Rupert Cornwell: American illusions are being shattered

Baseball remains a metaphor for how America sees itself, a pastoral idyll
Click to follow

Maybe the boy on the steps of a Chicago courthouse never actually uttered those five plaintive words "Say it ain't so, Joe" as he watched the legendary baseball player "Shoeless" Joe Jackson on his way to testify about the thrown World Series of 1919. Maybe no such boy ever existed. But who cares? As a metaphor for humankind's yearning for faith in its heroes, the story is perfect.

Right now we are living another "Say it ain't so" moment here in the US. Even beyond the shores of America, word has now spread of baseball's never-ending scandal, about the illicit drugs that have been rife in the sport. You may even have heard of Barry Bonds, the home run record holder and undisputed villain of the piece, who is soon to go on trial for lying over his use of steroids.

But now the greatest hitter of his era has been joined in the pantheon of infamy by the greatest pitcher of his era. The symmetry is perfect but it is a shock nonetheless. For who was truly expecting that among the names of 89 players linked to performance-enhancing drugs by an official report this week would feature that of Roger Clemens?

Yes, we were amazed how he could go on performing so magnificently well into his 40s. We knew about his ferocious fitness regime, but every now and then we wondered about his oak-tree physique, and how he seemed to avoid the injuries that ravage most other people who hurl a small white ball at up to 100mph for a living. But we put the doubts aside.

If something is too good to be true it probably is, runs the old saw, and for most of life's endeavours, the old saw is true. As we grow older, we learn that in business, politics and world affairs, perfect white, like perfect black, rarely exists. The prevailing colours, we come to understand, are varying shades of grey. Things are rarely as bad as they seem, but rarely as good (and if they were, they wouldn't last). For proof, look no further than the sub-prime mortgage crisis, built on the illusions that money would stay cheap, and house prices would keep rising, for ever.

The same goes for the illusions of history. As a child, I devoured the historical novels of that Victorian imperialist G A Henty, for whom the mother country could do no wrong. When I was at school, history for classroom purposes stopped in 1914, when Britain was still top nation. Only later did I realise that Pax Britannica had a dark underside of colonialism and exploitation, and was less than appreciated in many parts of the globe. The truly lasting lesson was that nothing was ever quite as it seemed.

That, incidentally, perhaps explains my devotion to Chesterton's character Father Brown, with his uncanny understanding of the dark side of our nature. My favourite Father Brown story is "The Sign of the Broken Sword". It tells the chilling tale of General Arthur St Clare, venerated for his bravery. Yet Father Brown reveals to his friend Flambeau how this national hero, whose tomb is in Westminster Abbey and after whom streets and avenues throughout the country are named, was also a monster.

Far from being one of those heroic defeats in which the English are said to revel, the final battle that sealed the general's reputation was in fact a stage-managed mass slaughter. The good commander deliberately sent thousands of his trusting men to their death, in order to conceal a terrible crime he had committed. And thus, though almost never as starkly, is it with life. Appearances can be deceptive.

But for those of us who follow it, sport is at one remove from life. Advancing years teach one about human weaknesses and imperfections. But where sport is concerned, we close our eyes to those weaknesses and blindly invest our innocence.

The ages of man have little relevance when you follow a baseball team or a football team. Starting your life's journey as a fan, you are young enough to be the son of the performers on the field. Then they become your contemporaries. A decade or two later, it is they who are young enough to be your children, and a couple of decades after that, your grandchildren.

But the relationship, between devotee and the object of that devotion, is almost immutable. Be it America or anywhere else, no matter whether you are 10 years old or 60, disbelief is temporarily suspended. At least, that is how it used to be when you went to a major league baseball stadium to watch a hitter like Barry Bonds or a pitcher like Roger Clemens. Perhaps, however, no longer.

The consequences of the report into illicit drug use are impossible to foresee. The sole certainty is a torrent of self-righteous indignation from the politicians, who have already set congressional hearings for next week. So much for the sub-prime mortgage mess.

But the rest is anyone's guess. Though 89 players have been named, what about the many others, thus far undetected, who have used steroids, and may still be doing so? Will the identified culprits be punished or will the sport's authorities, as former Senator George Mitchell, the report's author, urges, let bygones be bygones, and focus not on the past, but the future? In financial terms, baseball probably will not suffer. Awash in money, with spectatorship soaring, and an array of gorgeous new stadiums and uncommonly gifted (and ideally steroid-free) players, the sport is enjoying a golden age. But the psychological impact is harder to measure.

Baseball's problem is that it is held to higher standards than other sports. Its history may be littered with greed and scandal, but the game remains a metaphor for how America sees itself, a pastoral idyll played out in the endless summer afternoons of memory. Indeed, its current disgrace can be seen as a metaphor for those real-life American disgraces, of water-boarding torture and the rest, that contradict the country's chosen image, as symbol of democracy and human rights.

"Say it ain't so, Joe," the young boy pleaded in Chicago. Today Roger Clemens, through his lawyers, is insisting it ain't so with him either. But the evidence against him is hard to dismiss. Yes, Clemens was a great player. But, as Father Brown put it to Flambeau about the glorious legend of General St Clare, "That story is quite true so far as it goes."