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Wednesday, June 12, 2013
For Love of the Game State

By Jeff MacGregor
ESPN.com

Citi Field

Saturday, and they're laying new ties and sleepers on the F line. By the time you change for the 7 train you're already late. The Mets and the Marlins start without you. In the Willets Point station stragglers hustle past the scalpers, everyone wearing a look of comic pity for everyone else, then take the stairs two at a time until they're outside. Even from here you can feel the pull of it in your chest, the game underway, the concentration of big league noise and color and the compression of energy inside the walls.

Citi Field is half full. Or maybe it's half empty. Matt Harvey is pitching, and why most of us are here. His motion is worth the price of the ticket, a beautiful thing, fluid and clear as water. He is purposeful but unhurried, and by the time I walk a lap of the concourse to watch him throw, it's 1-1 in the fourth. The rest of it -- the succession of .200 hitters, the low gray sky, the souring of the future into what feels like futility -- falls away.

Telegraph Boy
Signals and signs and sports collide.

To see a thing done well is part of why we're here, but it's simpler and more complicated than that. It's the game and late spring and belonging to something that belongs to you, it's kids running and couples necking and the line for beer, jackass wisecracks and skin on skin and the intimacy and indifference of a whole city, green grass and red earth and a clean angle widening to infinity, fantastic tattoos and bad hats and the smell of hot grease and cooked sugar, the light and the shadows and the declining arc of a long fly ball, and to open yourself fully to any of it is to risk being overwhelmed by all of it, by the fellowship and the carnival, the men and women and children, and in the right frame of mind to be cracked open to the love of everything and everyone here. To be part of that larger thing, whatever it is.

In that way, nothing ever changes. Even when they tell you everything has changed. Three days before the game the story broke that we're spying on ourselves again. The National Security Agency and our war on the war on the War on Terror turned inward. Now even meaningless ballgames in New York resonate just a little to the prologue of "Underworld," Don DeLillo's great late-century novel of American paranoia, in which J. Edgar Hoover, the patron saint of warrantless domestic surveillance, is in the stands at the Polo Grounds for "The Shot Heard 'Round The World." From the Palmer Raids to Woodstock, Mr. Hoover spent his professional life tapping your phones and opening your mail. And always in the name of patriotism and on the grounds of "national security."

We've since jobbed that work out to corporations and entrepreneurial subcontractors. But it is work of long standing. The "wire" tap goes back to the 19th century and the telegraph; the postal intercept 400 years to the Black Cabinet of Louis XIII. Big brother has been reading your mail since there was mail, tapping your lines since there were lines to tap. And always for the greater good. The new technologies of this century differ only in their breadth and efficiency. The principle, or its absence, remains the same.

So the story broke and the news moved too fast for most of us to keep up. That we got the updates on the same devices the government might be using to track us seemed to illustrate the tension between the gifts and the risks of modernity, and between the institution and the individual. Between the many and the one. At the same time across the river in Manhattan, the hooligan Russian girls from Pussy Riot were doing anonymous high-profile interviews on behalf of democracy, free speech and open government.

Wire tap
It used to be harder to tap a phone, but that didn't stop previous generations of government surveillance.

Almost nothing in the U.S. is less democratic than professional sports. Just ask Big Brother/Great Blond NFL Father Roger Goodell. Even Major League Baseball was issuing subpoenas for the phone records of suspected drug cheats and their dealers. Because baseball and Bud Selig are so far behind the zeitgeist on performance enhancement and medical ethics, they're just now doing what might have been better done 20 years ago. Forty years ago. Baseball, America's time machine.

In fact, the only thing more American than baseball or apple pie is the mandatory drug test you now take for your $9-an-hour job at a big box retailer, or to stay eligible for your TANF card.

We've all long since agreed to some of this, to some of these intrusions into our privacy. Everybody in the stands here was subject to a bag search. And in New York we'll stop you and frisk you just because we can, or "randomly" pull you out of line before we let you on the subway. All in the name of public safety. There was plenty of overt and covert surveillance brought to bear on Occupy Wall Street, too. No one kicks much about any of this, because it's mostly happening to someone else.

We even volunteer ourselves and our data and our metadata when it's convenient -- or when we're frightened. And we've done it for thousands of years. Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem for the head count, after all. So we talk to the census taker and we write to the tax assessor, and the only thing more constant than our complaints about these agencies is our reliance upon them. This is the oddball calculus of what we surrender and what we keep of ourselves.

Matt Harvey leaves the mound with a tight lower back at the top of the eighth. For a few minutes the stadium is quiet.

Authoritarianism and privacy and safety and bureaucracy and paternalism; chew on it until you're sick with it, but Franklin was right. You're all-in one way or the other. It's the central paradox of a living republic. Must we destroy our freedom in order to save it?

The question comes and goes in cycles, always has, back to the Alien and Sedition Acts, 1798, and always in the name of Love -- love of country and of countrymen and of principle. Until it darkens into something else. Until we start to suffocate ourselves with it. Choke on it. Wrong things and right reasons, means and ends. For the good of the state. For the good of the game. For your own good.

Now the global digital upgrade makes the analog paranoia of post-atomic McCarthyism seem almost quaint. Heroes and villains and traitors and whistleblowers. Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?

J. Edgar Hoover
As FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover made people's personal business his business.

"Take us where the Mets are headed."

"Down?"

"Down. Downdowndown."

In the elevator near the end of the 12th, this middle-aged man and woman, a little drunk maybe and a little sad. Fashion jeans and the high-end souvenir jerseys. He's home. She's road. They've seen enough.

"We trade all our HITTING," she says into her bag, Michael Kors, rooting for something, then looks up at the elevator operator. From behind his glasses, he blinks at the panel in front of him.

"I can't take you any lower than we're gonna go this summer anyway."

"Where's the basement?" she asks, squinting.

"Cellar," the man says behind her.

Her laugh is short and sharp, half stomach acid. Half resignation. Your faith can never be deep enough in a place like this. Nor your cynicism. The doors open on the ground level and they step off.

"Just to the left, folks," the operator says. "It's a long year." She has the car keys in her hand now, walking for the exits.

"Too long."

"See you folks."

Behind them, another pitcher rocks into his windup. Behind them, the game goes on and on.