THE BLOG
03/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Heads in the Sand (And Why Baseball Survives)

Donald Fehr, who heads baseball's players' union, launched his spring training barnstorming tour yesterday by assuring one and all that just because 103 players in addition to Alex Rodriguez tested positive in 2003 for banned substances, this by no means taints the reputations of everyone else.

A foolish claim, but not unexpected.

It is Fehr's job to protect his rank and file -- both in their earning potential and in their reputations, no matter how badly some of them have behaved. So forget any retreat on the arrangement that assured that those names remain confidential. Fehr is no fool and, like Commissioner Bud Selig, must know that the names will leak, just like A-Rod's.

With each new name will come more calls for a full airing of every documented juicer. The response will be the inevitable palaver about putting the "steroids era" behind us, and instead focusing on all the many things the game now does to crack down on the dopers.

Even as several of the game's luminaries -- Brad Lidge, Curt Schilling and Lance Berkman -- are calling for a release of all those names, the sense here is that Fehr, Selig and, most importantly, the owners will ignore those pleas in the belief that they can wait the critics out.

And, sadly, they are probably right.

They are right because there remains a healthy portion of baseball fandom that would like to forget the whole, sordid business, and who can point to the public humiliations of such outsized stars as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, and now A-Rod as evidence of the sanction that awaits those who dare besmirch the sanctity of the great game.

But there is something else at play here which explains how it is that baseball endures, even in the face of scandal: modest expectations.

Contrary to its prevailing myth, baseball is not a national sport, certainly not like football. Rather, it is a local game, which explains, in part, how it is that attendance can rise even as World Series ratings decline. People love and follow and wear the colors of their teams, their stars. It much the same way that people think of, say, schools: the state of American public education is forever held in low regard. But people do love their kids' schools.

Baseball rose to the lofty perch of National Pastime not by design but by default -- no other professional team sports that could compete with baseball until the 1960s. But, in truth, baseball was not so much an organized sport as it was a series of fiefdoms, presided over by -- forgive the metaphor -- warlords, the most powerful of whom were motivated by the overwhelming desire to enrich themselves as the expense of everyone else.

The domineering owners of the past -- the Dodgers' Walter O'Malley, the Yankees' Del Webb (who when he wasn't building hotels was building casinos) -- cared very little about the greater good of the game. They cared about themselves, and made sure that the game was presided over by figurehead commissioners who could be relied upon to their bidding.

Only once in baseball's long history was there a moment when the greater good was imposed by a higher authority -- when the sport's first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, banned for life the eight Chicago White Sox accused of throwing the 1919 World Series. Landis spent the next 25 years meting out fines, assuming a resolute demeanor, and ensuring that baseball's shameful color barrier endured. He was otherwise a self-important fool.

Baseball has almost always been a game without a center, without an organizing logic or prevailing sense of what might be in most everyone's best interests. There is nothing in baseball that resembles the "league think" that the late Pete Rozelle imposed upon the NFL when he was its commissioner. This is not to say that pro football is a model organization. But consider that football embraced revenue sharing in the 1960s, and with it the promise to its fans that on any given Sunday any team could beat any other. It took baseball over 40 years to appreciate that tenant of sporting wisdom.

Baseball was slow to integrate, slow to acknowledge that its players deserved pensions, slow to embrace the possibilities of television, slow to appreciate how the perception of widespread cheating could undermine the sport.

How could it be otherwise? No one was in charge. And because the value of the game -- as measured by the value of franchises -- continued to grow, there was no incentive to change. Wealthy men came to the game, and grew richer merely by cashing out. The players saw this, and quite reasonably wanted a piece of the action.

And so it is that baseball has been plagued since, yes, the late 1980s, by a scandal from which it cannot extricate itself.

The names will leak. Testing will one day presumably begin on Human Growth Hormones, which may well uncover yet another cache of cheaters. Congress will call on Selig, Fehr and perhaps several more players. Righteous anger will follow.

But there will be a game that night. And another game the next. People will come out to see the local fellows play.

San Francisco loved Barry Bonds, even as fans everyplace else turned out dressed as hypodermic needles to taunt him.

Bonds was a cheater, but in San Fransisco he was "our" cheater.

Give A-Rod until his first two-home-run game of the season to be celebrated with a curtain call.
So long as the home crowd pays to see him, baseball can delude itself into believing that all is good in the world.