October 24, 2011

Beer and the Old Ballgame

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With the World Series as a backdrop, baseball fans in St. Louis and Texas are singing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” for the final time this week, pleading for someone to buy them peanuts and crackerjacks. Peanuts and crackerjacks are two foods that are intimately associated with baseball. But the song leaves out other foods that are just as iconic of baseball — hot dogs and beer. My uncle likes telling me that when his kids were young and he would take them out to the ballgame, he would ritually down two hot dogs and two beers every time. Hot dogs and beer are so intimately associated with the game of baseball that fans in Philadelphia sought to bring to the attention of Barry Bonds that “Babe Ruth did it [hit home runs] on hot dogs and beer” (as opposed to steroids).Beer especially is everywhere in baseball whether you go to the ballpark or watch a game on television. The advertisements for Budweiser, Miller and Coors are everywhere on the outfield walls of stadiums, adjoining scoreboards and during commercials. There are even three stadiums named after these brands. Schaefer, the world’s best-selling beer until Budweiser overtook it in the 1970s, used to sponsor a scoreboard at Ebbets Field — home of the Dodgers when they played in Brooklyn — where the “h” would light up if a player reached base on a hit and “e” would light up if a player reached base on an error. Speaking of Budweiser, this World Series the makers of this brand of beer are undoubtedly overjoyed due to the intimate connection that the Anheuser-Busch family has with the Cardinals. Not only do the Cardinals display Budweiser ads throughout their stadium, but they play in Busch Stadium.

You might say that beer is synonymous with baseball in a similar way that it is synonymous with fraternity houses. As John Lester of the Red Sox recently said in response to allegations of drinking beer during games in the clubhouse, “Beer has been a part of baseball forever” and “We’re not the only ones doing it.” He’s right; Of the 30 major league teams, 12 allow their players access to beer, and more teams used to allow it. Yet after the scandalous revelation of drinking in the Red Sox clubhouse, Major League Baseball is “concerned” about this practice and even considering a league-wide ban. To be clear, what occurred was nothing that was against the rules, and it didn’t lead to any DUI citations. Nobody died thus providing a compelling reason to curb alcohol usage the way Cornell is attempting to do so in the fraternity pledging process. The story probably would not have even come out if it weren’t for the Sox’s epic September collapse. Furthermore, according to Joe Torre, executive vice president of baseball operations, the intent of banning alcohol across all clubhouses is merely about appearances. “We’re up there and we’re role models, or we should be role models for the youngsters and how they behave,” he said.

On the one hand, it’s easy to be cynical in calling baseball’s actions merely a PR move intended to metaphorically cover its bases. It can also be considered hypocritical given how embedded beer is in baseball culture as my examples above serve to illustrate. After all, it was only a handful of baseball players drinking beer in the clubhouse. They are adults of the legal age to drink, and they didn’t directly cause any harm or embarrassment as a result of their actions. Why not ban beer from games entirely and therefore save kids from having to see the hundreds of bad examples of grown men and women acting foolishly in the stands because they haven’t adhered to the message to “drink responsibly”? Why not ban the dazzling array of beer ads on television and in stadiums which are sponsoring the game? Why not do these things? Because it would cut down on a fabulous source of revenue which the MLB will not give up, while baseball players can easily do without beer in the clubhouse and the MLB will look like it is doing the “right” thing. And while baseball may be a slave to corporate America in this sense, the reality is that it needs revenue to operate.

On the other hand, baseball players, just as athletes in all other sports, inevitably are role models for kids. It’s not something that baseball players can choose to opt out of — it’s something that comes with the job. And while many kids may be able to understand that these particular baseball players are old enough to legally drink, alcohol inhabits an uncomfortably ambiguous position in our society, as testified by the existence of Prohibition at one time and a higher legal drinking age than the vast majority of other countries. Furthermore, baseball players inhabit a uniquely ambiguous position among all athletes because baseball is often considered a child’s game (at least it used to be considered that way). As Dodger announcer Vin Scully is apt to say, you have to have “a lot of little boy in you” to play baseball. And of course, little boys — good little boys that is — do not drink beer. In an age where cameras are everywhere, news spreads rapidly and heroic public figures are few and far in between, perhaps Joe Torre’s statement is not as ridiculous as it may sound at first.

Original Author: Brian Bencomo