I recently read a young adult novel called The Summer Prince, by Alaya Dawn Johnson. It’s set in a dystopian future Brazilian city, where a young man is voted on, in very American Idol fashion, to be the Summer King. For a short time, he is given wealth and celebrity, but then he is slaughtered, in order to make his selection of a new Queen pure and untainted.
It’s not a new story. The ‘Sacred King’ , who is killed after a year, or in times of crisis, is an old idea. In The Golden Bough, James Frazer outlines many examples of kings who are killed at the end of fixed terms. The king ought to be strong, healthy, and virile, so his life will properly appease the gods, renew the land, or end famine. It’s a myth that’s been repackaged in plenty of forms – another favorite children’s book of mine features the trope heavily (but this time involving fairies, and set in England during the Tudor period), and modern Christianity is not too far removed. (Note: I am not an anthropologist or an expert on mythology or religion. I do apparently read a lot of young adult literature.)
Still, The Summer Prince was the first time I’ve seen the mythical sacred king connected to the cycle of modern celebrity. Our relationship with great baseball players can follow the same path. These men are strong and in their prime; we celebrate them and give them ungodly amounts of money. And then we devour them. With these sacrifices, baseball will be renewed, new boys of summer will come to take the places of the old kings, and hey, maybe that outfield grass will come in a little greener.
That’s not to say that say that Alex Rodriguez is an innocent victim of prehistoric cannibalistic mythology. But we turned on A-Rod long before we knew he used PEDs. Michael Kay is apparently yelling at Robinson Cano for not hustling now. I mean, Robinson Cano? Really? For the Reds, it was Ken Griffey Jr. (another form of the story involves killing the king at the first sign of age or infirmity, not that that sounds familiar), and then Adam Dunn, Jay Bruce, and now I’ve even heard tales of some people yelling at Joey Votto for not driving enough runs in.
So as we wait for Monday to drop the other shoe on us for the Biogenesis scandal, I wonder if this will ever really be over. I’m not defending steroid users. I’m not defending the Black Sox for throwing games. I’m not defending Pete Rose for betting on baseball. A-Rod seems like a kind of messed up person who definitely used steroids, and Adam Dunn was terrible at defense and struck out too much.
But I don’t know that all of this is about them or their sins. And I don’t know that they deserve to be caught up in this bloodthirsty cycle.