Tuesday, July 23, 2013

No Joy in Mudville

Liar. Cheater. Scumbag.
I remember when I was a kid, I loved to listen to my dad tell stories about all manner of his memories from when he was a kid.

He'd tell me about the amazing powers of The Green Lantern, and about playing pick-up basketball at the old JCC with the road teams who were in town to play the Cincinnati Royals, and about how he accidentally shredded his brother's foot in the spokes of his bike.

I loved all of them. I ate them up. I soaked them all in...

My favorite stories were always about baseball. Probably because I was utterly obsessed with the sport.

I made my dad help me recite the top home run hitters of all time. "Hank Aaron 755. Babe Ruth 714. Willie Mays 660. Frank Robinson 586."  He used to tell me that Johnny Bench could hold a million baseballs in his hand. He would tell me about how getting Joe Morgan for Lee May made the the Reds the greatest team of the 1970s and among the greatest teams ever.

I remember watching TV when Pete Rose came back to town to re-sign with the Reds. I was 4 years old and I remember seeing the footage of Pete's car coming across the bridge. I will never forget going with my mom to the game BEFORE Pete broke Cobb's record. I made a sign. Pete went 0 for 4.

The first poem I ever wrote was about the 1994 strike. The Reds winning the 1990 World Series still, 23 years later, counts as one of the 10 greatest moments of my life. Maybe that's sad, but I guarantee I'm not the only one.

 I would throw ball after ball against the wall of my grandparent's house. Always aiming for the small square my grandpa had drawn in blue crayon. Always pretending to be Mike Schmidt, who was, in my opinion, the greatest third baseman ever. I held that opinion even then, because some time in 1984 or 85 my dad and I were watching the Reds play the Phillies, and my dad pointed out Schmidt at the plate. He said "This guy is really good. He hits a lot of home runs.". Then Schmidt homered. It was like he could do it on command. It was like my dad made it happen. Baseball is magical, I guess.

No... I don't guess. Baseball IS magical. There's no 9 part Ken Burns documentary on Football... As much as we all love football, it isn't (and will never be) baseball.

And now, I'm not sure baseball is baseball.

Look... I realize I'm late to this party. The McGwires and Sosas and Bonds and Palmeiros and Giambis and all of those guys who stood there and pointed and pretended to not speak English and dissembled and claimed ignorance... they are the ones who put doubt in the mind of every fan. They are the ones who shattered the sacred records and spat on the legacies of Roger Maris and Hank Aaron and every other player who achieved their astronomical records legitimately.

Then... after all of those bombs dropped over and over... Starting with Raphael Palmeiro (outed while I was driving back from the Baseball Hall of Fame induction weekend with my dad and the Brawny Hombre) and capping off with Barry Bonds, there were swaths of legends felled by allegations, assertions, and often direct evidence of their cheating. It was a dark time, to be sure. We had a single-season and career homer champion whose numbers are questioned.  In 1998 there was this incredible home run race to 62 homers by two separate men, often regarded (along with Cal Ripken's longevity streak) as the moment baseball resurrected herself from the ashes of a horrible players strike. Only 5 years later that same chase could arguably be seen as nothing more than a slap in the face to Roger Maris and his family.

Numbers we hallowed our entire lives were being surpassed by these hulking behemoths with clubs, and as quickly as they shattered the records, they were outed as being cheats. Baseball fans everywhere could no longer hold on to the one thing they'd always had as an advantage over the fans of other sports. The statistics. The beautiful, simple statistics.

I thought we were going in a better direction. Power numbers went down to more historically consistent levels in conjunction with new drug testing policies. More and more players were openly in favor of cleaning up the sport.

And yet... Here comes Ryan Braun. A player with prodigious power and offensive polish who'd tested positive late in his MVP season and insisted he was innocent. He dragged the name of the tester through the mud. He pulled out all of the legal stops on his league-allowed appeal, and HE WON. He won his appeal on some very nebulous technicality, and he returned to the field none-the-worse for wear the next season. Don't even get me started on the "coincidence" that the owner of the team for whom Braun plays also happens to be the commissioner of baseball. How that's not a conflict of interest I'll never know.

Now, today, he was suspended for the rest of the season based on some apparently damning evidence in some report and it must be pretty clear, because the Great Appealer isn't appealing. He's now admitting to some "mistakes".  

Apparently he's just the first domino in a long line of suspensions and bombs to come. Alex Rodriguez is on the list. A-Rod is currently 6th on the all time homers list, and was up until last year the single biggest contender to pass the other cheater, Barry Bonds for the record. It's very likely now that he'll never come close, and maybe won't ever play again.

You know... none of this is news. None of us are surprised anymore. I'm certainly not.

I'm just sad. I'm sad that the stories my dad told me as a kid are somehow laced with asterisks now. I'm sad that every number has to be questioned and scrutinized. I'm sad that heroes like Hank Aaron and Roger Maris are no longer the official holders of those iconic records. I'm sad that when the dads of my generation tell their kids about the great players they watched growing up, that the most exciting ones were cheaters.

I love Tony Gwynn and Greg Maddux as much as anyway, but the players who I pretended to be on the diamond, the ones who drew me to the game I love, were the mashers and the flame throwers and a lot of those guys are liars.

Baseball better figure it out fast, because this shit bums me out. It's gotta end. We've gotta have the purity of our game.