Little Papi

Baseball has remained the great American pastime long after it was passed in popularity on TV and in backyards because of its uncanny tendency to mirror society. This was reaffirmed by this summer’s uproar over revelations that “Ortiz, David” was one of the names on “The List.”

The mourning for the loss of Ortiz’ innocence seemed to once again mirror the national zeitgeist. Big Papi is, of course, just the latest member of the All-Asterisk team, but because he was seen as the heart and soul of the Red Sox and as the Nation’s de-facto ambassador to America, his fall from grace hit Boston fans particularly hard.

Papi’s public disrobing this summer wasn’t tragic or shocking so much as it was timely. Papi’s innocence is just the latest in a string of Emperor’s-New-Clothes-like illusions that have marked the past decade and which have been steadily, albeit sometimes painfully, revealed with varying degrees of feigned and genuine surprise.

Too young to care about baseball before the strike in 1994, my earliest memories come from the record-breaking power surge of the late ’90s. Like every fan my age and older, I remember the summer of 1998 for the moments spent scurrying to the nearest TV whenever Sosa or McGwire threatened the records of Ruth and Maris. That summer’s hardball fireworks happened to coincide with a brief hiccup that served as nothing more than a semicolon in a decade-long, run-on sentence of previously unimaginable financial growth. As I was 10 years old, it would be a stretch to claim that I was aware of the market’s rise that summer (whatever interest I could afford to the news was gobbled up by the much more interesting Monica Lewinsky). But with hindsight, the boom of the 1990s seem perfectly captured by that record-shattering season.

Today, McGwire and Sosa are personae non gratae in Cooperstown, and 1998 stands as a glaring reminder of what now appears so obvious: that the good times of the late ’90s were built on something other than Big Mac’s hard-scrabble midwestern work ethic or the Caribbean, Garcia-Marquez-esque, mythical mastery of Slammin’ Sammy. Rather, they were fueled by a toxic cocktail of steroids and willful ignorance.

Likening steroids and other performance enhancing drugs to the exotic derivatives and over-leveraging of the 1990s and 2000s may be a too convenient conceit. Nevertheless, there are startling similarities that once again reaffirm baseball’s unique position in American society as a pitch-perfect mimic of the economic and political climate.

The Roaring Twenties had its “live-ball” era, with oversized sluggers like Ruth and Gehrig hitting home runs at previously unimaginable rates as the country experienced the climax of its first Gilded Age. The 1940s saw Americans invest in “total war,” which came to include even baseball’s brightest stars, including Ted Williams, who volunteered for active duty. The postwar period, as has been noted and honored with such frequency as to become perfunctory and cliché, saw the integration of baseball and with it, the opening of the door to greater integration in society. The deaths of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr. had their baseball echo in Roberto Clemente’s death in 1972, which served as an explosive punctuation mark at the close of the “60s” and ushered in the era of what-do-we-do-now malaise, stagflation, oil shocks and Nixon’s demise. Finally, the economic boom of the 1990s and early 2000s had its home-run kings, whose singular ability to hit balls farther and more frequently than any players before captured the hearts and minds of fans and, while the balls kept flying, obscured the underlying instability of the boom.

Steroids did not give McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, or any other pariahs the ability to hit major-league pitching. All but the most ardent moralists and car-radio screamers would grant that most of the now tarnished stars of baseball’s Juiced Era were skilled ballplayers even without the aid of chemical enhancement. PEDs let great athletes leverage their skills to even higher, previously unimaginable levels. They enabled marginal athletes to make massive sums of money playing a kids game. And they allowed baseball to return to the glory it had lost in the 1994 strike.

Similarly, the boom times of the late 1990s and 2000s—first the technology bubble, then the real estate bubble—were driven by over-leveraging and willful ignorance. Like PEDs of baseball’s elite, the acronyms of the financial world—CDOs, CDSs, LBOs, etc.—were not skills or products in and of themselves. Rather, like PEDs, they were once-exotic, unregulated tools that allowed really smart people to make a ton of money and marginally smart people to come along for the ride, eventually becoming common and insidiously far-reaching. And like steroids, the financial tools of the current era were almost all condoned by the relevant governing bodies. Similar, too, is the extent to which the central figures in the drama and the supposed powers-that-be profess total ignorance as the bubble bursts. Ortiz’s statement echoes the defenses put forth by financial executives and regulators hiding behind unforeseeable circumstances: “Based on the way I have lived my life, I am surprised to learn I tested positive.”

Today’s era of de-leveraging calls out for a baseball figure to serve as its diamond representative. Big Papi may not be the perfect choice. Perhaps A-Rod, with his particular blend of hubris and insecurity, his enormous paycheck, and Manhattan address more closely mirrors the era’s Wall-Street-fueled excesses.

But the public naming of Big Papi has been lamented because of the unique stature Papi had as a beloved, jovial, larger-than-life figure—a Dominican Santa Claus with a hitting prowess sui generis. For a team that serves as the “heart and soul” of a region to a degree unmatched anywhere else in the country, David Ortiz carried the mantle of “heart-and-soul” for the Red Sox with greater gusto than almost any player in the league (perhaps Pujols, Jeter, or Ichiro matches him in this metric). His oversized smile and swing thus held a special place in the hearts of baseball’s most avid fans.

So, Papi’s name on “The List” did rattle a particular sense of innocence. But Ortiz is hardly the first figure of national or regional significance to be revealed as a fraud, a cheat or an artificially enhanced Frankenstein. Like the housing and stock markets in which so many Americans invested much more than their hearts and souls, the brand of baseball that captured Americans’ attentions over the past decade has been revealed for what it was: an inflated, bizarre version of the real thing.

We’ve lost an innocence bred from willful ignorance, which blinded Americans to the steroid-fueled excesses of the Juiced Era and the debt-fueled excesses of our economies’ latest Gilded Age. If from now on we must live with slower growth, fewer home runs, and the genuine, Little Papi, so be it.

Gabriel J. Daly ’10 is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House.