Mark McGwire, Cal Ripken: Arrogant Boys of Summer

Were you glued to the television Sunday? Then you know that Mark McGwire struck first, to left field, but Zinedine Zidane quickly followed, with a header into the right side of the net. Both men ended up with two on the day, and glory on the front pages. But alors ! Zizou’s Blues are on top of ze world. And Mr. McGwire’s Cardinals are in fourth place in the Central Division, well under .500.

That was the clear outcome of the war between soccer and baseball over the last few weeks. Soccer showcased brilliant teamwork, notably the pass from Frank De Boer to Dennis Bergkamp in the Dutch victory over Argentina, and the perfect timing between Mr. Zidane and the French corner kickers.

Meanwhile, baseball showcased individual performances that were all but meaningless in the won-lost column.

The American pastime has entered a grossly decadent phase, in which the interest in statistics now completely outweighs interest in the game played before our eyes. Nowhere is this plainer than in two obsessions: with the race to pass Roger Maris for the home run crown and Cal Ripken’s maniacal desire to sustain his streak of consecutive games to a number no one cares about.

The battle between Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey Jr. and Sammy Sosa to be the home run king of all time dominated the All-Star game and baseball headlines for the last few weeks, and it was said that the home run race is just what baseball needs to get the fans back into the game. The emphasis on home runs has become so deadly serious that Mr. McGwire actually bitched on national television about the batting-practice pitches he got during the Home Run Derby at Coors Field. What a jerk. But if he cared too much, so did everyone else. The big red slugger was pictured on the cover of The New York Times Magazine and three days later on the paper’s front page (though far below the dubious play given English striker Tina Brown).

But remember, the two leaders in the home run sweepstakes play for lousy teams. The Cardinals are 10 games out of first place. Mr. Griffey’s Mariners are dead last. Of the three gladiators, only Mr. Sosa plays for a contender (and who wants to put money on the Cubs?).

Baseball has seen a stunningly great team this year: the Yankees. But the Yankees are great because of teamwork that is invisible, like catcher Joe Girardi training his own replacement, Jorge Posada. The glory in the game goes to players like All-Star Game M.V.P. Roberto Alomar, who has had an often heartless first half.

“It was ever thus,” protests Daniel Okrent, editor of new media at Time Inc. and one of the originators of Rotisserie League baseball. “Baseball takes the individual player and puts him on the stage, alone. Ty Cobb’s last pennant was in the third year of a long great career. Ted Williams? How many pennants did he have? The focus on the individual has always made baseball so loved in the American consciousness.”

Fair enough, but I would say that the emphasis on statistics–the game outside the foul lines which the individuated action of the game so lends itself to–has never been so intense. You might well argue that the extrinsic competitions are more interesting than the game itself. Indeed, the belief that baseball is boring is so widespread that it has to be true. And the popularity of Rotisserie League’s fictional games underscores this truth.

The most obvious symptom of the trend is the hateful Mr. Ripken. I get to say that because Baltimore’s my team. Three years ago, Mr. Ripken could be proud of a stunning achievement, passing Lou Gehrig at 2,100 and whatever games. He was the greatest thing happening to a strike-stricken game. Now he is the greatest embarrassment to the game, a blue-eyed arrogant symbol of the white athlete’s hard-working ethic who holds himself above other players, can no longer pull a fastball and, as my friend the writer James North says, “has the range of the Tin Woodman before he got oil in his joints.”

Almost every day, you hear broadcasters say that it is Mr. Ripken’s decision whether he sits down or not. Joe Morgan said it during the All-Star game. Excuse me, but this is preposterous. When is it ever an athlete’s decision whether he starts a game? Can anyone imagine such arrogance during the World Cup, with its autocratic coaches and interdependent players? What was Ronaldo without Romario? Hapless.

