In defense of Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, jaywalkers, and all the other scofflaws that make America great.

The stadium scene.
Sept. 13 2010 6:51 AM

Life, Liberty, and Breaking the Rules

In defense of Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, jaywalkers, and all the other scofflaws that make America great.

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So am I saying, then, that in order to get the dynamism and power of American life, we have to put up with crime and with the other dangers that crop up in a society in which people don't pay a hell of a lot of attention to the rules? (A relative of mine lives in a farm country where crop dusters spray pesticides and chemicals from the air. There are very strict laws regarding the spraying of chemicals from the air, but these are hard to enforce, and the crop dusters don't always pay careful attention to them and wind up spraying chemicals on my relative's house, which understandably infuriates him.)

No, not at all; that's a sloppy, defeatist answer. There are two lousy answers here:


1) That we need to become a nation like Germany in which people respect and obey the rules, whether they make sense or not.

2) That we have to tolerate the violence and the being-sprayed-with-pesticides and the being-hit-by-trains that come from living in a society in which people don't pay a lot of attention to rules that they don't like.

No. 1 is a lousy answer because the inevitable consequence is that America ceases to be the dynamic, crazy, and creative country that gives the world an endless flow of new inventions. No. 1 is a lousy answer because the inevitable consequence of No. 1 is that Babe Ruth goes to jail. In his time, nobody wanted to send Babe Ruth to jail, but now we do want to send Barry Bonds to jail, and we want to send Roger Clemens to jail, and we (for reasons that I don't understand) find it necessary to piss on Mark McGwire's shoes in order to defend the honor of Roger Maris. I am not happy about this. There is no real difference between sending Babe Ruth to jail and sending Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens to jail. The only relevant difference is the difference between America in 2010 and America in 1940.

You think Babe Ruth didn't violate the law? Babe Ruth violated the law more often than television reruns old episodes of Copsor Andy Griffith.You ever hear of Prohibition?

But No. 2 is a lousy answer, too, because that means that we go on getting people murdered and hit by trains and sprayed with pesticides and bilked out of their savings by Wall Street geek-geniuses who can invent new financial instruments much faster than the regulators can figure out how dangerous they are.

The answer is not No. 1 or No. 2; it is tolerance and vigilance, and it is a sense of perspective. The people who sent Martha Stewart to jail were the people who were supposed to be watching Wall Street. They went after Martha Stewart because she was an easy target. Also, they didn't understand financial derivatives. Nobody did; as it turned out, the people who were trading in them didn't understand them, either. That's why Lehman Bros. went bankrupt; they were trading in something they didn't understand.

So now it is Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds in the crosshairs of the prosecutors, and the question I would urge you to think about is not only "Are these people guilty?" It is also, "Is this prosecution necessary and appropriate?"

Who is it that these people are not watching? We know now, in retrospect, who the people who sent Martha to jail should have been watching. In 10 years, we will know who is robbing the candy store while the feds are chasing Roger. It is not our job to know that now; it is their job, and frankly they should go do it. Is it really necessary to send Babe Ruth to jail, to teach him a lesson about refusing to go to school and making off-color remarks at nice old ladies' dinner parties and drinking during Prohibition? Or can we let him be Babe Ruth, arrogant and charming and irresponsible?

Just my opinion. Let Babe Ruth alone. Go bother the crop dusters.

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Bill James is the author of The Bill James Gold Mine 2009and the proprietor of Bill James Online.

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