our character.

As Walt Whitman wrote: “Baseball is our game. The American game. It will repair our losses and be a blessing to us.”

Yet, the social elixir of which Whitman speaks, while not wholly absent, is poisoned just enough for our generation. The memories still exist, but there is a bright, blinding asterisk that serves as the guiding light when we look back at them.

The timing of the Hall of Fame vote comes at a fitting juncture for people our age. Having just filled out our first presidential ballot, we are coming to the point in our lives where we are closer to being the hand guiding someone into the stadium rather than the eyes gazing upwards. Perhaps not in a strict sense of years, but certainly in disposition.

And at this point, it is difficult not to find ourselves searching for Cooperstown in some other form. But, in places, the road appears equally forlorn. On the precipice of adulthood, we do not have a Roosevelt or Kennedy or Reagan to embody the identity that straddles reality and reverie. Our political class, rather, is steeped in folly, vice and madness. Trade in your performance-enhancing drugs for shallowly constructed sound bites, and we have the same cheap tricks temporarily clinging onto varied heartstrings.

But perhaps, as we stand one more pile of cover letters away from the real world, this is exactly the blessing we need. In an age like ours, ignorant of our limits yet indulgent in our affectations, we are living in an age of heroes that look more like Icarus than Aeneas. Maybe it’s the right time, as we look to Cooperstown, to look straight ahead, rather than crane upwards.

Harry Graver is a junior in Davenport College. Contact him at harry.graver@yale.edu .

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