Friday, May 2, 2008

Boomers, Blogs, Heroes, and Antiheroes

“He made Mickey Mantle cry. The papers said the Mick cried.”

“Mickey Mantle? That's what you're upset about?"

"Mickey Mantle don't care about you. Why care about him?”

- Parts of an exchange from the 1993 movie “Bronx Tale

“For a huge portion of my generation, Mickey Mantle was that baseball hero. And for reasons that no statistics, no dry recitation of the facts can possibly capture, he was the most compelling baseball hero of our lifetime. And he was our symbol of baseball at at time when the game meant something to us that perhaps it no longer does.”
– excerpt from Bob Costas's speech at Mickey Mantle’s funeral

Hero: (n) – 1. In mythology and legend, a man, often of divine ancestry, who is endowed with great courage and strength, celebrated for his bold exploits, and favored by the gods.
2. A person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life
3. A person noted for special achievement in a particular field

Antihero: (n) - A main character in a dramatic or narrative work who is characterized by a lack of traditional heroic qualities, such as idealism or courage.
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For many kids throughout the 1950s and '60s, Mickey Mantle was the Great American Athlete. “The Mick” was the best and most popular player on the best and most popular team in the most popular sport in the land. In the eyes of fans and the media of the time, Mickey Mantle could do no wrong.

Like millions of others, Bob Costas was one of those fans. Born in Queens and raised on Long Island, NY, Costas grew up idolizing Mantle and carried that passion well into adulthood, even going as far as carrying a Mantle baseball card in his wallet. Throughout his life, Mantle has been baseball and baseball has been Mickey Mantle for Bob Costas.

Of course, the Mick wasn’t the only idol of the times. Dozens of scribes have penned tribute after tribute to Mantle’s contemporaries, players such as Willie Mays, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Stan Musial, Joe DiMaggio, and Ted Williams. Ballplayers from baseball’s “Golden Age”, a time when men were men, everyone hustled, and if a batter was hit by a pitch, he took his lumps and went to first base. Audie Murphy had little on these heroes of the diamond. They were what every American boy wanted to be.

A funny thing happened however on the way to the present day. Somehow the idea of the baseball hero vanished. Although players such as Cal Ripken, Jr., Tony Gwynn, and Greg Maddux achieved Hall of Fame levels of success, their achievements were overshadowed by headlines of drug use, cheating, and crime. Players such as Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, and Roger Clemens all had potential to carry on the legacy of Willie, Mickey, and the Duke, yet sadly they became antiheroes better known for their exploits off the field, their abbreviated careers, or their tragic athletic endings.

This is my background and the background of many fans of my generation. To paraphrase Tupac Shakur, we were given this world, we didn’t make it. We've never had majestic heroes that existed only on the diamond. Our dreams of Herculean idols were shattered long ago. We have grown up with the fact that baseball players and all athletes are humans first, athletes second. They are not modern-day Supermen hailing from a far away universe to hit home runs and pitch shut-outs for us.

For better or for worse, today we take pleasure, or at least make money, in hero destruction. Perhaps we are sick. Perhaps we believe that since our heroes were flawed, that no one else should have heroes, even those who came before us. Perhaps we have fallen in love with the antihero.

I don't think the difficulty for people like Bob Costas and Buzz Bissinger to understand blogs lies entirely in their fear of the modern media becoming irrelevant. Their difficulty lies partly in the fact that they and their generation were taught to worship sports and athletes, to treat the men who played the games like modern day gods of great strength and skill, beings who can do no wrong and are heroes to all. Imagine for a moment the field day Deadspin.com and other modern news media would have had with the alcoholic exploits of Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, and other legendary partiers of yesteryear.

In my opinion, there is not much difference between Bob Costas and Will Leitch of Deadspin.com. Both are huge baseball fans whose knowledge of sports and gift for words has elevated them to the pinnacle of their respective mediums. Both have even written books (here and here, respectively) extolling the plight of the modern fan. And I am sure if they sat side by side at a ball game and talked baseball, they would greatly enjoy each other’s company. But like a great religious struggle, these two fans have become synonymous with different ideologies. They have become prophets of a different view of gods, heroes, and antiheroes.

3 comments:

MCBias said...

I think you are indeed correct that Costas and Leitch have much more in common than they think. I linked to it before on my most recent Bissinger-Leitch post, but there's a guy who wrote a blog that captures the sadness inherent in all of this. It's bad for mainstream media, it's bad for blogs...it's bad for everyone.

stopmikelupica said...

You are right that it is a battle of idealogy, but it's not about the athlete. The athlete is just a metaphor. It's really about the sports writer.

Those on the side of Bissinger support the historical mythology of the scribe, of someone who wrote beautiful passages that immortalized those "heroes". It's like Bissinger said: "Have you read W.C. Heinz' sports pieces?".

On the flip side, you have those, like Will Leitch, that strive to embarrass the poor writers/figures out there. From Chris Berman, to Sean Salisbury, to Harold Baines, on down the line (Mitch Albom, Mike Lupica, etc.), Deadspin has been at the forefront of leading the charge into calling out the poorest of the writers/reporters out there.

Everything else in the discussion is mostly smoke and mirrors. Do you think these "real" reporters really care about an athlete? You think they really care about Leinart being embarrassed?

I don't think they care. But they do care when long-time professionals in the field are the victims of such vitriolic attacks.

I'm in favor of those attacks, of course ;)

Jordi said...

MCBias - The bottom line is that we all admire sports, or else we wouldn't be here. It's time to find those commonalities and work from there.

SML - The writer is a reflection of the athlete. In this chicken-or-the-egg, I think the glorification of the athlete came first. Think back to the days of the Babe and the swinging 20s. People loved Babe Ruth. The truth: he was a past version of Prince Fielder or Ryan Howard. There was the baby boomers rush to heroes in the post world war 2 generation. That's where they came from. You have to understand where they come from.

Thanks for the input, guys.