The stuff about the connection between baseball and American life, the Field of Dreams thing, gives me a pain. I hated that movie. It’s mostly fake. You look back into the meaning of old-time baseball, and really in the early days it was full of roughnecks and drunks. They beat up the umpires and played near saloons.

But who’s to say that two-fisted, hard-drinking ballplayers don’t represent the American way?

Baseball season began yesterday, but today is opening day for most of the league. As the season stretches on, prepare to see signs of the continuing strife between ownership and the player’s union; expect to see someone — Carl Everett or John Rocker, perhaps, now that Al Belle has retired — make an ass of himself through a particularly churlish or stupidly criminal gesture; look forward to the first batch of stories comparing the current dross with the upstanding baseball of yesteryear, where love of the game was what mattered and no one ever entertained an ignoble thought. Except, as Roger Angell reminds us, it’s bunk.

The stuff about the connection between baseball and American life, the Field of Dreams thing, gives me a pain. I hated that movie. It’s mostly fake. You look back into the meaning of old-time baseball, and really in the early days it was full of roughnecks and drunks. They beat up the umpires and played near saloons.

But who’s to say that two-fisted, hard-drinking ballplayers don’t represent the American way? The Bambino, the single most storied player ever, was a man of great appetites. Ty Cobb was the greatest player of his time as well a virulent racist and anti-Semite with a violent temper, a miserable excuse for a man whose funeral mustered only four representatives from baseball. Jim Bouton’s 1970 classic, Ball Four, was a best-seller not just for the intriguing and candid look inside the locker room but for the depiction of baseball players as arrogant, womanizing, hard-drinking jerks. Bob Feller may have been the only Cleveland Indian starting the first game of the 1948 World Series without a hangover after a long, boozing, brawling celebration the night before. The great Phillies slugger John Kruk summed it up neatly when someone asked the overweight, cigar-smoking Kruk about his training regimen: "Training? I’m not an athelete — I’m a ballplayer."

Baseball’s origins as a bucolic, small-town game are at least partially a myth; baseball was born in Cooperstown and nurtured across America, but it was in New York City and major cities throughout the Midwest that the game really took form. The Cincinatti Red Stockings were the first openly professional team:

The professional manager was Harry Wright, who saw the commercial potential of the game clearly. Its popularity throughout the country convinced Wright that people who happily paid "seventy-five cents to one dollar" to see theatrical performances would pay to see a baseball game, more popular by far than theatricals. But, he wanted to assure that patrons got their money’s worth, so he drilled the team, insisted they be businesslike on the field, dressed them in knickers to increase their running speed and admonished them on diet, drink, tobacco and clean living.

Creating a myth of all-American boys living clean and playing hard was important even then, especially after the "Louiville Crooks Scandal" scandal of 1877, in which four players for the Louisville Grays admitted to throwing games. The resulting uproar resulted in the Grays and the St. Louis Browns going under. But I think that the mythology America repeats to itself should be made up of more than just naturals from wholesome, cornfed states winning (or losing) on the last at-bat of the season. There’s a place for the talented amateur who will never make it big, for the never-greats past their prime, for the tightly wound players and those with questionable ethics (the fastball was invented by a cheat!) trying to make it the way they know how. One of the things that makes Mark Harris’ Bang the Drum Slowly so enjoyable is that he knows that there’s a place for the boozers and partiers and brawlers and headcases, dumb, maybe unlikeable people who can wail the hell out of the horsehide. I’m not looking forward to another season of the Yankees playing Godzilla to the American League’s Tokyo, but I hope David Wells and Jason Giambi tear it up in Manhattan. Play ball!