Baseball has been played in the United States in one form or another since at least colonial times. Imported from England, the game of “Rounders” featured a ball and a bat along with something approximating bases. Rules and scoring were much different than today’s game. however.
A purely American offshoot of Rounders was “One ole Cat” or just “Cat.” Again, the essentials were similar but it was nothing we’d recognize as baseball.
Then along came “Town Ball” in the 1840’s – a thoroughly American game where in order to get the batter “out,” the fielder would have to hit the player while he was in motion and off the base. Since the game was usually played with rocks of various sizes, you can see the enormous amount of fun players had in recording outs.
Then in 1845, Alexander Cartwright wrote out 20 specific rules for what he called Base Ball that standardized base distances and made up something we would almost recognize as today’s game.
It wasn’t until the 1857 when New Yorkers took the game of Base Ball and altered the rules a bit (no need to hit the runner anymore) and thus gave us the national pastime. It had a set number of players on each side with an infield and bases that looked similar to what we have today. They made the game 9 innings and established the idea of “strikes” – balls thrown by the pitcher that were good enough to hit but the player refused to swing.
Cultural historians have studied the evolution of baseball because it says a lot about we as a people. A wholly democratic game, its popularity exploded during the Civil War when bored soldiers on both sides eagerly adopted it as a fine way to take one’s mind off of army life. The soldiers returned home eager to set up leagues and teams in their own towns and the game’s enduring popularity was assured.
But ever since 1869 when the first professional team laced up the cleats, there has never been a day in the history of baseball like this one. Today, some of baseball’s all time greats who performed feats of strength and skill almost beyond belief are revealed as cheaters, liars, and druggies – Frankenstein monsters who took the easy way to glory by hepping themselves up with performance enhancing substances.
Today is the day that former Senator George Mitchell releases his long awaited report on the use of performance enhancing drugs in baseball. And the game will suffer a huge black eye it will be many years recovering.
Today, I feel like the little kid who, standing at the bottom of the courthouse steps in Chicago after the infamous “Black Sox scandal” trial, tugged on Shoeless Joe Jackson’s coat and looked his hero right in the eye asking, pleading “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” No answer from Jackson that day. Nor do I suspect we’ll hear anything except the canned, PR flak written statements from some of the greatest ballplayers who ever lived. They will apologize for their “mistake.” They will cry when they apologize to their families. They will beg forgiveness from the fans. They will apologize to their teammates for “letting them down.” They will thank the organization for sticking with them. They will promise to be better citizens. They will ask God for help.
It will be like Michael Vick – excuse the expression – on steroids.
We already knew about Barry Bonds and his drug regimen. And everybody figured the former single season home run record holder Mark McGuire had bulked up on “Andro” and other illegal supplements.
But the biggest shock to me was the naming of the greatest right handed pitcher perhaps to ever play the game. Roger Clemens seemed ageless and now we know why. He evidently didn’t start taking steroids until the 1997 season which makes sense; he had a God given ability to throw a fastball 100 mph. Why anyone blessed with the best right arm of his generation would take steroids will remain a mystery to me.
Then there’s one of the game’s good guys. Andy Pettite was a fine left handed pitcher but took human growth hormone to recover from injury faster. One of the acknowledged gentlemen of the game, Pettite’s brilliant record with the Yankees will now be tarnished forever.
All-star Miguel Tejada – traded today from Baltimore to Houston – also proved to be a cheat. Another ballplayer with great natural ability too lazy to do the hard work necessary to make himself a better player and instead, took the shortcut to fame and riches by juicing up.
Gary Sheffield whose best years were with the Marlins and Braves and was an All-Star with the Yankees for three straight seasons showed up on the list. One of the great clutch hitters of this generation, Sheffield was another surprise for me.
Jason Giambi, the only player named in the report to own up to his steroid use publicly was on the list. It is not known whether he named any names when he met with Mitchell last year.
Eric Gagne was named. With the Dodgers, he was damn near unhittable as a closer for a year and a half. Hitters couldn’t solve his slider but Mitchell did.
The list of active players continued with names like Toronto’s excellent hitter Troy Glaus, talented outfielder Jose Guillen, former pitcher now outfielder for St. Louis Steve Ankiel, And Gary Matthews, Jr. Mitchell’s list contains 50 names of present and former Major Leaguers.
Among the former players of note; Mo Vaughn – a great slugger, Rafael Palmeiro – Hall of Fame numbers, Chuck Knoblauch and Lenny Dykstra – hard nosed sparkplugs, sweet swinging David Justice, and catcher Benito Santiago – a man with the best arm in baseball for many years.
When I was a young boy, my friends and I lived, breathed, slept, and ate baseball. We played it constantly from the time the snow melted until the time it covered the ground again. We collected baseball cards. We argued about it. We defended our favorites. We got into fights over who had the best throwing arm or the best curveball.
I know the days when kids immersed themselves like that in the game are gone – a product of over saturation of the game on TV as well as a cynicism about the multi-millionaire players that is foreign to me. Perhaps we were too eager to believe in the infallibility of our heroes. Perhaps we lived in a different age that saw baseball and through the game, America, as virgin pure – unsullied by any of the dark and dirty forces that other aspects of life were subject to.
Scandals took place out of the sports pages back in those days. We had no reason to believe that many of the giants of the game actually had feet of clay, that they were as imperfect and flawed as any adult we came in contact with. To us, ballplayers were almost like Gods and we were only too happy to worship them.
Non-baseball fans will forgive me if I feel enormously saddened today. Not on the verge of tears but rather an empty feeling inside as if my guts had been hollowed out with a spoon. Perhaps that little boy in me feels finally and bitterly betrayed by those I still admired for their athleticism and grace.
That’s gone now. And I know I’ll be a poorer man for it.
Michelle Malkin (“not a baseball fan” – a character flaw for which she is forgiven) nevertheless covers the “Freak Show” as well as a statement by baseball writers begging the owners to get tough on steroids.