Monday, June 17, 2013

'roid Rage

Baseball has long celebrated the charm of those who bent the rules.  In my own time, I can vividly picture Gaylord Perry going through all sorts of gyrations on the mound.  Was he doctoring the ball?  Probably.  But, it was the suspicion that he was doing so that had more impact than the act itself.  I think Billy Martin hired a bench coach once, whose claim to fame was his ability to steal signs from the opposing team.  There was the famous pine tar incident with George Brett at Yankee Stadium; in retrospect, this looks particularly silly.  There was also an occasion about 10 years ago, when umpires examined the shattered bat of Sammy Sosa, determining it contained cork.  At the time, that too was considered amusing.  But, these were all before the release of all the documentation about performance-enhancing drugs.

I do admit my naiveté; while I do understand how some players may have juiced in order to enhance their statistics, I remain stunned that two of the greatest players of their generation - Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens - would do so.  Both were certain first-ballot Hall of Fame admissions, prior to the onset of their "enhanced" seasons.  Mr. Rodriguez, somehow still with the Yankees, is in the same category.  For him, however, the punishment should be more severe.  Did he not take the stuff after all the allegations of steroid use in his sport began to come out?  The guy should be banned, his salary forfeited to charity, his name and credentials forever tarnished.

Perhaps the single most exciting play in all of baseball is the play at the plate.  Picture this in your mind: the thwack of ball striking bat, a surge in the crowd, you follow that white streak to the green expanse, where the outfielder is running to intersect.  After the fielder deftly scoops the ball, in one fluid motion, propels his body forward, plants his foot and fires a rope to the plate in an effort to nab the aggressive baserunner.  The noise of the crowd swells still more, followed by the hush, awaiting the home plate umpire's call.  With the raising of the arm, then the thumb, calling the runner out, the crowd roars its approval.  All this, occurring in mere seconds.

I attended the 1981 All-Star Game in Cleveland.  It was late, due to a work stoppage that occurred in mid-season.  We had great seats and got there in time to watch the end of batting practice.  The National League's outfielders were all standing around in right-field, when Dave Parker of the Pirates motioned the infielders to clear a path for him.  He then stood in the corner and threw a perfect strike to home plate.  Then, he did it again.  I don't recall the names anymore, but several other outfielders then took their turns, firing bullets to the plate, some on the fly, others arriving after a perfect one-hop.  It was one of the most amazing displays of pure, finely-developed talent I had ever seen in a ball park.  Every person in that stadium gaped in awe at what we had the privilege of watching.  And, none of those players were taking PED's.

The steroid era has cheated baseball's fans of the purity of its game.  I know there have been rascals throughout baseball's history.  Most fans can recite the litany of scandalous players and behaviors, from Ruth's hangovers, the Black Sox scandal to the exposes published by Jim Bouton to corked bats and stolen signs and a few scoundrels who scuffed the balls, it is a history rich in colorful characters.  Somehow, those transgressions appear more innocent.

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that the decade that spawned the line "greed is good" also gave rise to steroid use.  Mostly, can I ever watch that play at the plate again, with the same sense of wonder?  Or will I instead wonder if that player's performance has somehow been "enhanced".