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Christopher Lane and Our National Pastime

He came to play baseball. In Duncan, Oklahoma, he found something far worse.

Children sleeping in Mulberry Street (1890), taken by Jacob Riis
Children sleeping in Mulberry Street (1890), taken by Jacob Riis
Wikimedia Commons

Christopher Lane, 22, a college baseball player from Australia, was murdered in Duncan, Oklahoma on Friday, shot in the back as he took a break from visiting his girlfriend's family to go out for a jog. Three teenagers -- 15-, 16-, and 17-year-old males -- have been charged in the crime. The police have said that Lane was murdered because these children were "bored" and decided to kill someone "for the fun of it."

At first glance, this is not a baseball story, but a crime story, or even a story of immigration and disillusionment: a young man on a far-away continent learns to love baseball and travels across the ocean to the land of the game's birth. For following his dream, he ultimately receives neither the thrill of the grass nor the adulation of crowds, but death. And not just any death, but a death of the most capricious and callous kind, without meaning or justification.

In this sense, Lane's story is more typical of the historic experience of the American immigrant than we would like to acknowledge. For all our celebration of the melting pot, new arrivals to these shores from the mid-19th to early 20th century found a country lacking the infrastructure or the interest in dealing with them, and so arranged to cram them into Lower East Side in Manhattan where they crowded into airless rooms, became tubercular, and died in appalling numbers. As journalist Edward Robb Ellis wrote, "The section of Manhattan bounded by the East River, East Fourteenth Street, Third Avenue, the Bowery, and Catherine Street was probably the most densely populated area in the world. New York's poor lived under worse conditions and paid more rent than the inhabitants of any other big city on earth." There were tens of thousands of homeless children.

As Lou Reed sang in "Dirty Boulevard,"

‘Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor, I'll piss on em' /
That's what the Statue of Bigotry says / 
‘Your poor huddled masses /
Let's club 'em to death and get it over with /
and just dump 'em on the boulevard.'

And maybe that's where we should leave this story, and judge Lane's participation in the National Pastime an unfortunate, tangential coincidence. However, that would be too easy. It has often been observed that baseball is a microcosm of America, reflecting the times in which it exists. When our institutions were at their most corrupt, baseball was as well. When drugs became epidemic, perhaps even normative, in our culture, they became prevalent in baseball. A society ever more used to coping with the stresses of modern life through pills, powders, and supplements was somehow shocked to find that baseball players tended to abuse pills, powders, and supplements. And, of course, America's racial problems are baseball's racial problems.

It would be a cheap act of authorial demagoguery to take the three teenagers accused of killing Lane and extrapolate from them to issue sweeping judgments about American youth and the reasons that three children could be so jaded, so ignorant of both morality and compassion that they would snuff out a life just for the transient thrill of experiencing the ultimate transgression. We should acknowledge that they are innocent until proven guilty and that they deserve the full protection of due process. However, even if they are somehow shown to have been wrongfully accused, someone would still be guilty of taking upon themselves a right that belongs only to impersonal providence or nature, the power to end a life at random, without thought. It will not make us feel any better to know that there are people moving in the crowded streets around us who are capable of such cold, serpentine thinking regardless of their age.

In truth, we don't yet know anything about this terrible trio and it probably wouldn't help if we did, for there is no possible excuse, no failure of upbringing or education we could point to that would mitigate their crime, nor any generalization we could safely make. This was a crutch that pundits all-too-easily leaned on in the days of New York's 1989 Central Park Jogger case, when it was believed that a brutal assault on a young woman was the work of a gang of kids who were "wilding." It was all too easy to believe that we had arrived in the time of A Clockwork Orange and wring one's hands for America's children. It was all bogus; the attack was the work of a lone attacker, and there was nothing more to say about our society except perhaps to acknowledge that in any random gathering of a hundred people there are going to be two or three in the mix who are broken. Sometimes the two or three find each other, egg each other on to embrace their worst impulses, and that's bad news for the other 97.

That's most likely what happened here, and that's about as much speculation or extrapolation that the case will bear. Well, as much but for this: The whole point of society, of human coexistence, is to band together to so as to minimize the influence of that impersonal, unthinking providence mentioned above. We work to make things better for each other. We agree not to spit on the sidewalk because that spreads germs, and who wants to end up in the hospital or the morgue because some stranger hocked one up? We pause at traffic lights so that the other guy can get home safely. In return, someone else pauses to let us through.

We give the state a monopoly on violence because we hope that the collective will exercise that trust in a more sensible way than any one of us could, or any three of us, or any three teenagers.

That is, the state has that monopoly in theory. Baseball is a microcosm of our society. If America has a problem with unregulated violence, baseball does as well. We are vulnerable, ballplayers are vulnerable, college, pro, it doesn't matter. The good, the bad, fathers, mothers, the baseball players and baseball fans, and little children gluing Styrofoam peanuts to construction paper in school.

According to a news report on Lane's murder, "The vehicle's boot contained a shotgun with the serial numbers sanded off, but the actual weapon used in the shooting has not been found, police said."

In Greil Marcus's book Mystery Train, which explores how rock-and-roll music expresses the currents running through American culture, there is an examination of Randy Newman's juxtaposition of the immigrant experience and the slave trade in the song "Sail Away." Newman writes, "In America, every man is free / To take care of his home and his family." Marcus adds, "But no more than that, is the bitter, unsung line." To Marcus, "but no more than that" was one of the song's many subversive twists of the dagger in our self-image. It seems to me that the analysis is dated and Newman's line is now a lie. "In America, every man is free / To take care of his home and his family." The unsung rejoinder is now, "No, not even that."

Christopher Lane came to America to play baseball. He sought the quintessential American experience. Sadly, his information was out of date. He got the American experience, all right, the new national pastime. It's the game where someone else's whim becomes your fatal bad luck. That's the way we like it.

Special thanks to Rob Neyer.

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