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I Don't Care If I Never Get Back

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Anyone who has known me at any time over the last 30-plus years figures out pretty quickly how much I love baseball, or what my little league coach fondly refers to as “the greatest game in the world.” Sure, some people find it boring, dismissing its languid pace for the flashier basketball or more-bang-for-buck football, and that’s fine; to each their own. Me, I like my game like I dig my blues guitars: let it breathe.

Fortunately, my love for baseball’s blessed with genetics — gratuitous and proud plug alert — through my relation to St. Louis Cardinal legend Stan Musial, and my father instilled a respect for and interest in the game from the time I could throw a ball. Couldn’t effectively catch a ball till a couple years later, but that’s an eight-years-old-and-doomed-to-right-field story for another time.

Games of pickle (some folks call it “run-down”) on the side yard, whiffle-ball in the back yard and summers at Howland, Ohio’s Mines Fields sealed the love-affair deal. Life lessons of never quitting even though you’re down six runs with two outs in the bottom of the last inning (we rattled off seven runs to get the win and the championship), heeding paternal advice to never look at a third strike, athleticism and camaraderie, and so on.

Too young to remember the strike of 1972, and too busy playing baseball (not to mention naive) to let the 1981 strike affect me, it took until 1994′s strike, while my Indians were finally on-track to make the playoffs, Tony Gwynn flirting with a .400 batting average, and the Montreal Expos — the Expos!!! — also cruising towards the playoffs, for me to get genuinely livid. A bunch of spoiled and egotistical owners and players putting themselves above the national pastime?!?! So many hearts ripped out with the cancellation of the World Series for the first time in 90 years?!?! Fellow Pennsylvanian (born in Musial’s Donora hometown) Ken Griffey Jr. nailed it when he said, “We picked a bad season to have a good year.” I wouldn’t even look at box scores or would flip off ESPN whenever baseball stories appeared until August ’95, after some Ohio friends told me the Tribe were obliterating the AL Central.

For better and worse, most of us came back to watching and/or attending Major League games again, though. “Baseball’s a lot like San Francisco,” said Bull Durham writer/director Ron Shelton in Looking for Oscar. “No matter how much they try and screw it up, they can’t.”

Well, Ron may or may not be right, particularly in light of MLB attendance higher than it was 30 to 40 years ago, but drug scandal after drug scandal wears down my patience like nothing since ’94/most of ’95. Commish Bud Selig, the owners, Donald Fehr and the players’ union, as well as the asinine fans who keep turning a blind eye and going to the ballparks, I’m looking squarely at you, all of you.

The Mitchell Report, in which several prominent names were indicted as steroid users? Forgotten. The summer of 1998, when Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa treated stadiums like pinball machines en route to breaking Roger Maris’ single-season homerun record, or the summer of 2001, when Barry Bonds eclipsed them both, all as a result of juicing themselves (however legally in the blinder-eyed head honchos)? Forgiven or forgotten. Steroid user Ken Caminiti’s death, in part from an enlarged heart? Ken who?

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I’m certain some of you are saying. “I remember all of that and I think it’s a despicable mark on the game.” Bullshit, I say. How many of you continue to go to games, buy MLB merchandise, secretly wish your team would sign Bonds to a one-year quickie deal so they had some left-handed power, or have already filed Alex Rodriguez’s admitted-denied-obfuscated-admitted drug use in the trash can? Again, bullshit.

Now we have Manny Ramirez, someone in whom we never thought drugs would enter the equation, someone whose child-like (and we thought legal) love of hitting baseballs was rivaled only by the aforementioned Griffey Jr., suspended for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. Lovely, as we await the next superstar to make the headline that will make Manny yesterday’s papers.

To the initial rescue, comes ESPN’s Buster Olney, who offers a proposition on Major League Baseball adopting a zero-tolerance policy. All well and good — Buster’s one of the best baseball writers around these days — but I will see his proposal and raise him a new league.

That’s right, sports fans, I boldly offer you the chance to see the best of both worlds, or worst as it may be. The opportunity to see baseball the way Abner Doubleday envisioned, a league where honest players like Roy Oswalt can play without the suspicion cast upon them by their cheating teammates, as well as a league where cheaters, dopers and unnatural freaks of nature can throw 150-miles-an-hour changeups and hit balls twice as far as Mickey Mantle. Hell, five times as far. Consider it the third-footed outgrowth of Saturday Night Live’s All-Drug Olympics, and if he’s not in jail, make Bonds the Commissioner. Lord knows he loves to feel important. If he does somehow wind up in the hoosegow, fellow limelight seeker Jose Canseco’s my next nominee.

Either way, why not give the people what they want, be they phony baseball fans with no regard for any form of sanctity, or those of us who do give a damn? Hollywood’s insistence on defying simple economic rules aside, the laws of supply and demand will prove the real winners. Oh, Selig and Fehr, whichever way the wind blows, you’re done, too. Unless you join the alternate drug-based league that is. Circus clowns love circus clowns and all.

