I Yam What I Yam


It’s spring training time for major league baseball. In ballparks all around Florida and the desert Southwest, you can hear the crack of the bat, the groan of rusty pitching arms, and the tinkle, tinkle of urine testing. This season all eyes will be on San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds for his output at the plate, and in the bathroom. Bonds has become the most prominent suspect in baseball’s steroid doping scandal, and, despite the questions about his training practices, this year Bonds could also be within striking distance of Hank Aaron’s career home-run record.

Few Americans realize that we can blame this whole athletic doping problem on Elzie Segar, the cartoonist who, 76 years ago, created Popeye the Sailor Man and prophesied much of 21st-century American culture. Really, think about it. It’s all there. Olive Oyl was plainly anorexic. Most contemporary Americans live on Wimpy’s diet and have his waistline. And we all know that Bluto (cleaned up a bit) has been reincarnated as a Fox News talk-show host.

Then there’s Popeye himself, the first celebrity user of performance-enhancing substances. We all know that wasn’t really spinach in that can. Judging from the way it pumped him up, it had to be some kind of designer steroid, or maybe some good old-fashioned human growth hormone. No doubt about it. Popeye was the original BALCO lab rat.

BALCO (Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative) was, of course, the outfit that apparently supplied spinach-like substances to ace athletes ranging from female sprinters to NFL linebackers. One of the lab’s most famous clients was Barry Bonds, whose forearms can’t help but remind one of the old Sailor Man’s. Bond’s relationship with BALCO began during the break before the 2001 season. And, coincidentally, 2001 was the year the San Francisco Giant broke Mark McGwire’s single-season home-run record, pushing the mark up to 73. It was also the year Bonds was due to negotiate a new five-year contract with the Giants, and he did very, very well.

According to leaked grand jury testimony, Bonds still denies having knowingly taken any banned substance. But several of BALCO’s other clients apparently confessed to the grand jury, and Bonds’ denials seem positively Clintonian in their craftiness. The steroid in question, THG, was not on any of the banned lists at the time Bonds was probably using it. But that was because it was invented in outlaw laboratories to be undetectable in urine tests.

OF COURSE, the question you may be asking yourself is, "Why does any of this matter?" And if you accept the premise that athletic events are simply a form of consumer entertainment - like professional wrestling - it may not matter. Maybe someday, in the not-too-distant future, today’s chemically altered, semi-synthetic athletes will be replaced entirely by robots or, better yet, clones, and maybe no one will care.

But if you think that athletics are an expression of human culture - perhaps even a form of popular art - then it matters a great deal. And baseball, to take one example, has been precisely that through the past century of American history. For many Americans, major league baseball was once the theater in which our social dramas were acted out, and the place we looked for heroes - those people who could tell us what might be possible for free people in a democratic culture.

The saga of the career home-run record tells a classic story of that culture’s rise and fall. In the early decades of the 20th century, Babe Ruth amassed those 714 career homers on a diet consisting mostly of Prohibition booze, cheap hot dogs, and an impoverished orphan’s insatiable need for love and acceptance. Four decades later, clean-living, close-mouthed Hank Aaron came along and passed the Babe in a marathon drive fueled by his stoically suppressed rage at the white racism that dogged him on and off the field. When Aaron hit number 715, in Atlanta, of all places, many of America’s pre-Jackie Robinson wrongs were symbolically righted.

Now we have Barry Bonds, the son of another major leaguer, who clawed his way from the top to the very top and seems willing to cut any corner, compromising his health and the reputation of his (and his father’s) game for the transcendent purpose of a really colossal payday.

That’s the story of American sport (and of the American republic): from Mt. Olympus to bread and circuses, in one generation. All we need now is a Nero.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

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