Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Blame A-Rod, Spoil the Child

100 Smiles and Runnin' ...
Where have all the George Bells gone?

As a pre-teen, I loved the Toronto Blue Jays. This was an irrational love affair, given that I’d never been to Canada (I’d later discover that Toronto was one of the most beautiful cities on Earth) or even met a Canadian at this point in my life (I’d later discover that a Canadian was one of the most beautiful people on Earth, and convince her to marry me). I didn’t love ‘The Jays’ because of their location. I certainly didn’t beg my parents to take us to Arlington, Texas every summer to watch the Rangers play (but they did play the Jays every summer!), and I didn’t love The Jays because of their jerseys (two-tone blue, ultramarine over powder). No, I loved them because of George Bell. In fact, one summer, less than a week before Nolan Ryan would strike out his 5,000th batter, I would meet him and ask him if he knew George Bell (as if to say I bet you won’t strike him out tonight!). You might not remember George Bell … just imagine Ice Cube six inches taller with wider shoulders and a better build … more his 100 Miles and Runnin’ days than his Are We There Yet? days. I loved everything about his style of play – his ability to hit the ball, his athleticism in the field, and his leadership in the clubhouse. It was because of him that I followed the Jays so closely, celebrated their wins and dreaded their losses, and recoiled when the Canadian flag was flown upside down at the World Series (even though Bell is Dominican). My brother and I would play baseball in the backyard, he with his St. Louis Cardinals cap on, and me with my Jays hat, swingin’ for the fences every time like Bell, but hustlin’ toward second if I happened to punch one through the infield, which for our purposes, was a fig tree in the middle of the yard.

That was some time ago. Today, I come by the story of Alex Rodriguez admitting his use of anabolic steroids from 2001-2003 as someone who has not considered himself more than a casual Major League Baseball fan for more than a decade. I haven’t watched a game from opening pitch to final at bat in many, many years. I know the difference between Dwight Howard and Ryan Howard, for example, but couldn’t pick either one out of a lineup without considerable assistance (or unless one of them was wearing a Phillies cap). I am neither a casualty of the short lived Yankees dynasty of the late 1990’s (I hate the Yanks), or more recently, of Barry Bonds* eclipsing of Hank Aaron’s home run record (there’s no footnote, btw, I’m just assuming that the asterisk will heretofore be part of his name). In fact, generally speaking, whether I follow a sport closely or not, I have a tendency, like most folks, to become a fan when any athlete is about to break a long-held record (in fact, if I hear that someone is on 7:45 pace in the 3000m steeplechase, I’ll tear away from this computer so fast …).

No, I stopped following baseball the summer of 1994. For 232 days, players and owners walked away from the fans over what essentially was a dispute over the worsening financial situation of MLB, and fans across the country were outraged. In a nightmare envisioned by Durkheim nearly a century earlier, the socialization of religion had come to roost, and for many, the altars at which they worshipped six months out of every year had been destroyed, and hope for nirvana (you know, their team reaching the post-season, or favorite player being named an All-Star) had been stripped away from them. For many fans, this was tantamount to theft – they were being robbed of the opportunity to see their favorite teams and players teeter and totter, get hot and go cold, and of the catharsis of reaching the ultimate goal – winning a pennant. Fans packed away their team-themed knick-knacks, cancelled their cross-country commutes, folded and tucked away their jerseys, and simultaneously swore they’d never again – never again – root for a bunch of overpaid crybabies and their ne’er do well bosses. Though I never wore the jerseys or followed my favorite team to the point of obsession, I shared this sentiment. I thought it was just about greedy players, and blamed them for taking baseball away from me. If only I’d understood every labor dispute has at least two sides.

For a brief moment in 1998, however, I considered the love affair all over again, thanks to Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. As both men chased down one of the most coveted records in professional sports (Maris’ 61 home runs in a season) I grew interested again and found myself not only watching Cubs games with interest, but Cardinals games too (remember me and my brother used to play Jays vs. Cards all the time? I hated the Cards). In what was a wire-to-wire contest between the two men, the whole world tuned in as the aloof McGwire and the ever-affable Sosa banged out dinger after dinger all summer long. Being the baseball card collector that I was, I hunted down their rookie cards to make sure that they were in mint condition and safely stored away. Of course each of them was noticeably more muscular now. And of course two men in their 30’s shouldn’t be hitting the ball like men ten years their junior, but no one cared. No one cared! The doldrums of ’94 were gone, and America’s pastime was back to stay.

Until we discovered they were all using performance enhancing drugs. It was ’94 all over again.

I imagine that, across the country, many 14-year olds are watching baseball with the same critical and judgmental eye that I once did. They’re giving up on baseball. When A-Rod, one of the most consistent, well-liked, and powerful hitters in the game (he is on pace to absolutely demolish Bonds*’s record) is discovered to be under the influence of performance enhancers, and many more likely to come as long as the players union keeps leaking names, the cynicism is understandable.

And while I do not claim that A-Rod should be spared public scrutiny (he certainly will have many opportunities to face the music), I do hope that a responsible sports media, rather than sensationalizing the latest story, chooses instead to investigate the system that has produced one A-Rod after another after another. They should investigate the owners who either knowingly sanction the use of performance enhancers to ensure the marketability of MLB’s product or unwittingly fail to acknowledge the use when it occurs (unless, the owners think it’s natural to put on 30 lbs of lean muscle in a single off-season and play 10 consecutive 162 game seasons without injury). It also includes owners and league officials who have shrunk the strike zone to the size of a wasabi-flavored pea and “juiced” the ball, creating the environment in which more runs were scored and more home runs hit. It also includes scrutiny of the fans themselves, whose tastes have become altered to expect their favorite players to hit more and more souvenirs out of the park, and the media who glorify the big hitters. Though A-Rod will shoulder the bulk of the most recent wave of blame from fans and media alike, there are many more to blame, or at the very least, who are complicit in baseball’s demise in American popular culture.

It’s probably too late for me. But for the sake of that 14 year-old who excitedly dons that A-Rod jersey every opening day, I hope this instance finally opens up a more insightful and critical discussion (more than, say, a few late night sports programs giving drug-addled provocateur Jose Canseco 5 minutes on the mic).

Unfortunately, for our dominant sports media, all too prone to sensationalize stories rather than investigate closely, I’d sooner expect to see George Bell in the Jays’ starting line-up again before that happened.