Naming Rights Helping baseball get a handle on another sort of E-R-A

Syringe and Bear It: Baseball needs to come to grips with the “Dead Balls Era.”

There’s a struggle taking place all over America right now. It’s a battle to come up with a name for the particular period of baseball history covered in the Mitchell Report. A name that will stick.

I want in. I hereby nominate the “Dead Balls Era.”

I believe in this phrase. So much, in fact, that since January 2005 I’ve put it in print three times in these very pages, attempting to describe the state of our national pastime at a time when players literally gave their left nut—testicular atrophy is both the scariest and most chuckle-friendly side effect of steroid use—in hopes of boosting their stats.

Alas, fond as I am of my nearly three-year-old brainchild, nobody’s adopted it. I recently found out that a really smart guy I used to know invented a word in July 2005, “folksonomy,” that now gets 2,060,000 Google hits.

“Dead Balls Era,” a full six months older, gets five—so few that the AP Stylebook won’t even let me use a numeral.

But, then again, Alf Landon kept running for president long after the country told him it didn’t want him.

And the field of contending names, large as it is, is as weak as Sammy Sosa after he stopped not taking steroids.

First off, George Mitchell, the former Maine senator whose career as an envoy peaked with a brokered peace in Northern Ireland and has now bottomed out with his search for somebody who needled

Roger Clemens in the butt, concludes his report by dubbing the period the “steroids era” and the “era of steroids and human growth hormone.”

Following the senator’s lead, titles with “steroids” are the clear clubhouse leaders so far.

The Washington Post has several entrants in the name game. Barry Svrluga went with “The Steroids Era” for his story on the Mitchell Report. Colleague Dave Sheinin called it the “dirty era.” Columnist Thomas Boswell avoided “steroids” and went instead with “baseball’s…most tainted period.” Their paper’s editorial board, meanwhile, chose the noncapitalized “steroids era.” In a November editorial about Barry Bonds’ indictment, the same board had used “the steroid era.”

In his post-report statement, President George W. Bush, the former baseball owner who didn’t get a plurality of the vote when he assumed the highest office in the land, also opted for the singular: “And my hope is that this report is a part of putting the steroid era in baseball behind us,” Bush said.

The Baltimore Sun’s editors also avoided “steroids” in their entrant, perhaps because it’s a particularly dirty word in that city right now. The Sun headlined its editorial on the report “The chemical era*” (asterisk theirs).

Fondness for that punctuation mark was in evidence further to the north, too. An editorial in the National Post, a publication based in Ontario, advised baseball fans they “can officially label the 80s, 90s and 2000s ‘The Asterix Era’” (later corrected to “The Asterisk Era”).

The Chicago Tribune went with the “’Roid Age.” Gannett News Service enters the fray with “Roids Age.”

In an interview with the Oklahoman, former Yankee great Bobby Murcer called it the “guilty era” and even explained his name choice: “It’s going to go down in the history books as being an era of everybody’s guilty until proven innocent,” Murcer said.

John Klima, a columnist for the Los Angeles Newspaper Group, went retro-centric in his Mitchell Report report, dubbing Willie Mays as the best player of “the era of the natural ballplayer.”

This is a game far older than baseball. Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney, an author and professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin who has studied era naming, says the practice dates back to China around 140 B.C., to a time that even way back in the day was known as the “Western Han Dynasty.”

Then around A.D. 645, Japan stole the game from its neighbor, dubbing that period the Jinmu Era, after the emperor Jinmu. In the early days of era-naming in Japan, Ohnuki-Tierney’s studies found, the times could be named for either the emperor or “natural disasters or the appearance of auspicious astrological signs.” For the last several centuries, the Japanese have looked exclusively to the emperor.

To wit: “Babe Ruth came to Japan on a steamship with Jimmy Foxx, Lefty Gomez, and other baseball players in the Showa 9th Era,” Ohnuki-Tierney says. (1934, for those not up on their Far Eastern eras.)

The West had adopted the era-naming habit from Japan, but with fewer rules, long before Ruth et al. steamed east.

James W. Cortada, a historian and IBM executive, covered era-naming in an article published this summer in the scholarly journal Historical Methods. While the Japanese use the practice mainly for nationalistic purposes, Cortada says we gravitate to names mainly “for convenience.”

“These are shorthand for saying a lot of things,” he says. “A good nickname is a

fast way of saying a lot of things in two or three words, and you put a stamp on a period. Look at ‘Roaring ’20s’: That says the U.S. in the 1920s was a great place, people were going out, women got liberated, skirts came up. That phrase so perfectly captured the essence of the period, and it’s a headline-grabber. Those are the reasons why it stuck.”

Other favorites of Cortada’s: “Naughty ’90s” (for the 1890s), “Cold War,” “Age of Enterprise,” “Age of the Pill,” the “Century of Wars,” the “Age of Jackson,” the “Era of Good Feelings,” and the “Gilded Age.”

Nonfavorites? “The ‘Early-Modern Period,’” he says. “I can’t stand it. That’s terrible.”

Cortada says he’s tried his hand at era-naming but hasn’t yet had anything immortalized. He admits that he has been dabbling lately at coming up with a name for the period of baseball that Mitchell was concerned with. He hopes to hit pay dirt with some variation of the word “excess.”

“None of the ones out there that I’ve heard about are going to last,” he says. “You can’t just say ‘steroids.’ That’s too narrow. You’ve got to put your finger on something, get people to say, ‘He’s right! That’s what it is!’ It’s a big challenge, but if you get it right, it sticks.”

I tell Cortada that I’m in it to win it, too, with “Dead Balls Era.” I interrupt the subsequent silence by babbling that steroids rot your testicles, and that, well, it’s a play on the “Dead Ball Era,” the accepted name of the baseball period before Babe Ruth taught the nation to love the longball, and….

“OK, OK…,” he says, as a nice guy would. “A key here is coming up with something you don’t feel a need to explain.”

In other words: I’ll never get more than five Google hits with that crap.

Oh, well. The exercise has been its own reward. And, from what I read, another similar era-naming competition could kick off soon: “This report could represent the beginning of a new era,” former baseball commissioner and U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Peter Ueberroth told the Associated Press, “an era during which the credibility and values of the sport are fully restored.”

And that era’s gonna need a name, too.

Maybe it’s just me, but “Post–Dead Balls Era” has a nice ring to it.

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