Thursday’s Field Of Dreams game in Iowa is one of those marketing moments that Major League Baseball likes to trot out from time to time to touch its cultural roots, or perhaps the other way around. A book that becomes a movie and allows them to pay Kevin Costner to slow-walk toward a camera? It feeds the game’s most embedded vanities, and as such probably ought to be conflated with the All-Star Game.
And you know what? Fine. There’s not much value in killing joy for joy’s sake, even if it isn’t actually joy at all but an evening’s self-involved affectation. Knock yourselves out, baseball. Let a thousand rosebushes flower and thorn.
I prefer to think, though, that this is part of a different thing entirely—a slow, careful and even surreptitious move toward normalizing the least-recognized seminal character in the sport’s history:
There are plenty of characters in American history who nudge against the third rail of pure evil, but Rothstein straddles it like a ferret-faced colossus. He is one of the originators of organized crime in all its most troublesome forms, and he is credited with being the mastermind of the drug trade. It doesn’t get much worse than that.
But he is also the indirect architect and unseen (as in uncast) hand of Field of Dreams, and the highway flare that kicked off Eight Men Out, and baseball’s engagement with gambling in general is a tip of the cap to Rothstein’s most noteworthy moment of felonious inspiration. Hell, by this standard, he ought to be inducted in the Hall of Fame.
I have actually been stumping for this very thing for some time, to the great regret of Ryan Thibodaux, the uncrowned king of the hall. Given that baseball is profiting in multiple ways over multiple centuries from the allegedly shameful thing that Rothstein initiated, it seems that the least it could do for generating all this attention and money is to give the man a rent-free plaque in Cooperstown.
This would horrify purists, of course, but who’s really even a purist any more? There’s a seven-inning doubleheader with a guy standing at second base staring you in the face. While it is baseball’s normal behavior to decry a once and future profit center (see PEDs), you can’t dance as close to Rothstein’s flame as baseball is doing without acknowledging that he helped make this night possible, as well as the future of gambling on the game.
By now you’ll have assumed that this is just your humble author being a wiseass for wiseassedness’s sake, and you’re right about that, but work with me here. Putting Rothstein in the Hall would make it all but impossible to keep people like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and even Pete Rose out, and essentially eradicate the nonsensical character clause once and for all. At that point, the bar is placed squarely atop the earth’s core, and all the arguing is over. And you’re welcome for that.
In the meantime, all we can see is that baseball is starting to make its footprints match up with Rothstein’s 100-year-old trail. Consider it a simple acknowledgement that the game is embracing revenue streams he thought of long ago, and that you don’t have to like every member of the Hall. You just have to say, “Yeah, he’s a thing.” Remember that when you watch Thursday’s game, or rewatch Field of Dreams. Arnold Rothstein did all of this, and those who try to ignore their antecedents are doomed (or in this case seek) to revisit them later.