Where would journalism be without the annual hot weather stories –those events that are far less worthy of the attention they get simply because they arrive during the dog days of summer when about the only domestic excitement traditionally centers around baseball, preparations for football and arguments about whether we should teach children creationism or evolution?
This year’s crop has been fairly limited to television alarmists reporting predictions of even a worse season of hurricanes than the always reliable (of course) forecasters had expected; the continuing din about who in the White House may have outed a one-time undercover agent for the CIA; George W. Bush’s seeming endorsement of teaching “intelligent design” along with scientific explanations of life on earth and the latest incident of chemical enhancement by a top athlete, the Baltimore Orioles’ superstar first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, who tested positive for steroids and was suspended for 10 games.
The latter produced endless radio babble from sports talkcasters about Palmeiro’s worthiness for enshrinement in the Cooperstown hall for giants of the National Pastime, the aspiration of every player from the Little Leagues to the Bigs. Palmeiro, who just completed whacking the ball 3,000 times safely, including an impressive batch of homeruns, was a special case in the continuing dilemma about how to handle steroid users because he had sworn to Congress only a few months ago that he never took the performance improvers on his way to amassing numbers that only about four men in baseball have ever achieved.
The answer to Palmeiro’s place in the Valhalla of athletics is a no-brainer if the lords of baseball are serious about cleaning up their sport to comply with the law about drug abuse and for the benefit of all those youngsters who still see these multimillionaires as role models. Awarding him that honor would be a tragic endorsement of cheating and open the hall of fame door for a half dozen others like homerun king Barry Bonds who keeps denying his spectacular production late in his sporting life has anything to do with chemicals.
Then there’s the case of Pete Rose, the game’s leading all time hitter who has been denied entrance to the hall because of his betting proclivities. How is he kept out once the decision is made not to see steroid abuse as a disqualifier? Is placing a bet worse than injecting a drug? It’s the old story about the endless line at the Pearly Gates on doomsday. A couple of guys in the middle keep hearing a noise that sounds like cheering. When it ultimately reaches them, those ahead shout: “They aren’t counting fornication. Pass it back!”
Ironically, baseball apparently owes much of its resurgence in popularity to steroids with the advent of giant sluggers whose careers have grown as fast as their physiques. The 1998 Mark McGuire assault on the homerun record stimulated a flagging interest in the game that has grown steadily. Steroids made money for the owners and their reluctance to tackle the problem has been the result.
Among the other warm weather stories that keep circulating is the president’s suggestion that “intelligent design,” a euphemism for creationism, should be taught alongside evolution. Bush said he felt it was a good idea to “expose people to different schools of thought” so they could understand what the debate is about.
The president’s position is not that unreasonable if one believes in academic freedom (although both sides reject that concept). This, of course, has the potential of reviving the classic hot weather story of the 1920s that began with a short press wire notice that a Tennessee schoolteacher had been fired for exposing his class to evolution and blossomed into a spectacular trial and national debate over Darwinism vs. the fundamentalist version of how we all got here.
That debate never has abated entirely and if the president, a born again Christian, had deliberately tried to tweak it up a notch he couldn’t have done better. In some ways that might be more invigorating than the much ado about nothing investigation in to who leaked what to whom that resulted in the disclosure that Valerie Plame, wife of former ambassador Joseph Wilson, was an undercover agent. Frankly, who cares? The special counsel’s real motivation seems to be to take a hunk out of the First Amendment’s protection of press freedom.
But my vote for the hot weather story is Palmeiro. After all, baseball is where it’s at this time of the year. That is, unless a hurricane blows me away.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)