May 19, 2020 Reading Time: 5 minutes

“If I ever see that again from you or anybody on your team I’m going to bury the guy at the plate.” So said Roger Clemens to a Cleveland Indian on second, decades ago. George Will reports in his endlessly great book about baseball, Men at Work, that the baserunning Indian was tipping off the location of Clemens’s pitches to his teammate at the plate. Will goes on to write that the runner “gave Clemens some back talk.” That was a mistake. Clemens subsequently “returned to the mound and on the next pitch sent the batter sprawling.”

That Clemens used baseball’s unwritten and rather manly rules to send a message came to mind while thinking about the hideous lockdowns, along with the masks that have become the symbol of them. It’s hard to imagine someone as tough as Clemens wearing a mask. And if he wears one, it’s hard to imagine he does so happily.

Traveling back in time to the early 1980s, then Yankees catcher Rick Cerone was asked about how he was enduring one of those periodic Major League Baseball strikes. This is a paraphrase, but Cerone said he “missed being around the guys.” Imagine what Cerone would think about baseball being suspended in response to a virus that, by most accounts, thankfully tends to spare a substantial majority of those exposed to it. Baseball isn’t just a profession, it’s a culture. Clearly a very masculine culture that includes protecting the plate, the stealing of signs, but also retribution for stealing those signs. The idea that potential illness would keep the players from playing must aggravate more than a few major leaguers.

In the just concluded ESPN documentary, The Last Dance, Michael Jordan broke his foot early in his second season as a Chicago Bull. At that point, Jordan’s net worth had already soared into the stratosphere based on Nike shoe sales alone, but he was plainly miserable not playing. Despite being financially set for life, and despite warnings from doctors that he was risking his basketball career by coming back too soon, Jordan did just that.

Notable about Jordan and the Bulls was that they, in order to vanquish their critics, had to eventually beat the Detroit Pistons of “Bad Boys” fame. The Bulls-Pistons games were notoriously rough, and arguably symbolized by Piston Bill Laimbeer and his plexiglass mask. Laimbeer wore a mask for a time not to fend off germs, but because he’d fractured a cheekbone after colliding with another NBA player in an exhibition game.

The notoriously tough Laimbeer’s use of a mask perhaps amused the legendary Rudy Tomjanovich. Los Angeles Laker Kermit Washington punched Houston Rocket Tomjanovich in an on-court fight in 1977, and nearly killed the Rocket. Two years later, however, Tomjanovich was back on the court. And an All-Star. Tomjanovich famously coached the Rockets to two NBA titles in the 1990s, though some say asterisks should be put next to both since Jordan was largely out of the NBA during those championship seasons for the Rockets.

There’s no way of knowing whether Jordan’s Bulls would have beaten the Rockets, but it’s fairly easy to speculate that neither Jordan, nor Laimbeer, nor Tomjanovich would have been fazed by the coronavirus. Basketball and winning plainly meant too much to all three to stop playing the game.

Turning to football, Terrell Owens played – brilliantly – in Super Bowl XXXIX after defying physician orders that he not play. You see, Owens’s ankle had two screws and a metal plate in it, yet he still risked life and limb to compete. Owens played 62 out of 72 offensive snaps for the Philadelphia Eagles, and amassed 122 receiving yards. Understand that Owens had a broken leg.

Defensive back Ronnie Lott famously amputated the top of his left pinky finger so that he wouldn’t miss any games. It seems Lott broke his finger tackling Dallas Cowboys RB Timmy Newsome at the end of the 1985 regular season. Facing a choice between having the finger operated on, a pin inserted and covered by a cast such that he would have had to miss the playoffs, Lott chose the amputation route. Though he later regretted doing as he did, one imagines Covid-like symptoms wouldn’t have kept him off the field when he played. Neither would they have kept teammate Joe Montana out.

Montana had a high fever and the flu going into the 1979 Cotton Bowl that pitted Notre Dame versus the University of Houston. Montana ate a bowl of chicken soup at halftime, and led Notre Dame to a stirring comeback that ended with a 35-34 win. It seems neither Montana’s teammates nor Houston’s players feared Montana breathing on them and infecting them, though it’s said that Joe Namath’s New York Jets opponents sometimes dreaded his breathing on them after a sack so powerful was the stench of alcohol from the night (and surely early morning) before.

Considering American sports in a broad sense, how very American that the U.S.’s baseball, basketball and football leagues crown world champions every year. There’s a confidence about what’s American that is unrivaled.

All of which raises a basic question about the lockdowns and the masks: their effectiveness aside, along with the view among some that they’re not terribly healthy, isn’t the bigger story that they’re not very American? Really, what does the rest of the world think? And doesn’t it kind of matter what others think? Would Robert Mitchum have ever consented to wearing a mask out of fear of a virus? Can anyone seriously imagine John Wayne putting on a mask? As for social distancing, the Duke’s commanding, intimidating presence ensured that none would come too close to him. And the idea that some business owner would tell a mask-free Wayne to put one on, and that some hyper-alarmist patron would tell him to keep 6 feet away is just too silly for words.

Sorry, but with the United States there’s a perception about it. Americans are rough around the edges, a little bit high strung, and in the stereotype held by all-too-many, more than a bit manly. There’s a reason Marlboro is the world’s biggest selling cigarette brand. When people buy the cigarette they’re buying much more than just a smoke. They’re buying a masculine American ideal. So are the buyers of Budweiser’s red, white and blue can. It’s much more than the King of Beers. There’s underlying truth in all stereotypes.  

Americans don’t quarantine out of fear of viruses, nor do these rugged individualists uniformly don masks to protect themselves. Instead, Americans are the solution to whatever the problem is; always too busy and productive to be held back by shelter-in-place orders and fears of N-95 shortages.

Oh well, it’s something to think about. While wise minds can debate the U.S. as “the world’s policeman,” they probably won’t debate the U.S. as the eternal answer to global questions. Americans are doers, as opposed to them quarantining while waiting for others to do for them. Notable is that whole world is watching as they do what John Wayne probably never would have. 

Republished from RealClearMarkets

John Tamny


John Tamny, research fellow of AIER, is editor of RealClearMarkets.

His book on current ideological trends is: They Are Both Wrong (AIER, 2019)

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