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Niedner: When athletes became heroes, the plot lines changed

Frederick Niedner

Frederick Niedner

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Updated: February 27, 2013 6:08AM



Like many baseball fans raised west of the Mississippi, I lost my first real hero this week. We knew of Mantle and Williams, and our dads told us about Ruth and Gehrig. But until the Dodgers and Giants left New York for California in 1957, St. Louis had the western-most major league franchise, so we faithfully followed the Cardinals. The brightest star in our pantheon was Stan “the Man” Musial.

Since Musial’s death last weekend at age 92, I’ve read a score of tributes to the modest, classy lefty who played outfield and first base for 22 years and whose batting statistics rank him among the top half dozen who ever played the game. I can still hear the voice of a not-yet-notorious Harry Caray, then a Cardinals announcer, describing feats that baseball pundits have rehearsed this week, like the five home runs Musial stroked in a 1954 double-header. Each time Caray crooned his trademark home-run call (“It might be outta here, it could be, it is!”), Stan the Man moved a notch closer to Jesus and Lincoln in my schoolboy ranking of history’s great ones.

In one way or another, most of this week’s accolades describe Musial as “underrated.” Perhaps because he played in a fly-over state, never got mixed up in scandal or contract disputes and rarely appeared in commercials, he somehow flew beneath the insatiable publicity machine’s radar. Sure, he was a first-ballot hall of famer, but mostly he was a ballplayer who quietly went about his work with astonishing excellence and consistency.

In the same week we have fondly recalled Musial’s legacy, we have witnessed the disintegration of another pair of once-charming stories.

Fallen superstar Lance Armstrong sat with Oprah, our culture’s sister confessor, to admit that the epic tale of his heroic life was mostly an assemblage of lies. At one point in his confession, Armstrong described how the story of his perfect life as a cancer survivor, model dad, doting husband and, ah yes, seven-time Tour de France winner, took on a life of its own. Eventually the story, hollow though it was, owned him. He became its slave.

Something similar snared Manti Te’o, Notre Dame’s latest legend and Heisman Trophy candidate. He, too, sat with TV studio confessors this week to admit he found himself trapped as the central figure in a poignant drama that was three parts hoax, another part naiveté. What else could he do but let the fiction live?

What’s changed in the half-century since Musial hung up his spikes? Not human nature. Although it’s hard to imagine Musial enduring today’s invasive, omnipresent media eyes or Armstrong’s potential in an era before chemotherapy and steroids, some have always played the ball where it lies, while others can’t resist an improvement when no one’s looking.

Perhaps the biggest change in 50 years is the public’s investment in these scenarios. Soon after Musial retired, legendary television producer Roone Arledge took charge of ABC sports, and aiming to attract new viewers shifted the focus of coverage away from the games themselves and onto the players and their stories. It worked, but one side-effect was to make of the sporting world another kind of addictive soap opera.

Sooner or later, the plot lines in our superstars’ tales often come down to a version of one made famous in a 1960’s rock opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber that only seemed to be about Jesus Christ. We love to create superstars and hitch our hearts to their heroics. Most inevitably stumble, however, and when they do, we crucify them. Sometimes with good reason.



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