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.
I’d like to say this love is somehow genetic — gratuitous and proud plug alert — but my relation to St. Louis Cardinal legend Stan Musial came about only through his marriage to one of my grandfather’s cousins. No matter, as 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.