The nuttiness of the belief that it is Mr. Ripken’s choice is outdone only by the fact that it seems to be factually the case. The 37-year-old really does seem to have more power than manager Ray Miller, even majority owner Peter Angelos (who declined to respond to my faxed request for an interview). The Orioles, who looked great in the All-Star game, are the big mystery losers of 1998. They have the highest payroll in baseball ($74 million) and were supposed to be fighting it out with the Yankees. They’re 30 games out in the loss column, and Mike Flanagan says in The Washington Post that he’s never seen such a “passive-aggressive” clubhouse in all his life.

I’ve never heard of a passive-aggressive baseball team before. But there’s an obvious cause for it. Any workplace where a substandard performer is given a privileged position is poisoned for others. During the stretch run last fall, Baltimore stars Brady Anderson and Rafael Palmeiro were benched just so they could get rest for the playoffs. The game demanded it. But meanwhile, Queen Ripken played on, letting balls go under his glove at third so he could pad a statistic. It was an insult to the game.

When Lou Gehrig ended his streak after eight games in 1939, he recognized that his powers were failing. He had lately finished his first year under .300 in 13 years–batting .295. Mr. Ripken bats .257 and, more importantly, has little run production. The blue eyes go icy when interviewers question him about sitting down.

Any game where a player who has marquee value but diminishing value on the field can continue to play shows how skewed the values of the game is. The Yankees may win the Series, but who cares? The rewards that people focus on are all extrinsic. Will Mr. McGwire surpass Roger Maris? Can Juan Gonzalez threaten Hack Wilson’s record? Can Tony Gwynn bat .400? And how much does one of those All-Star caps with the little doodad on the side cost?

This is why soccer is the most popular game in the world. When the teams are balanced, the play before your eyes on the field is riveting. Nike may have bought the Brazilians, and Adidas the French, but the game runs commercial-free, and when the teams are not aggressive, the fans let the players know it and the pace picks up. If a player is too old or too selfish, it is quickly discovered. Germany’s old legs told against Croatia, Rivaldo was upbraided for not passing.

This is not to say that soccer hasn’t got big problems, which the World Cup exposed. The referees with their red cards have too much power, as they demonstrated when they destroyed the best match of the contest, England-Argentina. And the game is disfigured by the penalty kick shootouts that settle ties. Many World Cup games were tied at a low score after 120 minutes–because, as Brazil’s coach said, the athletes’ fitness and speed have made the field small, made play makers less effective.

The Rx for soccer: a hockey-style penalty box so that penalized teams aren’t permanently uneven, and a slight widening of the goals to amplify teams’ differences.

But I’m still pulling for baseball. I grew up with the game, and I share the intellectuals’ fondness for it. “The interior aspect to baseball is what makes it so appealing,” Mr. Okrent says. “Action-filled games don’t allow time for reflection.”

O.K., but too often reflection means sitting with a calculator and pencil over the baseball encyclopedia and the box scores. Try selling that sport to the son of Algerian immigrants. Still, I want the game to thrive, and as all the Latins in the All-Star game demonstrate, it has a chance to be a world game. Here are two fixes:

1. Change the name of the World Series. The name is a piece of arrogance worthy of Mr. Ripken’s, and one mocked by the international competition just conducted in France. Until the Cubans play the United States in a true World Series, call the finals between North American clubs the Series, or the October Classic.

2. Shorten the game to seven innings. Short games in baseball are good games. Most games last nearly three hours. In a stroke, this would make the game less boring and, just as important, end the throttlehold the statisticians have over baseball consciousness. Think of it, 100 years of nine-inning statistics in the dustbin of history! It’s O.K., you can wait until Mr. McGwire finishes batting.

P.S. Last year, a column of mine referred to writer David Remnick as the Commissar of Safe Opinion. Alas, this phrase was introduced in my copy through a miscommunication with my editor. I meant to say that Mr. Remnick is a highly original and provocative thinker.

Mark McGwire, Cal Ripken: Arrogant Boys of Summer