A quick post-script …
I’m currently umpiring little league games a few nights a week, doing what I can to hopefully instill my love of the game to the next generation of fans and players, teach them to respect the game for all its greatness. On a whole, it’s been a great decision to get behind the plate again, albeit in an officiating capacity. So many kids throwing some wicked curve- and knuckle-balls, enthusiasm running the bases or hustling to snag a ball everyone thought would drop in for a single.

However, the numbers are down from when I played 25 years ago, or even 10 years ago from what local league administrators tell me. Video games, increasingly available indoor activities and a non-desire to actually get outside and exercise with peers, I’m sure all factors contributing to this dip. Give the kids heroes, though, big leaguers whom they can trust as great messengers of the game, and I’d also like to think more kids would show interest again. Unrealistic and clouded by rose-colored-tinted baseball shades? Maybe, but to paraphrase the Crue, you know I’m a dreamer, but it’s the horse-hide ball that keeps me together at my seams.

7 comments to I Don’t Care If I Never Get Back

  • Matt Helm

    It’s no shocker about Manny. I’m glad we got rid of the bum. He’s great with a bat but when he wants out of a contract he throws games.

    I don’t think it’s the hero issue with kids, there’s just too much kid culture crap for sports to compete with. Also, usually Dad gets junior into sports and when he’s MIA as is the case with a lot of households, other influences take hold. We had a great field trip last week to a St. Lucie Mets game. They’re the Mets’ minor league team that plays where the Mets do their spring training. I got the kids psyched for the game starting a week before, and taught them the basic rules. It was great to hear these kids who never knew anything about baseball, arguing during the game about whether the umpire’s calls were right or not.

    • I hear what you’re saying, Matt, and agree almost 100%. Dads are hugely instrumental with their influence on kids’ love of baseball (or anything really), as families more and more through the years have become splintered, something I never stopped to consider with the waning interest in the game. On that note, it’s very awesome how you got your kids psyched, but so you know, the ump’s always right … Don Denkinger excepted.

      Where I differ slightly from your reasoning is with what I’m not hearing/seeing from the kids today, which actually ties in with the culture crap competition: nobody wants to bat like Player X or imitate the weird tics of Player Y. We talked about Rod Carew’s hitting technique or tried to figure out how to incorporate how Rickey Henderson got such great jumps off the pitchers. It’s weird (or maybe we were weird). The less we had to expose us to the goings-on in sports, ESPN being in its infancy during my little league years, the more we knew about how our idols played the game. Did catch a very cool segment on batting stances through the years on the Worldwide Leader this weekend, though. Coming in a little late, possibly missed it, but failing to mention Stan the Man’s wacky stance? Simply unconscionable. ;-)

  • Scott M.

    Well,sports integrity is fighting a losing battle with chemistry,it seems.As soon as one substance is banned,a brand new one comes along,and it starts all over.

  • Matt Helm

    It’s hard for me to tell to what extent the kids at school are into sports because they have to wear a school uniform. Seeing team logo t-shirts or jerseys would give me a better idea. But there’s one kid in kindergarten at my school that worships the Red Sox, knows all their names, and wants to be Kevin Youkilis when he grows up. Everyday he makes sure whether I know if they won or not the day before and what their standing is. While his sister is at band practice after school, his Mom plays catch with him and the kid is already good with the ball. It gives ya hope.

  • Mike S.

    I’m guilty at nearly all of what you call out the fans for. I’ve decided that, for me, MLB is 100% about entertainment and over the top drama. It’s a release after a long day at work, it’s fodder to bust the chops of the many Mets fans I work with, etc. It’s all in good fun. I don’t respect or condone the cheaters (quite the opposite), but I can’t be shocked or run out of town by them either. It saddens me that I think Griffey Jr. & Pujols could be just as guilty as the rest, but that’s where we are. I’m also amazed that many in the media keep downplaying all of this as “a few bad apples” because that’s just so obviously not the case. If you set up a clean league & a dirty one, the dirty guys will still sign up for the clean league & cheat. And, it will be a few years before you catch any of them, then the pack will run to the next unknown drug that can’t be screened for. Just ask Lance Armstrong, I’m sure he would tell you the truth.

  • Mike S.

    Oh, I get it, Eric. There’s a good number of people in these parts that gave up on MLB and their lifelong teams for entirely different and also good reasons (mostly ticket prices associated with the new ballparks). I understand all of it. I get to 2 or 3 games a year at most these days, but I still enjoy the game too much to let the scandals destroy it for me. Idiots like Fehr and Selig are just another side of the scandal that have helped bring down the game to new low levels, but I can’t let it ruin all the fun for me. Wen I see a guy like Halladay blow through 9 innings vs. the Yankees like he did last night, I know I can’t tune out entirely. I just don’t take any of it seriously anymore, and I haven’t for a few years now. To me, it’s not much different from watching a rock band perform… who knows what drugs they took or who secretly sang on their studio albums, etc. All that goes away at show time.

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