My favorite scene in The Natural, a pretty fair film that has as much to do with its original source material as it does with Fifty Shades of Gray, comes when the woebegone New York Knights are forced to listen to a series of increasingly bizarre lectures from some Norman Vincent Peale type in a straw hat. “Defeat,” he always begins, “is like a disease, as contagious as…” As the losses pile up, the metaphorical disease becomes increasingly frightening; losing begins being like polio and ends by being like bubonic plague. Finally, Roy Hobbs can take no more and he walks out the guy whom he calls a “two-bit carny hypnotist.” And considering that this is a guy who made his own bat because a tree had been struck by lightning, this took considerable gumption.
I covered enough spring trainings to know that part of the reason for the extended exercises is to get all the weird stuff out of the way and to establish a smooth status quo for the long regular season. Spring training began as a way for players to sweat out the hundreds of beers they’d downed at deer camp all winter, or as a way for them to work out the kinks that they’d developed working their second job in the steel mills. (In 1886, the Chicago White Stockings ended a barnstorming tour of the South in Hot Springs, Arkansas, largely so the players could get relatively sober before the league season began.) It’s also the venue for experimentation at every level of the game, which is why this year’s spring training was defaced by those abominable proposed rule changes regarding the pace of play that will be in effect in the minor leagues this season.
But, I have to confess, the Kansas City Royals have astounded even this veteran observer. A week or so ago, the team hosted a workshop to warn players and coaches against the dangers of … pornography. The way this happened was equally odd. Apparently, after one of the Royals was busted for a DUI last season, GM Dayton Moore got up at a press conference called to address the situation and wound up veering off into a screed about the perils of porn. (Moore has made no secret of his religious fundamentalism. One of his basic texts is a book titled, The Management Methods of Jesus, a title which, I admit, seems fairly far removed from the gospels.) So, I guess this recent workshop can be seen as a kind of follow-up to what Moore said at that press conference.
In fact, the Royals always have had a close relationship with fundamentalist Protestantism, and with its many enthusiastic fundraising arms. I can remember being in the press box at Royals Stadium back in the day and seeing the headquarters of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes on a bluff out behind left field. (The nights when the biweekly apocalyptic thunderstorms came rolling in off the prairies and illuminated the FCA building with lightning were especially signifying.) In 2001, fed up with losing, manager Tony Muser said "Chewing cookies, drinking milk, and praying isn't going to get it done. It's going to take a lot of hard work and some mindset … I'd like them to go out and pound tequila rather than have cookies and milk.”The local Christian activists went up the wall, and so did the fundamentalists on Muser’s team, one of whom was Mike Sweeney, who was the franchise cornerstone. Muser was gone by the end of the following April.
The workshop was held by an anti-pornography group called Fight The New Drug, which insists that it is neither an abolitionist group nor affiliated with any religious entity. It does, however, behave like one. (And surely it’s significant that the group’s Mormon director of research has been active in the legal fight against marriage equality.) The group’s contention is that pornography is addictive and that FTND is a kind of 12-step program aimed at rewiring the brains of people addicted to porn. The science behind this contention is, shall we say, hazy.
Look, as my grandmother used to say, everyone is entitled to go to hell in their own way and by their own road. The Royals were dragged by a number of adult film-stars for putting their players through this. Lisa Ann was particularly incensed. (And, not for nothing, but “adult film star” is appearing in our news in far too many contexts these days.) I don’t see much point in having your players sit through something like this, even as a character-building exercise, but I’m not the guy running a ballclub, either.
Is there an epidemic of porn within MLB that has escaped my notice? I mean, we’ve known at least since the publication of Ball Four that extravagant randiness always has been as much a hallmark of the Major League Ballplayer as spitting and Budweiser. Hell, one of the reasons that the Red Sox were so anxious to get rid of that Ruth character is that the team was tired of sending someone out before every game to pry Ruth out of whatever brothel in which he’d spent the previous night.
However, baseball does have a problem with domestic violence and sexual harassment, as do all sports, and we are in a moment in which all the old excuses and explanations don’t apply any more. One of the things that makes me nervous about FTND is that it is somewhat insidious in how it links pornography to these other, genuinely serious problems. As one scientist points out in Samantha Allen’s Daily Beast story linked above, this can easily slide into a new and ill-sourced iteration of the old Blame The Victim dodge.
Ley, the author of The Myth of Sex Addiction, examined the research cited by FTND and told The Daily Beast that it was “extremely one-sided, and is not composed of empirical studies on the actual effects of pornography.” “Instead, their citations largely include writings in pop psychology and by writers who are not conducting actual research, and who do not have backgrounds in sexuality research or treatment,” Ley added.
Part of me wants to laugh this off. Spring training eventually becomes boring and sitting through this seminar had to be better than doing infield drills for the 25th day in a row. But another part of me is worried that this whole business reeks of quick-fix snake-oil that could drain money and energy away from the solutions to very serious social problems. And that same part of me wonders where the management of a baseball team gets off promoting what may well be camouflaged quackery to its players. I guess you can line me up with Roy Hobbs, Pop. I came here to play ball, not to be put to sleep by a two-bit carny hypnotist.