If you want to understand American politics, go to a baseball game.
This year, the Pittsburgh Pirates are going nowhere fast. At the All Star break they were 18 games out of first place in the National League Central, with virtually no hope of contending for a play-off spot or even getting to .500.
Which is worse than last year. Last year Pittsburgh finished the season 28 games out of first place in their division, and with a record of 62 wins and 99 losses, the second to the worst team in all of baseball. This year they're well on pace to be the worst.
But attendance is up. This time last year Pittsburgh was averaging around 18,500 per home game. This year the average is a little over 20,000. Which is kind of weird, considering that if you attend any Pirate ball game, the odds are 2 to 1 you are going to see them lose.
How much is it going to cost you to see the Pirates lose? Glad you asked. Well, say you're a family man with a wife and two kids. Now you can get in the park for as little as 9 bucks for a seat in the outfield bleachers. But its going to cost you more like 24 bucks for a decent view of the game. So you get your tickets, go to the game, pay for parking, buy everyone some popcorn and a coke (OK, you can have a beer, Steve) and a couple of souvenirs. By the time you get home your tab could easily come to over $150.00. Something like 40 bucks each.
Which is crazy, especially when you consider that last year, with the Pirates at dead last in their division, almost 17,000 people paid that kind of money to watch the meaningless final game at home. Yeah, the Reds beat 'em 6 to nothing.
Why? Harry Caray, probably one of the greatest baseball announcers ever, was fond of saying: "Ahhh, 'ya can't beat fun at the old ball park...". Which is to say lots of people just really like the game and getting out of the house for a few hours. But for my money that's only half the equation. The other half is that when they adopt a team, true sports fans stick with it no matter what.
I grew up a Cubs fan, during a time when the Cubs were such consistent losers that being a die hard Cubs fan entered the national psyche through songs, plays and stories, and became the virtual definition of perseverance. So I guess I can understand why a Pirate fan would drag his wife and kids out and pay 150 bucks to see the Pirates lose. What he's doing is teaching them the ethics and honor of being a true fan.
People brought up like this don't give up on the team - not ever. And by the same token, they have a natural, ingrained contempt for the fair weather fan. You know who I'm talking about. Every time some team in any sport makes a run at a national championship, their jerseys, hats and bumper stickers seem to sprout up like mushrooms. And you think, "What a jerk. Last year he didn't even know who Alabama was. This year he's wearing 200 dollars worth of team apparel - not to mention the "Roll Tide" license plate on everything he owns - including his riding mower.".
Years ago the Dallas Cowboys billed themselves as "America's Team", which went over like a lead balloon. They were clean, wholesome, played fair, almost always won and had the best looking cheerleaders. But really, this just made America mad. We don't like being told who our team ought to be. We'll pick our own teams, thank you. And we don't care if they play dirty, lose all the time and have cheerleaders that make Rosie O'Donnell look like Eva Longoria.
The Pittsburgh Pirate roster consists of 40 men, many of whom make more in one season than most of their fans will earn in a lifetime. Next year, a few of them might become free agents, and move on to the highest bidder. But while they're Pirates, while they're wearing the Pirate uniform, they are the hero's fighting it out on a field, not just for their success, but ours too. In a larger sense, our investment of loyalty in them defines their role in our lives - which is our struggle in life itself, played out by proxy among 18 men on a ball field.
As Americans, we live in a country of astounding wealth, both natural and man made. Steve, when I flush the toilet I've used and disposed of clean water, the likes of which over half the rest of the world has to walk for miles and then wait in line to obtain. I probably throw away enough food to feed an entire family living in the Third World. If I'm hot, I turn the thermostat down - even though I may be the only person in the house. I don't worry if my home is "close to" anywhere... I've got a car which brings everything close to me. Despite all this, I don't consider myself a wealthy man.
Sure, poverty really does exist in this country. But when measured against the rest of the world, poverty for us is like a mild heat rash compared to polio. More people starve to death in the Third World than go without a couple of meals here in America.
I believe it is this embarrassment of riches which has allowed us over the years to treat politics like one big baseball game. If we are really honest about it, we have been acting more like sports fans than conscientious citizens - and that, I fear, includes you and me Steve.
For most, our political leaders have become mere proxies for us in our own struggles to succeed in life. We want them to be right and to win for the same reasons we want the Pirates to beat the Reds. Yeah, sure, we say we measure them by the potency of their ideas, their honesty or character - but in the end, all that really matters is the "R" or the "D".
And we stick with our team no matter what. Their guy commits some act of idiocy or hypocrisy and we are filled with revulsion. Our guy does the same thing and we hardly notice. In the back of our minds we think, "Sure, he's a jerk - but at least he's a Democrat...". He's on our team. He may be a complete moron and a self serving, ideological robot to boot, but when it comes time to vote, he votes for our side.
We've had the luxury of treating politics like sports so far because with so much wealth to go around, its been next to impossible for government to really screw things up. However I fear that era is rapidly coming to a close. Now is the time we need to start electing men and women to positions of leadership based on intelligence, character and honesty. We need people who can change their minds, people with the ability to grow and learn from their mistakes. Above all, we need people with the most precious talent of all - that is, the courage to tell the American public the truth instead of what it wants to hear.
Steve, we're not going to get those people any time soon. We're not going to get them because Failure, the mightiest teacher of all, has yet to drag the American public through the inevitable consequences of its thoughtlessness. I believe America emerged from the last great depression a stronger nation, which collectively rolled up its sleeves and got down to the business of restoring prosperity the hard way, with backbone, hard work and little tolerance for fools. Well maybe that lesson has been lost in these modern times, and we're just going to have to learn it all over again.
One thing I'm certain of though is this: When we hit the wall, you're going to think it was the liberals who got us there and I'm going to think it was the conservatives.
And you know what? We'll both be wrong.