Friday, July 8, 2011

CHASING 3,000

Baseball movies, as a rule, traffic in cheap nostalgia and treacly sentimentality. They don't reproduce the rigorous and humbling game that professionals play or the stifling regimented lifestyle ballplayers lead. They produce a romantic fantasy. They project a Field of Dreams where glorious heroes bestride the Diamond like gods; where hardy, stoic role models play for love and vindication, not money; where tickets sell for a buck, hot dogs, for a quarter; where the crack of the bat, the pop of the ball, the whiff of the mitt, and catch with dad deliver the most unadulterated and gratifying satisfaction life can supply.

"Chasing 3,000," a film released in 2010 with little fanfare, largely adheres the genre's formula in its portrayal of the legendary Roberto Clemente's pursuit of 3,000 hits in the waning days of the 1972 baseball season. Clemente's flirtation with the historic milestone following a late-season flurry forms the backdrop to the story of teenage brothers, Roger and Mickey, two avid Pirates fans transplanted from Pittsburgh to sterile Southern California during the 1972 season and the Odyssean 3,000 mile trek across country they embark upon to witness Clemente's achievement live and among 50,000 like-minded fans at Three Rivers Stadium.

As if two baseball-obsessed teenage brothers' penniless cross-country pilgrimage in the family jalopy to see their beloved hero-- in defiance of their overprotective, solicitous mother-- didn't carry enough prepackaged bathos, the story adds an extra dollop of saccharine by saddling the little with brother muscular dystrophy. Indeed, the family moves to L.A., much to Roger's chagrin, to alleviate the burden on Mickey's disease-ridden lungs. The contrivance of Mickey's frail health serves to complicate the brothers' drive across country and manufactures for the film its principal element of suspense as the brothers race against time to reach Pittsburgh before Mickey's lungs fail, Clemente attains 3,000, and the cops, alerted by their frantic mother, apprehend them.

Lost, meanwhile, is just why 3,000 is such a momentous milestone or why Clemente had gained an iconic status in baseball long before he earned his 3,000th hit and long before he died three month later in a tragic plane crash. Clemente counted among the game's heroes largely for his humanitarian work off the field. What's more, he performed the pioneer role for his group that Jackie Robinson and Hank Greenberg had fulfilled before him, paving the way for the Latino superstars that followed him and functioning as the living symbol of Hispanic immigrants' aspiration for complete acceptance and full integration into American life. And the heroic status Clemente enjoys to this day is a testament to the pastime's function as a solvent of the nation's pluralism almost since the game's inception.

I evoke "Chasing 3,000" here because as Derek Jeter approaches the same milestone all the meretricious hype and hoopla that has accompanied it suffers from a kindred sentimentality that similarly obscures its significance. Of course those susceptible to glib symbolism can read into Jeter's landmark-- coinciding as it does with Barak Obama's Presidency-- some kind of democratic token or monument to an increasingly post-racial society. And despite some superficial parallels in the two men's temperaments and ancestries, I suspect both would resist any interpretation that would serve to minimize the racial prejudice they've had to overcome because of America's obscene legacy of imposing social and legal disabilities on anyone born with "one-drop" of African blood.

Still, those quick to dismiss Jeter's role as a racial symbol, like Robinson or Clemente, should consider the strange fixation TV cameras have exhibited over the years with Jeter's parent. Can you recall another contemporary Yankees whose parents have rivaled the Jeters for the air time cameras shower on them? Did the families of Don Mattingly, Paul O'Neil, Bernie Williams, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, or any other recent iconic Yankees never attend ballgames? Other than Harlan Chamberlain, Joba's handicapped father, the cameras however seem to ignore player's families. Perhaps the voyeurism says more about our tacit prejudices and ingrained reflexes than we realize or care to acknowledge.

Still, what strikes me as the regrettable omission which links "Chasing 3,000" and the media's coverage of Jeter's impending feat is their mutual failure to account for the milestone's significance as an athletic accomplishment or baseball feat. Sure, we've heard time and again that the Captain is about to become only the 28th player in the game's history to number 3,000 hits and the first to amass the total in a Yankee uniform. But there the discussion typically ends. No one seems to address its comparative difficulty or significance. Is the milestone arbitrary? If not, what distinguishes it in distinction or prestige from all the other numbers baseball celebrates-- 600 homeruns or 300 wins or 2,000 RBIs or 700 steals or 54 consecutive games with a hit. Is one monument more prodigious an exploit than the others? Examine the list of the elite 28 players again. Does each conjure in your mind an aura of greatness? And if so, does the player do so because of the milestone or in spite of it?

I don't profess to know the answer to these questions. But presumably, the manifold commentators who hold themselves out as the game's experts and who presume to enforce these milestone's sanctity each year when casting their Hall of Fame ballot, should know the answer or at least, offer an informed opinion. Alas, I haven't heard one.

Instead, the tedious daily narrative recycles endless speculation on which day of the week Jeter is more apt to attain 3,000 or how much pressure he's apt to face as he approaches it or how eager the Yankees and their fans are to see him hit the magic number at home. Worse, it seems to provoke the equally petty and academic discussion about how soon afterward the Yankee franchise can hallow the one player in their history to total 3,000 hits by unceremoniously dropping him in the batting order. In fact, the conjunction of the two subjects-- the dispatch with which the echo chamber clamors to consign Derek to the dustbin moments after his coronation--- only dramatizes just how much these pundits professed regard for Baseball History reeks of the same pious sentimentality and intellectual fraudulence which besets Hollywood's version of it.

Accordingly, when Cooperstown tabulates the voting next November and the phalanx of Baseball Writers, bloated with sanctimony and intoxicated with indignation-- when these self-appointed Guardian of the Milestones fan across airwaves to exalt the sanctity of the numbers and to deplore "steroid cheats" for defiling its liturgy and to justify rejecting Bonds or excluding Clemens, savor a good sneer. For what the Guardians protect isn't the sanctity of a democratic shibboleth. No, what they jealously guard-- in presuming to anoint one a Heroic Legend and to brand another a Anti-heroic Outlaw-- are the prerogatives of power. Woe unto him who doesn't genuflect before their altar.

So Derek Jeter, be prepared. After the bow, expect to Kneel.

1 comment:

Tommy DeBari said...

Great work, as usual, Matt. Love your blog. Tommy D.