Bob Lemon famously wrote, “Baseball was made for kids, and grown-ups only screw it up.” Why? The usual reason: money. How may great baseball movies revolve around paychecks? Few. Maybe Mr. Baseball, but that movie is awful. The good ones deal with matters more innocent: the purity of sport, tradition, pride, friendship. There wasn’t much in The Natural about signing bonuses. Robert Redford didn’t smash quarters out of the lights like a Las Vegas slot machine.
Yet major leaguers shoot steroids made for race horses and owners trade athletes like, well… baseball cards. Anybody after real baseball can safely turn his back on the whole production. The real thing is high school ball, and some of it may limp into college games intact, so long as the scouts are elsewhere that day. There is no more certain way to corrupt a thing than to professionalize it.
As in baseball, so too in politics. It’s the reason Rome and its descendant, colonial America, decried payment for public service. Politicians should not be paid, those nations held, because a professional system creates a professional class of politicians, a class beholden more to its financiers than its citizens. A nice ideal, but also imperfect, as that system bars anybody not independently wealthy from office. Paid political office allows for the workman’s candidacy, though its downside is equally dismal as that prospect is bright.
That downside is the political class Rome feared: the perfumed sycophant, as two-faced as the ballclub owner who commissions statues to past greats and sells tickets at prices Babe Ruth couldn’t afford. Sure, ballpack renovations and new scoreboards aren’t cheap; neither are Lear jets and Bentleys.
The nadir of pro politics is the political party, an organization of vote-getters united mainly by the need for fundraising on a national level. Parties create zealots who would no sooner break from organizational rhetoric than a major leaguer would tear up a paycheck. The zealotry of modern parties and the bleating of their bannermen exist in direct proportion to the needs of the party war chest.
The proof is in the zealotry itself: how many politicians have ever broken with party ranks in a serious way? Parties are made of people, and people make mistakes. Thus, parties can be – and always are – mistaken about any number of things. What are the odds one party would get every policy right, every time? About one in nine trillion. It doesn’t happen. But members of those organizations and their supporters cling to the idea their party is the right one, the always correct one, and the other guys are always wrong. Trouble is, the laws of probability don’t recognize any such thing as “always.”
What’s worse, the situation makes national crises opportunities for political profiteering. Batten down the channels of immigration? Who knows? The talk in party headquarters should be “How do we turn this situation to the advantage of the American people and benefit the country we were elected to serve?” It should not be – but more often is – “How do we make hay out of this come election season?” The concept of public service has been perverted, so that the public serves, rather than is served.
Old news? Certainly. Common knowledge? Hopefully. Maybe. Probably not; more likely, each side believes the above about the other side, but not about their own darlings. Somehow, the home team is special. They’re immune to the money and gamesmanship. It would be nice to think the pundits shriek at a wordly audience that gathers facts, filters information, and makes informed decisions. Your editorial staff is suspicious, however, that the truth goes more like this: a good number of Americans watch the partisan news over microwaved dinners and vote for the guy in office if things are going well down at the plant. Or in the insurance business. Or whatever. If not, they pick the other guy. The rest punch a party ticket, Democrat or Republican. Neither side is immune to creeping professionalism, and each leads a fair amount of America blindly by the nose.
If you want to see good baseball, go to a high school game. Sit in the aluminum or wooden bleachers, wear your team’s colors, and eat peanuts from the concession stand, where the mothers’ club probably still sells them for less than the cost of college tuition. Watch the players: they really care how the game goes. Every eye in each dugout tracks each fly ball breathlessly… and not because of the batter’s free agency prospects. The sport is pure, the players are honest.
If you want good politics, don’t go much further. Try the county library board down the street from that field. Even there, you might find greasy politicking. To be safe, come back to that high school the next day and really look hard: you might find clean politics in the student council.