Sing the Sorrow

In baseball, as in life, there is always a yearning for the “good old days.” Time blurs the rough edges and nostalgia transforms the past into a rosy peachy glow. In truth every era has its good and bad. The Leave It To Beaver era was not nearly as idyllic as reruns would have us believe. When faced with modern day problems it’s easy to look back with longing at a simpler time.

The early days of baseball had problems. Gambling was prevelent and difficult to weed out. Pre-integration baseball was a host of extreme racism that denied players who otherwise would have been seen as among the best. There was the Dead Ball Era and the Live Ball Era, the rise of sluggers and the rise of pitchers. With every ebb and flow in the balance of baseball, there were players who stood out, captured our imaginations, and held our worship years after retirement.

Roger Maris endured constant pressure and critcisms as he faced the most coveted of baseball records. Hank Aarron fought through intense racism on his way to greatness. The challenges they faced made their records all the more amazing.

About the time Curt Flood fought for free agency the face of baseball changed. The advent of free agency led to rapidly escalating salaries. As the figures on players’ paychecks rose, so did the players’ greed. Power hitters became the most coveted free agents, and power pitchers a sought after commodity. New techniques for improving performance were heavily in demand.

The past two decades have seen a revolution in player training. Weight lifting quickly became popular. Studying tape allowed players to disect their swings and pitches and make necessary improvements. Even sight therapy helped. These advances should have brought a new dimension to baseball and led to performances that could have made this a classic era. And they did for a while. But as we enjoyed phenomenal athletes that improved each season, greed was always creeping in.

At first we complained that players cared more about contracts containing a dizzying number of zeroes. The past couple years, however, it seems that player greed has tainted astronomical achievements.

Steroids have been a problem in the NFL for years. They were always whispered about in baseball, but no one seemed to pay them much heed until 1998. Mark McGwire admitted to using androstendione, not technically a steroid, but performance enhancing nonetheless. Brady Anderson admitted that his homerun achievements in 1996 were assisted by his use of andro as well. We had long noticed that players were becoming bigger and bigger, but this was usually attributed to a vigerous weight lifting regiment and the player was praised for dedication and hard work.

Now following a Sports Illustrated cover story, the BALCOS investigation, and Jose Conseco’s book, steroids can no longer be ignored. Once baseball’s greatest legitimacy threat was gambling (a la the Black Sox Scandal), now it’s steroids. Drug testing was never used, thanks in part to baseball brass who were desperate to keep their waning number of fans.

Can we look with any seriousness at the achievements of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds knowing how jacked up they were? Particularly in comparison to Roger Maris, their home run totals no longer seem as incredible. Should Bonds break Hank Aarron’s record, will we consider him a worthy heir to the title of Home Run King, or see it as a coup d’etat? After all that talk of the ball being juiced, it turns it was the players all along.

Last year when Ichiro broke the George Sisler’s record, it was remarkable to be excited about an offensive achievment that did not include homeruns. What makes it all the more amazing is that this is one of the few legitimate records we’ve seen lately. No one could ever accuse Ichiro of being juiced.

I’ve always enjoyed baseball, and since high school I’ve worshipped it. As exciting as homeruns and strikeouts are, I always found more delight in the well hit single and the perfect curveball. I preferred players that could hit a single with a runner on second to the player who always swung for the fences, a pitcher who could fool a hitter rather than just throw the ball past him. The true beauty of baseball is in the subtle, rather than the obvious.

Even when taking into account the problems of every era, it is difficult to believe that the Steroids Era will ever been seen with nostalgia. Every home run and power hitting record has an invisible asterix.

Baseball has always held high regard for the stars of eras past. In the wake of the steroids scandal, I hold them in that much higher regard. I imagine what it would have been like to see players playing hard and accomplishing incredible feats. Almost everything I’ve seen seems cheap and pretend. In a time when even reality tv bears no resemblance to reality it’s not much of surprise.

The silver linning is that there are some players who will never have their medals of achievement stripped. Joining the stars of the past is the lithe Ichiro, infinitely more deserving of adoration than the jacked up sluggers we usually bestow it upon.

Drug testing has a negative face, but it will lend legitimacy to the game. If this era will never be yearned for then let’s hope it becomes, at the very least, the harbinger of an era where we can at least trust the achievements we see.

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