Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
From Black Sox trutherism to Manti Te'o. Why sports fandom causes people to lose their heads.
This is a White Sox blog, but it is also a blog about sports, and I would be remiss if I didn't talk about the biggest sports story of the year. Not "the year so far," but the calendar year of 2013. The tale of Manti Te'o's phony girlfriend will be hard to top.
Everyone is having a good laugh at Notre Dame's expense. I'm guilty of it too. I grew up in Beverly, deep in the beating heart of Fighting Irish territory. It is a neighborhood where high school graduates with city jobs who badmouth college are decked out in Fighting Irish gear every Saturday in the fall. I do get a small sense of satisfaction out of watching South Bend self-righteousness get a stick in the eye.
"Ha-ha...you got duped."
We keep trying to pretend that imperfect athletes can be the perfect participants in a Hollywood storyline, despite the fact that history tells us that sports stories rarely have a Hollywood ending. In 1925, Babe Ruth went into a slump due to an unknown ailment. A writer claimed Ruth developed "the bellyache heard around the world" due to binging on hot dogs and soda pop.
"Eat your veggies, kids! You don't want to get sick like The Babe!"
The truth is still a mystery. But chances are he either drank a tainted batch of bathtub gin (it was the era of Prohibition, after all), or contracted a venereal disease. Babe Ruth's drinking and screwing didn't detract from his abilities on the baseball field. But he was the biggest sports star in the country, and a role model to kids. We now know the details of his private life. Despite that, pop culture still clings to the myth of The Babe.
In 1970, Jim Bouton wrote "Ball Four." For some reason, it is considered an incendiary book.
The book is about an aging phenom trying to stay in the game. Jim Bouton threw smoke as a pitcher for the Yankees in the early 60's. By 1969 he was old, and barely hanging on as a member of the brand new Seattle Pilots. He was trying to reinvent himself as a knuckleballer. It was a diary of a guy who used to be good. But along the way he said that Mickey Mantle A) liked women and B) enjoyed a drink every now and then.
Commissioner Bowie Kuhn tried to force Bouton to sign a statement that said the book was a work of fiction. After all, we couldn't have a book that said ballplayers were macho guys with macho appetites. What's even more staggering is that fellow sports journalists dumped on Bouton (and co-writer Leonard Schecter) for telling the truth.
10 years ago, we had the myth of the Sammy Sosa-Mark McGwire home run chase.
"It saved baseball after the strike!"
Never mind the fact that attendance was trending up anyway, and that both Sosa and McGwire were juiced. It took a long time for the sports media to admit that their story was a myth.
Sports are the only place where we still try to place people on pedestals. We know our politicians are liars. Actors, actresses, and musicians are not who they seem. The media is corrupt. Schools are incompetent. Big business is trying to screw you.
It's enough to make a person look at the world with a jaded eye. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, we have a tendency to buy into sports heroism hook, line, and sinker.
"See! They are selfless and pure....unlike everything else in the world!"
Notre Dame fans are doing mental gymnastics to prove that Te'o was the victim of a cruel hoax. He had a pure heart that was tainted by the real world.
Penn State fans are trying to separate Joe Paterno from the deeds of Jerry Sandusky.
If a White Sox star player was caught trying to cheat, or was accused of a crime, or caught perpetrating a hoax...don't think for a second that fans would not try to clear their name out of blind loyalty.
Yes, you can talk about the Black Sox Scandal...but it didn't go public until the end of 1920 and there weren't many opportunities for the average fan to record their thoughts on the news of the day. South Side Sox didn't exist 93 years ago.
I'm guessing there were plenty of people who refused to believe the fix was in. No one said "Say it ain't so, Joe" to Shoeless Joe Jackson. Small groups of dedicated fans still try to clear the names of Buck Weaver and Joe Jackson so they can be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Two years ago, documents surfaced that kinda sorta hinted the Cubs threw the 1918 World Series. Never mind the fact that everyone involved in the scandal has been dead for decades...some Sox fans clung to the story as proof that some long-dead White Sox were merely victims of bad advice from the unscrupulous ballclub across town.
It sounds strange, but it's the nature of fandom. I think for many of us, our devotion to the institution known as the Chicago White Sox probably outranks religious faith.
How many religious services do you attend every year?
How many White Sox games?
We're reading this blog because of White Sox baseball. We spend hundreds of dollars a year enriching owners and players we'll never meet - because of our devotion to a civic institution. We're fans for a lot of reasons: geography, family tradition, ethnicity (listen to the lyrics of the "South Side Irish" song), and self-esteem.
We want to think that the institution to which we devote a great deal of time and money is acting in good faith. When they don't...we have a hard time admitting we've been had.
We don't want to believe that someone is trying to fool us. But that's the problem. Someone on the field or in the dugout will try to take advantage of that faith. Manti Te'o is the latest. But he's not the last.