I have been watching with sadness the fall of Baseball as our National Pastime. I grew up a fan. My father played high school ball with a future hall of famer (Harmon Killebrew). I started going to games when I was 5 years old. I have always loved the sport. My favorite players as a kid included, Fred Lynn, Kirk Gibson, Reggie Jackson, and others. I loved watching the game. For decades, Baseball was king. It was our national past time. It was a sport born in America and played at its best in America. It was so huge that the Little League World Series has been shown on Network Television for decades.
However, over the past twenty years Baseball has fallen from its place as America's pasttime. But they only have themselves to blame. Owners held players hostage until free agency changed everything. Free Agency and ballooning salaries led to strikes and works stoppages, with the 1994 strike and cancellation of the World Series being the low point or so we thought. But then in 1998 Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa saved baseball, as they both chased Roger Marris through the summer. America watched with the help of ESPN, as each man went to the plate to chase history. It was magic. I can still remember McGuire's 62nd home run, a low line drive that just cleared the wall in left. It was a magical moment.
It was a fraud. It turns out that both players were juicing, along with half the league (by some estimates) and that this season was not played out on the field but rather created in a lab. Marris's record was not broken fairly, but instead players used performance enhancing drugs to augment their already amazing skill to pursue one of the most hallowed records in all of American Sports. Since then the other huge record, Hank Aaron's all time home run record was broken by another cheater Barry Bonds. While we speculate about Sosa and McGuire, we know for a fact that Bonds cheated. He is now out of baseball and most likely will be convicted of purgury for lying about his use of steriods.
Steriods hurts all sports. Performance Enhancing Drugs (PED's) like steriods, HGH and blood doping agents have been tearing at the fabric of all sports. At each Olympics I wonder if the men and women winning Gold and glory are cheating. And there is recourse. In the Olympics people who are caught cheating are rightfully stripped of their gold medals and the records they may have set when winning said medal are wipped from the record books. But PED's hurt because it tugs at our sense of fair play. Sports is supposed to be the place where there are no politics. Sports is supposed to the place where people can root passionately for their favorite player or team and fear nothing except the possiblity of loss.
And while PED's hurts all sports, it is destroying baseball. Why? Because baseball, unlike any other American sport is statistically driven. It is a part of the fabric the sport. Most people know the big names in the different sports. But very few know the statistics of those players. Most basketball fans could tell you for instance that John Stocton is the all time assist leader in the NBA, but how many can tell you how many assists he had. Growing up I always knew who the Home Run king was (Hank Aaron), but I could just as easily tell you how many home runs he hit (755). Baseball is a game of stats. Men get into the Hall of Fame, not just because of reputation, but also because of their stats. Harmon Killebrew (5th on the home run list at the time), made the hall, but not on the first ballot. Why? because he has the third lowest batting average in the hall of fame. Despite the fact that only 4 other men hit more homers than he, his election into the hall was not guaranteed.
The stat book is hallowed ground in baseball. Lovers of the sport can tell you almost any stat of almost any great player. As a kid, as soon as I got a baseball card, after looking at the picture, I turned it over and studied the stats. They were all there. It was cool. As players retired, true fans compared their favorite players stats to those who made the hall of fame to see if their favorite players measured up.
But the fabric of baseball is torn. 1998 is no longer talked about. Barry Bonds's record is a joke. Despite the fact that Bonds was a great player, he will probably never get in the hall because he broke the most hallowed record in American sports while cheating. Or at least many of the home runs he hit were hit while he was on steroids. As fans try to wrap their heads around these things they don't quite know how to handle it. Those names are still in the record books, but should they be? Babe Ruth hit 714 HR's with a beer belly. Hank Aaron broke that record, without ever hiting 50 home runs in a single season. And both of these players did it with out PED's.
It always hurts when our heros fall from grace. But when they undermine the very foundation of the sport that propped them up, it does more than hurt. It is destructive. As the world grows more cynical, people need places where they can focus their passions. But as players are continually caught cheating, further eroding our faith in the goodness of integrity, it kills us all a little bit at a time.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
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