Saturday, April 7, 2012
Past is Prologue: Eight Men Out
“What we shoulda done was waltz around for a few rounds, then one of us hit the canvas, and we split 25 bucks apiece later and nobody gets hurt.”
Few historical dramas are ever so specific about a subject as Eight Men Out. The movie’s original poster promotes the film as “The inside story of how the national pastime became a national scandal,” and indeed that’s exactly what Eight Men Out is, and not much more. Recounting the conspiracy, investigation and trial that made the 1919 Chicago White Sox go down in history as the Black Sox, Eight Men Out is less concerned with understanding why several White Sox players threw the World Series than with chronicling how it happened. Character development is scant. The movie suggests that legendary outfielder “Shoeless” Joe Jackson is dim and illiterate, that owner Charles Comiskey is a selfish tightwad and that catcher Ray Schalk will stop at nothing to win – and those are the multidimensional characters. John Sayles, working from a book by Eliot Asinof, doesn’t dive into the minds and motives of these men perhaps because he doesn’t confuse them for protagonists in a Shakespeare tragedy. After all, when professional athletes stand to make far more money by failing than by succeeding, “To cheat or not to cheat?” isn’t much of a question.
The lifetime banishment from baseball of eight players who worked with gamblers to fix the World Series was designed to take that question off the table altogether. And Pete Rose notwithstanding, it seemed to work. But the Black Sox scandal only dissuaded a certain kind of cheating, and while Eight Men Out is ostensibly about a time more than 90 years ago when baseball lost its innocence, the film’s real value doesn’t come from what it tells us about the era it portrays but from what it tells us about the era in which it was made. Released in 1988, Eight Men Out hit theaters a year before the Oakland A’s mashed their way to an earthquake-delayed World Series title partly on the broad shoulders of two players, Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco, who were much smaller than they’d become but certainly bigger and stronger than their contemporaries, and who would eventually be at the epicenter of baseball’s second loss of innocence: the steroids scandal. In retrospect, Eight Men Out hovers before the 1990s like a harbinger of doom, but it wasn’t meant to be an omen. In fact, while the steroids era might have sprouted with that Oakland team (personal theory), it wouldn’t become part of the public consciousness for another decade, when a reporter noticed a bottle of androstenedione in McGwire’s locker.
So it’s interesting today to watch Eight Men Out and notice the sadness it has for an impurity of another generation, knowing with the benefit of hindsight that another impurity was growing under its feet. But it’s even more interesting to consider the differences between that distant scandal and baseball’s recent one. In both cases, the “cheating”** players were motivated by money, but while the 1919 White Sox hooked up with gamblers because they weren’t being paid enough, players in the steroids era took performance enhancing drugs because player salaries are so high. If the Black Sox scandal showed the dangers of paying players too little, the steroids era revealed the dangers of paying them too much. Of course, the 1919 White Sox artificially reduced their performance in an effort to lose, whereas players in the steroids era artificially enhanced their performance in an effort to win. From a distance, the latter seems preferable to the former, because sports is defined by the pursuit of victory even more so than by fair play. Alas, the dirty little secret of the steroids era is that enhanced player performance enhanced the game itself, thus turning the institution of baseball into a coconspirator.
Cheating in sports creates all sorts of winners. But the ultimate losers, each and every time, are the innocents and the trusting fans. Eight Men Out links those two groups together through third baseman Buck Weaver. Played by John Cusack with baby face and furrowed brow, Buck is the only White Sox player approached about the conspiracy who refuses to take part in it. He hits. He fields. He tries to win. And on the way home from games he engages that trusting fan base – kids in the neighborhood who hang on every pitch and adopt their favorite players’ names while playing stickball in back alleys. According to Eight Men Out, Buck is innocent, but he has baseball taken away from him anyway, because mass corruption has a way of overflowing the margins of its architecture. In the trial, Buck pleads for a chance to testify on his own behalf: “I’m being charged for a conspiracy I didn’t have nuthin’ to do with.” It’s the kind of plea that you figure clean players in the steroids era must have thought to themselves, fully aware that nothing could be gained by saying it out loud.
With a cast that includes Cusack, Charlie Sheen, Christopher Lloyd and Nancy Travis, Eight Men Out has a distinct 1980s pedigree, but otherwise it’s impressively timeless. A few days ago the Miami Marlins opened a new ballpark that includes a retractable roof, a swimming pool beyond the outfield wall, two aquariums built into the backstop and a psychedelic sculpture in centerfield featuring dancing flamingos and erupting waterworks. It is what it is: a sign of the times. So it’s nice to have films like Eight Men Out that show baseball as it used to be, with backstops that look like simple backyard fences and outfield walls made of genuine billboards, with lumpy leather gloves on the fielders and bowler hats on men in the crowd. It was a simpler game back then, to be sure. Just not a more innocent one.
**There’s a compelling argument to be made that players who took performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) weren’t actually cheating because Major League Baseball didn’t test for PEDs or outline the consequences of using PEDs, thus there wasn’t technically a rule against it.