This is not a post about Mark McGwire and steroids, because, like most of you, I don't really care enough to debate the ethical quandaries of steroid use anymore. This is a post about baseball itself, because all the anger and self-righteousness and backlash to the self-righteousness seems to skim over the real issue here, which is that baseball, having been mismanaged for the past two decades by a gang of dimwitted used car salesmen, has now succeeded in bulldozing its mythology for an entire generation.
This is the meaning of Mark McGwire, and others like him: He demystified a game whose popularity is based in a largely sentimental connection with an "America" that no longer exists. So now all that work Ken Burns put in, all those hours Doris Kearns Goodwin and George Will spent rhapsodizing about Three-Finger Brown and the American character and how the '51 Series is a metaphor for the Korean War, mean absolutely nothing anymore. Without that sentimental connection, the game itself is a diminished product. Baseball, through labor disputes and strikes and the increasingly disenchanting war between the Tri-Lambda moneyball geeks and tobacco-spitting traditionalists,* has essentially degenerated into a regional sport, and if you don't believe me, take a peep at the television ratings: A World Series between the Yankees and the Phillies, two of the media markets that still arouse strong interest, drew a 11.7, which was the highest number since 2004, but barely half of the 1990 numbers.
And I know that there are people who still draw that emotional connection with baseball--on rare occasions, during one of those interminably dramatic playoff games, when Fox deems it wise to cut to the face of every child in Yankee Stadium, I still feel it, too--and there always will be. But there will never be as many as there once were, and they will never be able to argue that baseball captures the Zeitgeist or serves as a metaphor for the American character. Football is America's pastime now--I'd argue that the greatest rivalry of the 00's, eclipsing even the emotional exceptionalism of Red Sox-Yankees, was between a pair of NFL quarterbacks--and anyone who thinks otherwise is delusional. And who can say that in two decades, a generation of kids won't feel more of a connection with soccer than they do with baseball?
The story here is not just about Mark McGwire, or the slow unfurling of the steroid era. The story here is that the only people still gullible enough to buy into the mysticism and folklore of baseball might be Bob Costas and the justices of the Supreme Court.
*As a casual fan, I have no interest in analyzing VORP, or even understanding what it means. Following baseball in the Internet age is like collecting comic books.