How many times has some romantic poet of the Ken Burns-George Will school reminded us that somebody once said that to understand America one must first understand baseball? The sentiment is generally ascribed to either De Tocqueville, Lincoln, Oscar Wilde, one of them flinty New England philosophers who ate roots and stuff, Bill Veeck or Mario Cuomo. Or to George Will, for that matter.
Regardless of who really made the connection between baseball and American culture, you could do worse in the aphorism department. God forbid if anybody ever seriously suggested that to know America, one must first understand, say, Talk magazine.
If this year’s National League Championship Series between the Braves and the Mets was a window on the wider world of end-of-century America, it would be hard not to conclude that the cultural apocalypse is indeed upon us. We’re not slouching towards Gomorrah. We’ve already crossed the city line.
And it comes down to professional wrestling. This cheesy entertainment, celebrated and indeed promoted in the usual ironic way among the media elites who think all the fake blood and the obscenities and the casual misogyny are really funny in their ironic way, has so penetrated the culture that we apparently don’t even notice that its production values have ravaged homespun baseball, and therefore, the living room.
Game 5 of the N.L.C.S., that 15-inning instant classic at Shea Stadium which captured the attention of all but the athletically challenged, may be remembered for all sorts of wonderful drama, but one decidedly un-wonderful moment offered a glimpse through that famous wider window. NBC’s cameras, searching the crowd for telling images, found a boy of about 10 caught up in the excitement. Ah, a Ken Burns moment! Alas, the young lad was wearing a T-shirt that read: “Chipper Suck This.” And, for the benefit of Chipper Jones, the Met-killing Atlanta third-baseman, the shirt contained an arrow pointing to the innocent little lad’s crotch.
Yep: DeTocqueville or Lincoln or Wilde or whoever certainly had it right. To understand America, you have to understand why a 10-year-old was wearing an obscene T-shirt at a championship baseball game.
These sorts of vulgar sentiments are regularly expressed on prime-time television on the various professional wrestling shows whose plot lines are crafted by some of the Ivy League’s finest minds. Not coincidentally, the Mets-Braves series was marred by wrestlinglike confrontations between Atlanta’s star reliever, the crotch-grabbing, middle-finger-waving John Rocker (even his name suggests a cartoonlike villainy), and Mets’ fans, each playing an assigned role in the script. Wouldn’t you know-Mr. Rocker is a devotee of professional wrestling; his employer, Ted Turner, owns a professional wrestling federation; and one of the stars of Mr. Turner’s sweaty stable was recruited to sing “The Star Spangled Banner” before Game 1 of that holy rite of fall known as the League Championship Series.
The coarse and even dangerous taunting between the self-appointed bad guy (Mr. Rocker) and the hot-breathed Shea Stadium crowd was hardly the only example in recent weeks of fans and players behaving badly. Football fans in Philadelphia cheered when a bad guy, Michael Irvin of the Dallas Cowboys, was severely injured (and momentarily paralyzed) during a game with the Eagles; Boston fans hurled missiles at Yankee players, forcing the players to take cover; Mike Ditka, coach of the New Orleans Saints, gestured obscenely to less-than-appreciative hometown fans. Charming.
The world-weary will note that sports stadiums are not cathedrals, that fans have always erred on the side of vulgarity in making their opinions known. But it was one thing for fans of the football Giants to sing “Goodbye, Allie” to embattled head coach Allie Sherman in the mid-1960’s; it is quite another to experience the catcalls in Yankee Stadium’s bleachers, where women of all ages, shapes and sizes are regularly invited to display their breasts.
I called my friend Phil Mushnick, sports columnist of the New York Post , to ask how we’ve managed to get from “Goodbye, Allie” to “Chipper Suck This.” Mr. Mushnick, who ought to win a Pulitzer Prize for his relentless exposure of pro wrestling’s corrosive effects on children and mainstream sports, noted that the wrestling mentality has produced a generation of fans that associates sports with vulgar, violent spectacle. “Watch these shows,” he fairly demanded. “You hear women described as bitches and ho’s all the time. And this is on prime time, when kids are watching.” T-shirts like “Chipper Suck This” are commonly displayed on these shows, as are raised middle fingers. “And last night, a 9-year-old girl stopped by our house to pick up a newspaper,” he said. “She ran out saying she had to get home because wrestling was on.”
Behold tomorrow’s American, tomorrow’s baseball fan.