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Crime and Banishment
STEVE RUSHIN
August 19, 2013
The story of man begins with Adam, banished from his grassy playground for ingesting a banned substance, and continues unchanged to this day, when Alex Rodriguez awaits exile from Eden on similar charges. It's an ancient human narrative: Biogenesis followed by Bioexodus.
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August 19, 2013

Crime And Banishment

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The story of man begins with Adam, banished from his grassy playground for ingesting a banned substance, and continues unchanged to this day, when Alex Rodriguez awaits exile from Eden on similar charges. It's an ancient human narrative: Biogenesis followed by Bioexodus.

We have deep in our species an abiding need to exile our fellow man, to show him the door with a God-like index finger pointing stage left. Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba in the Mediterranean, forced to live among lizards, seagulls and vipers. A-Rod will be exiled to Star Island in Miami, an undignified outcrop of Shaqs, Oprahs and Diddys.

Only the crimes change. Baseball has been theatrically shunning players and owners for a century and a half on an ever-shifting array of charges that have threatened the heart of the game. And so the big leagues have barred men for criticizing umps (Phillies owner Horace Fogel), holding out for a higher salary (Heinie Groh), signing with a team while under contract to another (Oscar Walker), selling stolen cars despite a court acquittal for said crime (Benny Kauff), smearing Dave Winfield (George Steinbrenner), praising Adolf Hitler (Marge Schott), gambling (Pete Rose), greeting casino gamblers (Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays), taking performance-enhancing drugs (A-Rod et al.) and taking performance-degrading drugs (Ferguson Jenkins, Steve Howe). One American League president tried to ban Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker over gambling allegations but was essentially banned himself by the God-haired commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, thus ending the career of the aptly named Ban Johnson, who had presided over baseball's most famous banishment, that of the eight Black Sox who were made pariahs for life and beyond.

It's enough to drive a man to drive other men to drink. Shoeless Joe Jackson lived out his days in exile running a liquor store in Greenville, S.C., declaiming his innocence to the end, which came in 1951, via a heart attack, 11 days before he was to make a rehabilitative appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. The intervening 62 years have softened public perception of Jackson. To quote Ovid, the poet banished from Rome 2,000 years ago, "Time, the devourer of all things."

Time has certainly devoured a Hollywood production on this subject. The world has somehow forgotten a 1962 made-for-TV movie featuring the two most quintessentially American actors of that or any other time: Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne in Flashing Spikes, directed by John Ford. Spikes tells the story of Slim Conway (Stewart), banished from baseball and living in exile in Miami, where he runs a charter fishing boat and haunts the parking lots at spring training, pining after the game that was his identity. As Stewart settles into a banquette at a swish Miami Beach restaurant, as if his status is entirely unchanged, it's easy to imagine a 48-year-old Rodriguez doing the same.

The movie's villain is a TV commentator and newspaper columnist who anticipated by half a century the multiplatform spanking machine of modern media. Our 24-hour cycle of adulation and demolition was modeled on twin-blade razors—the first blade lifts, the second blade cuts—and reduces everything and everyone to a story line. "Every great ballplayer lives in a glass house for the world to see," says the film's on-camera narrator, Fred Astaire. "For the sports announcers to talk about"—Ford cuts to a young Vin Scully—"for the press to write about, for the kids in the country to worship."

Right down to Scully, it could all happen now, bar the happy ending: Stewart is restored to baseball when evidence emerges, 10 years after the fact, that he never threw the World Series. A-Rod will not likely escape his exile, even after his 211-game suspension—or whatever portion of it holds up on appeal—has been served, for time and public opinion have turned against PEDs. The savior of the game in 1998 is its bane 15 years later, a monster that laid waste to its record books.

"When a man robs his bank and does a stretch in the can, they say he's paid his debt to society," says a sportswriter in Flashing Spikes. Responds his colleague, "I guess Conway shoulda robbed a bank."

In the eyes of many fans A-Rod's crime has less to do with PEDs (no other user has gotten that kind of ban) than with robbing a bank. He took the Yankees' money while getting devoured by time.

Flashing Spikes now exists only as a pastiche of clips on YouTube. It originally aired as part of the Alcoa Premiere anthology series, sponsored by America's leading manufacturer of aluminum, a wonder substance that would soon be fashioned into baseball bats.

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