In the Diaspora: Hall of Shame

To be a sports fan is to exist in a state of cognitive dissonance, endowing a massive industry with the purity of play.

Freedman, samuel 88 (photo credit: )
Freedman, samuel 88
(photo credit: )
In the center of official Washington, deep in the belly of the Capitol itself, two erstwhile allies last week addressed the nation as adversaries. They were not, as you might surmise, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, the Democratic senators vying fervidly for their party's presidential nomination. No, these combatants were from that putative "field of dreams," Major League Baseball, and they were the dominant pitcher of the last generation, Roger Clemens, and his former trainer, Brian McNamee. Clemens and McNamee had been subpoenaed by a congressional committee looking into the use of illegal steroids by professional ballplayers. The scandal had lately been distilled to the mano-a-mano confrontation between McNamee, who claims to have supplied and injected Clemens with steroids and human growth hormone, and Clemens, who has issued blanket denials. Before a panel of House members, before a filled gallery of spectators, before a live audience on cable television, the men played their irreconcilable roles, both under oath and one of them by definition lying. Calm and contrite, McNamee admitted his roles as dealer and doctor, roles he had lied about during an earlier investigation. Clemens defended himself with truculent swagger. In this tableau, the sporting equivalent of the congressional hearings on Watergate and Joseph McCarthy, the most visible Jews were either politicians (Henry Waxman) or lawyers (Lanny Breuer). The postwar trajectory of American Jews into education, affluence and the professions has left behind the ghetto era when athletics offered a desperate route to success. Yet there was some distinctly Jewish relevance to the riveting and depressing spectacle of Clemens and McNamee bearing witness. In alley stickball games, in nickel bleacher seats, baseball offered immigrant Jews a means of becoming American. Even if Jews made greater marks in boxing and basketball, baseball was the sport mythically bound to some kind of agrarian, Jeffersonian country. So when a Hank Greenberg or a Sandy Koufax could star in this game, he performed a feat of appropriation akin to Oscar Hammerstein embracing the frontier saga in Oklahoma. The majority culture was our culture, too. LOGIC AND experience should have told us long ago to mistrust the kind of sentimentality that attaches itself to the business of sports. Way back in the 1910s, Irving Berlin wrote a song, "Jake, Jake, the Yiddisher Ballplayer," that described a spectator losing a 50-cent bet when the title character strikes out. Later in the same decade, a real-life gambler by the name of Arnold Rothstein supplied the necessary venture capital to fix the 1919 "Black Sox" World Series. He lives on in the fictional form of Meyer Wolfsheim in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. But, Jewish or gentile, to be a sports fan is to exist in a state of cognitive dissonance, endowing a massive industry with the purity of play. The mounting and irrefutable evidence of steroid abuse in baseball, chronicled in the recent report overseen by former senator George Mitchell, shatters that delicate, cherished web of self-delusion. And perhaps because Clemens had some of his most renowned years with the New York Yankees, in this most Jewish of American cities, the accusations against him ripple through our tribe. To Jeffrey Gurock, a professor at Yeshiva University whose scholarly specialties include American Jews and sports, the dueling testimonies resonated with a concept as basic to Judaism as the Ten Commandments. "It is not the act of using HGH or steroids that is in play," he put it, "as much as the simple Jewish ethical issue of one or perhaps both of these fellows bearing false witness." Amplifying the point, he explained, "For any person of faith - be they Jew or Christian - you saw the conflict between the religious teaching of not swearing falsely and the secular sports value of honoring loyalty above all else to a teammate. It is yet another tension between sports and religion that is played out in our contemporary society." THE BESMIRCHING of baseball with steroids - from Mark McGwire to Barry Bonds to Roger Clemens, notwithstanding each one's continuing to dispute the allegations - points to another tension. This one is between America the innocent as it presented itself to Jews (as well as other immigrants) and America the imperfect as they came to see it actually functioning. One of the most penetrating moments in Clemens's testimony came when he told his story, the story in which he was the son of a single mother, so poor he ran two miles home from school every day, possessed only of the relentless work ethic that would carry him to seven Cy Young awards. His Horatio Alger narrative left no room for the needles and ampules and blood-stained cotton swabs that McNamee has turned over to investigators, for the evidence of unearned advantage. (Just as the real Horatio Alger covered over the fact he had been born rich.) But it was McNamee, the former cop, now disgraced as a belated whistleblower, who embodied America as it is, the flawed place, flawed even in the so-called "green cathedrals" of its baseball stadiums. We, a people who stomp on a glass on the wedding day to symbolize the broken world, should have known as much already.