bThere are players who play the game and get by largely on the strength of physical skill. Others have more cerebral games, they search for mental edges in the battle between pitcher and hitter, manipulating the count and the strike zone to their advantage.
Rare, however, is the player who is able to keep himself completely focused on the big picture, and use a mind numbing level of strategery to manipulate, not the outcome of individual games, but the course of the entire season-- such a player is Billy Wagner.
What was he thinking when he gave up the decisive two-run homer in last night’s All-Star game? He was thinking “If the Mets play a game 7 in the World Series, I want it to be Jack Kerouac-style: on the road.” Why? Well, the abysmal Scott Shcoenwise hadn’t surrendered an earned run on the road, until the most recent trip. Both Carloses hate hitting at Shea. On the whole, the Mets have a slightly higher winning percentage on the road, than they do at home. And there is speculation that Willy Randolph had a traumatic experience with a cow-bell when he was a child—and the clanging of the cow-bell man evokes a Proustian anguish of memory that impacts his in-game decision making.
So only Wagner’s cunning and guile was able to negate the runs that Reyes and Beltran had recklessly put up, and people whose first reaction was “Well, if we lose game 7 on the road, we’ll have Billy Wagner to thank for it… although chances are we’ll be thinking less about the fucking all-star game, and more about the save he just blew,” are considering the thing only on the meanest, and most rudimentary level—regretfully ignorant of the game of chess transpiring in the back-ground.
My other All-Star game observation is that the commentators seemed to be unusually un-judgmental about steroids, and particularly accepting of Barry Bonds. The sense is, and they almost discussed this openly, that they are sort of preparing for a time, not necessarily in the immediate future, when people are retired and it becomes revealed that god damn everyone in baseball was on steroids in a period that began in the ‘90s and might or might not be ending now. When this time comes, both the sports-media establishment and Major League Baseball do not want to look like complete and utter jack-asses—and want to avoid inquiries into what role the people who made money selling tickets and providing commentary on the home-run races of the ‘90s had in encouraging, implicitly or otherwise, the chemicals that made these races possible.
The baseball establishment has begun to realize that by being shrill about steroids, they are very much like a serpent devouring its own tail. At the end of the day, the only capitol in baseball is the players themselves—not only their accomplishments and records, but also the drama that they provide as human beings. If the current, anti-steroid stance is maintained, revelations of massive steroid use will serve to massively de-value this capitol; and while being moralistic about steroids was fun and sold papers, it is just dawning on them that, at the end of the day, it might put everyone, from the commissioner to the hot-dog vendors, out of a job.
Indeed, baseball is beginning to realize that some sort of re-habilitation of Barry Bonds needs to take place if he is ever going to posses the home-run record. Since Bonds was always antagonistic to the media and kind of a jerk, they thought, until recently, that they could write him off with an asterisk and be done with it. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that Bonds is a symptom of a larger culture and the asterisk placed by his name would reflect on an era of baseball as well. The only way to avoid, probably damning, judgment on the entire era, is to rehabilitate Bonds in the public’s eye: he has already promised A-Rod his support if he ever approaches the record, something that Hank Aaron has denied him; we are inundated with stories of players going to him to discuss hitting; we are shown glimpses of his relationship with Willie Mays.