In a few short months, the cold of winter will give way to the smell of fresh cut grass. On fields in Florida and Arizona, veterans will work out the kinks of the winter break, fresh faced kids will take their hacks hoping to make the big clubs. It is a ritual performed for decades, the precursor to that magical time of year…
Through my childhood and into my adult life, I have always been drawn to the sound of leather and wood making contact, to the sight of clouds of yellow-orange dirt wafting behind each step as a runner heads for second and then for third. I have always been drawn to the intense stare of the pitcher as he looks in for the sign, the first step in an unending cycle of batter versus pitcher.
To me, baseball meant spending time with friends, whether on the local fields, playing pick-up games until the sky was too dark to track a fly ball. Playing baseball was something most kids in the area loved to do. It was a fun way to spend time with friends, or make new ones. But of course, kids are always competitive. This meant that it was almost essential to have the best baseball equipment. Whether it meant finding the best baseball bat or baseball mit, you had to purchase one to try and win the game! Of course, we weren’t always playing baseball. We would also sit in front of the television, watching our hometown Phillies go down in defeat seemingly night after night. Baseball was about tearing open the first packs of the new season’s cards, looking for the superstar players, looking for the hot new rookies, flipping over the cardboard to read the stats, to memorize the stats.
Baseball to me was about spending time with my dad (it still is), watching world series games with no rooting interest, just for the sheer joy of the poetry of the game; the epic battles of my youth, Eckersly versus Gibson, Smoltz versus Morris, Puckett versus gravity and the center field wall.
Then something changed, our hometown Phillies were no longer losers, they were headed into the play-offs, on the back of Lenny Dykstra, John Kruk and Mitch Williams, the lovable group of losers, the gritty ballplayers who weren’t afraid to slide head first, to throw one high and inside, weren’t afraid to get dirty while playing.
And now, with the release of the Mitchell report, we find that getting dirty and playing dirty seemingly went hand in hand. Lenny Dykstra was prominently named in the report. Back in 1993, we suspected he was juiced, but now, it is all but proven.
And now, fourteen seasons later, thousands of ball players have come and gone and one cannot help but wonder; were they juiced too?
Are the allegations against Roger Clemens true? Have our modern records all been tainted? Did a Yankees dynasty ride a needle into the post season? Can we ever trust the game again?
It is this last question that I find myself struggling with these days. Can I trust a game that I have loved for so long? When the players take the field this spring, will I be rooting for my team the same way I had in the past? How do I trust that they are not cheating too, and just haven’t been caught yet?
Am I naïve for hoping that the game had not been tainted as much as had been feared? I don’t know.
Baseball has been a part of America for generations, reflecting the best and the worst of our society. Today, it has fallen back to the broken reflection of America. At a time when our nation needs heroes, our heroes on the field may well be frauds.
Like America, it will take some time for the game to heal, to regain the trust of the fans.
Here’s to hoping that day comes soon.