The Big Hurt: Betrayed by icons of baseball, financial world

Friday, March 13, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:07 a.m. CDT, Monday, June 1, 2009

Capitalism and baseball: My country 'tis of thee.

And there was no better year to be an American than 1998. The national deficit was actually a $70 billion surplus, unemployment was at 4.5 percent and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were on the chase.  

Hot dog! Talk about good times.  

Or so we thought. We all bought into it. We swallowed everything hook, line and sinker. Now, headlines remind us that everything was a farce; our all-stars, our Madoffs and McGwires, were phonies. AIG and A-Rod have issued their mea culpas.

When I heard Congress subpoenaed Frank Thomas to appear at the steroids hearings in 2005, I was heartbroken, but it made sense. He had thighs the size of wastebaskets and arms as thick and taut as bridge cables. His power and dominance earned him the nickname “The Big Hurt." A poster of him, which I won by collecting Leaf baseball card wrappers years before, read, "The Two Biggest Weapons In Baseball" and had him staring deadpan at the camera with his arms crossing his chest.

Leaf was a subsidiary of Donruss Playoff L.P, which also produced Donruss baseball cards. Ironically, Donruss, Fleer and Topps were considered the "big three" of the baseball industry when I was a kid. In 2005, Donruss was denied the renewal of its Major League Baseball license and the bankrupt Fleer was bought by Upper Deck. In the late '80s and early '90s, new companies such as Upper Deck proliferated and tried to cash in on the profitable hobby. Subsets and glossier cards abounded; prices for packs shot up and card values arbitrarily followed. Eventually, the industry began to buckle as the market became even more competitive and fragmented. To appease disgruntled collectors and in an attempt to bring  stability back to the hobby, Topps and Upper Deck are currently the only companies with MLB licenses.  

Regulation was necessary, but as usual, it came too late. I was in college by that time and my weekly allowances had long been spent. The majority of those flashy pieces of cardboard, the corners of which I had so carefully preserved, were basically worthless after the baseball card bubble burst. Although it was merely coincidence that the MLB took an active stance in the industry the same year Jose Conseco's "Juiced" hit the shelves, it seemed appropriately fortuitous. While the baseball card companies were raking in the cash, I was raking the leaves, and while the players were getting doped, I was getting duped.

In his steroid admission last month, Alex Rodriguez apologized for his "naive" decisions during what he called a  “loosey-goosey era” in baseball. Although this is a total cop-out, it presents an interesting parallel. Bud Selig, the Commissioner of MLB, and Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the Federal Reserve, were lauded for their accomplishments in the '90s and are now bearing the brunt of a country that has had its identity spoiled by shoddy regulation. 

While I believe they should have ruled with a heavier hand, I'm not sure blaming Selig, Greenspan or even ourselves is really fair. Yeah, everyone could remain cynical about everything and everybody, but I don’t know whether I am ready to wave the white flag and surrender to the notion that individual integrity has become entirely absent from the human condition, as plausible as that argument is becoming by the day.   

As it turned out, Frank Thomas appeared before Congress because he was and is an opponent of steroids. He appeared via video feed to make a public statement on the issue. To my relief, he was clean, and some of my love for the game was salvaged. But for every Frank, there was still a bevy of players I also followed who were guilty.   

Now, as I watch legislation be passed that we can only hope will fix the economic collapse, the foundations of which were laid in our economic “loosey-goosey era,”  I just shrug and shake my head. I know AIG claims “systemic risk” and I know we have to staunch the bleeding, but my and other generations are being indebted for the rest of our lives and it's hard not to feel like a sucker.  

More and more, I hear people argue that football has replaced baseball as our national pastime. Its massive popularity makes for a compelling argument, but I still have to disagree. When I consider the Ponzi schemes, the subprime loan and credit crises, the financial meltdown, TARP I & II, steroids and those boxes of glossy drink coasters sitting in my bedroom, it seems obvious. It seems getting hoodwinked is as American as apple pie.

 Andrew Del-Colle is a former Missourian reporter and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.


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Kathy Warfield March 21, 2009 | 4:08 p.m.

Enjoy reading your articles; gives us a way to keep in touch

Kathy and Red

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