Heroism is in short supply, anymore. In fact, since the end of World War II, the number of people American society has called ‘hero’ has been in steady, steep, inexorable decline.
Politicians used to be heroes, but Richard Nixon drove the final nail into that coffin. Our preferred fiction featured strong heroes for a long time, but sometime in the 1970s, a subversive spirit crept into a greater and greater number of popular movies, and nowadays, even megawatt movies about superheroes from the 1950s have dark edges. The Beatles broke up and Elvis died strung out and fat on a toilet; musicians and other celebrities lost their shine for us.
Athletes were the last heroes. As recently as the late 1990s, Cal Ripken, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and a dozen other sportsmen were among not only the most famous Americans, but the ones most carefully exalted as examples for children to follow. At nine years old, I knew not only Jordan’s greatest shots and Ripken’s streak, but also that Jordan had been cut from his high-schools basketball team, and that Woods would putt with his father from the time he learned to walk, and that Sammy Sosa grew up playing ball with a milk-carton glove, picking and selling oranges, shining George Bell’s shoes.
Because athletes were heroes to us long after others ceased to be, their stories became as important to us as their accomplishments. Imagine our collective horror, then, when it turned out that none of the men on the pedestals had the balance to stay there.
Baseball catches a huge amount of the flak for this, thanks to their performance-enhancing drug crisis. (The ambiguity of that phrase is intentional.) It wasn’t a baseball-only problem, though—not by a longshot. A vacuum began to swallow the last heroes American society recognized, as Americans at first felt betrayed by those whom they had worshipped, then (healthily) came around to the idea that heroism isn’t earned in such whimsical endeavors as sports.
That’s still, basically, how we feel. I’m not sure any active athlete captures the imagination of the country the way several guys did even 15 years ago. We have more intimate information about today’s stars than we ever came close to having about their predecessors, and yet, the growing gap between the income of an elite athlete (or even an average, solid pro) and those of the typical fan makes them feel more distant. We can only view modern players as flawed, fleeting and frustrating. We are unable to deal with them as equals, and unable to worship them as superiors, so we mostly treat them as somehow worse than the rest of us.
Jackie Robinson Day, as much as it may feel like an ancient ritual, only became an official baseball holy day (with on-field ceremonies and other tributes) in 2004, just as the last generation of the game’s contemporary heroes were crashing to the ground, thrown from their pedestals. It’s a day to remember that Robinson suits our new definition of heroism every bit as well as he suited the old one.
A part of me wishes sport could survive as an important cultural institution without creating heroes. A bigger part wishes our sporting culture was a bit more forgiving, so that we could still have new heroes, and could even reclaim some of the old ones. My main thrust here is: I dearly miss having people I considered heroic so close within my grasp, and I want badly to feel good in passing some semblance of the awe and joy those players brought to me on to my two young sons. I hope there are heroes in sports again, and soon, even if the true definition of heroism is somewhat stretched by their inclusion.
That said, Robinson’s legacy is unblemished with good cause. If he’s baseball’s only hero for another few years, well, we could be worse off.
A final note: As they always do, players across the league donned the number 42 yesterday. It began as a begrudgingly permitted homage, paid by Ken Griffey, Jr. and a handful of other African-American players five or so years ago. It is now a league-wide gesture, and wearing 42 is an official expectation, if not a requirement.
I wish this weren’t so. While the meaning isn’t lost on me even now (and while Robinson’s biopic sounded a neat ahistorical note with this zinger), institutional tributes will always be dwarfed by personal ones. It simply can’t and doesn’t mean as much when everyone wears 42 as it did when only those who solemnly cared to do so did it. It’s a small thing, but I hope this tribute is turned back over to the discretion of individuals at some point.Next post: Astros Promote George Springer, and Have Totally Mishandled Him
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