Icons have been having a hard time of it in America lately. There hasn’t been so much toppling since the Berlin Wall came down. Just think of the scope: Catholic priests accused of pedophilic abuses and coverups; public accountants charged with complicity in all manner of corporate funny business; doctors scrambling to explain their enthusiasm for the now-discredited hormone replacement therapy they’d been recommending to menopausal women for decades.
Whether the new mass opprobrium is deserved or not, these longtime icons suddenly know what it feels like to be a politician, a CEO, a lawyer, a journalist, a general, a policeman or a car salesman, one of those whom Americans are practically born mistrusting. It’s not just an American phenomenon, admittedly. The Catholic Church is under fire for the same abuses in Ireland, Poland, Australia and elsewhere. Accountants are under scrutiny around the globe. Hormone therapy has been a favorite of the international medical establishment, not just America’s.
Yet if only in terms of scale, the United States is the fountainhead of the most sensational recent revelations, so its citizens can be forgiven for thinking they have a monopoly on disillusionment. Maybe that’s why so many of them have voiced support for their country’s (probably unconstitutional) motto, “In God we trust.” They must feel as if there isn’t anyone else left.
Not even in the less solemn realm of sports, that traditional refuge from the stressful and treacherous workaday world. Skepticism has been simmering for a long time with regard to big-time college sports, the excesses of the Superbowl and other signs of rottenness at the core of the U.S. sporting establishment. But it all came to a head this month with two symbolic episodes that sent shock waves through that most iconic of American sports, Major League Baseball — and, as if in sympathy, through the rest of the baseball-loving world as well, not least Japan.
On July 5 came the death at 83 of Ted Williams, one of the game’s all-time greats and an icon if ever there was one. His demise, after a long illness, was not a shock, but what happened afterward was. Williams’ son had his father’s body shipped to Florida, where it was cryogenically frozen and put into storage, upside-down, to await possible revival in some still barely imaginable future. Quite apart from the fact that the son’s motives were suspect at best — he had made his living peddling Ted Williams memorabilia, after all — the indignity of the great hitter’s fate forced fans everywhere to ask themselves what, if anything, was still sacred when it came to baseball.
And then on July 9 came the followup punch: the All-Star Game in Milwaukee, which was called off at 7 runs all after 11 innings because, as baseball commissioner Bud Selig put it, “There were no players left, no pitchers left.” Fans were open-mouthed, accusing authorities of staging a meaningless game.
The whole episode was more damaging by far than the loony saga of Ted Williams. In that case, though the desecration of an icon had seemed to symbolize so much more than merely the machinations of a greedy son, it really was a family affair, not baseball’s fault. In the case of the All-Star Game, fans were understandably left feeling that anything and everything mattered more than they did to the people running U.S. baseball — a complete reversal of the game’s traditional priorities.
Coming on top of worries about a players’ strike and rampant steroid use, the Milwaukee incident merely served to confirm the perception that something has gone very wrong with the institution of baseball in America — a perception not dissimilar to the views that are taking hold in that country about the Catholic Church, the big accounting firms and the medical establishment. The symbolism appeared to be complete with the realization that, given the tie, there would be no most-valuable-player award — and this in the very week when the award had been renamed to honor Ted Williams.
Here in Japan, there is no shortage of examples of tarnished, cracked and fallen icons. We may not have so much trouble with abusive priests or complicit prelates, but accounting fraud and medical arrogance and malpractice are commonplace and we are surely world-beaters when it comes to disgraced politicians. We are therefore in no position to gloat as America struggles to comprehend the seemingly endless stream of revelations about trust abused or squandered. On the contrary, and especially when it comes to baseball — a pastime we love, too — we can only express our sympathetic hope that all these embattled institutions will emerge stronger from their present crises.
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