The other day Richard Nixon was quoted as saying that, if he had his life to live over again, he would own a baseball team in Southern California. lIf he had followed the model of proprietorship offered by George Steinbrenner, principal owner of the New York Yankees, Nixon obviously would have been a success. It's a pity Nixon didn't acquire a team 20 years ago.
Like Steinbrenner, Nixon has a talent for depicting himself as a nation betrayed. He would have been magnificent in defeat -- an impresario of the market in blame trying to make things perfectly clear to the reporters in the locker room at the end of a lost season, scowling into the television cameras, suggesting that agents of the Eastern Establishment had infiltrated the bullpen, tugging a baseball cap down over his ears and saying that for another six months at least the press wouldn't have good old Dick Nixon to bat around. Steinbrenner's virtuosity along these lines already has transformed the New York baseball season into a political campaign. To watch the Yankees lose is to wonder what Steinbrenner will say in the next day's papers. Who will be cast as the enemy of the American people, and to what conspiracy or minor league will Steinbrenner banish the poor wretch?
The Yankees last week lost three games in a row to the Baltimore Orioles, and Steinbrenner allocated the blame as if it were as plentiful as after-shave lotion. In a succession of statements to the baseball press, Steinbrenner awarded the fault for the team's failure to 1) the umpires, 2) the pitchers, 3) Ron Guidry's foot, 4) Reggie Jackson's eyes, 5) the pitching coaches, 6) the infielders and 7) the manager. It was a wonder that Steinbrenner didn't also mention the Soviet navy, the environmentalists, the weather, General Motors and the specter of international terrorism.
Steinbrenner changes managers as often as Nixon changed the new for the old Nixon, or President Carter changed energy and foreign policies. The similarity between presidential politics and big-time sport suggests that the candidates who would succeed at either occupation must possess the attributes of a moral infant. When things go wrong with their grand designs, it must always be somebody else's fault; when they bawl their excuses to the heavens, they must pretend to speak for an enraged electorate.
Perhaps Steinbrenner knows as little about baseball as Nixon knew about republlican government. How else can they explain not only the frequency but also the high visibility of their public embarrassment? Like the politician, the owner of the team presents himself as the one who has been most cruelly let down. He stands as the mournful surrogate for the constituency of fans that has just lost, by a score of 5-2, Southeast Asia, Cuba and the "spirit that made this country great."
Steinbrenner pays the players and coaches of the Yankees a collective annual salary in excess of $10 million, and for that amount of money he expects better than fourth place and a team batting average of .242. The same disappointed expectation informs the incessant complaint about the national military and diplomatic performance. Think of all the money spent on the shah of Iran, who was supposed to win the pennant for Western Civilization in the Middle East. The damn fellow was given the best of everything -- the latest technology, the most expensive weapons, a contract for his old that would have mollified Dave Winfield's agent -- and then, proving himself as unreliable a manager as Billy Martin, the shah went and messed up the series with the ayatollah.
Democracies trade in two markets -- the market in expectation and the market in blame. The collapse of prices in one market entails the rise of prices in the other. Steinbrenner pays so much for the guarantee of victory that his laments about the loss of will and nerve aspire to the condition of a tract published in "Commentary."
Maybe this is what becomes of politics in a nation divided into the leagues of recrimination. Steinbrenner rants in his owner's box, and Mayor Koch at city hall blames the municipal judiciary for the rising incidence of street crime; Alexander Haig blames the Kremlin for all the evil abroad in the world, and Ralph Nader blames the corporations. Other voices in other rooms blame lawyers, doctors, journalists and the male supremacists who for 6,000 years have held women captive in the slave ships of culture.
If Nixon could be persuaded to buy the San Diego Padres, perhaps Steinbrenner could be persuaded to run for the presidency. He is a friend of Speaker Thomas O'Neill; he is adept at the buying and selling of media images, and, above all else, he knows that the fault is in his stars, never in himself, and that he, at least, is not an underling.