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Does baseball have room for the natural?

January 13, 2008
By Steve Knepper,
For some frustrated baseball fans, the Mitchell Report will be the last straw.

While individual players may prove innocent — and let’s hope some do — the report makes it painfully clear that the major leagues have a serious steroids problem that can no longer be ignored. A long shadow has been thrown over the last two decades of record-breaking ball.

The 400-page report has left me thinking less about Barry Bonds than about Roy Hobbs, the hard-swinging hero of Bernard Malamud’s baseball classic, The Natural.

As the title suggests, this slugger doesn’t need human growth hormone to succeed. The closest he comes to using performance-enhancing drugs is when he swings Wonderboy, the trusty bat he hewed from the wood of a lightning-struck tree.

After overcoming a double share of hard luck, Hobbs finally makes his major-league debut at age 35. There is no multi-million dollar offer for Malamud’s protagonist, but instead a measly $3,500 contract for the down-and-out New York Knights.

Hobbs is driven more by a desire to be one of the greats than by financial incentive. He takes the place of Bump Baily, a talented player whose selfishness looks all too familiar to jilted fans of today’s game.

Once he gets his chance, Hobbs blasts homer after homer, leading the Knights back into the pennant race. Along the way, he knocks the leather casing right off a ball, goes to see a fortune teller about overcoming his slump, and hits one out of the park in order to save a boy’s life.

Malamud’s novel is both hilarious and heartbreaking. Alfred Kazin, one of the twentieth century’s preeminent literary critics, claimed that The Natural ‘‘raised the whole passion and fanaticism of baseball as a popular spectacle to its ordained place in mythology.’’

Kazin was a smart man, but he had it backwards.

Baseball had a rich mythology and tradition long before this novel was published in 1952. Malamud was just a creative observer, an imaginative fan. He tapped baseball’s fairytale dream, one familiar to any boy who has played stickball in a backstreet or a pickup game on a sandlot:

Of course, at the end of the novel, Malamud’s hero has his own close encounter with the dark side of the professional game.

The femme fatale Memo pressures a severely-ailing Hobbs to throw the pennant game for a big sum of cash. Halfway through the contest, the slugger changes his mind and gives it his best, but by then it is too late for the Knights.

Walking away from the ballpark, Hobbs reads a newspaper story implicating him in the gambling ring, and the novel ends with him crying ‘‘many bitter tears.’’

It’s impossible to return to the era when Malamud wrote the novel, when ballplayers were ordinary men rather than pumped up superheroes, but there are also lessons to be learned from The Natural. Malamud can remind fans of all the reasons why we should go out to the old ballpark — reasons like the seventh inning stretch, the psychological chess match between pitcher and batter, the thrill of the long fly ball soaring deep into centerfield. He can also issue a cautionary tale to those players who would value money and individual success more than the integrity of the game.

Major League Baseball might be in serious trouble, and it may never recover all its lost shine, but the mystique and allure described in The Natural ensure that the sport itself can’t be tarnished.

So, if you’re a frustrated fan, don’t give up on the game. Read Malamud, and when those spring days roll around, go see the local minor league team or check out some college or high school ball.

After all, those are the boys who might just turn the big leagues back around some day.

Steve Knepper is a graduate of Juniata College. He currently studies and teaches American literature at the University of Virginia.

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