Friday, May 8, 2009

By David Saltzer - Columnist

I’m not a saint, nor do I expect anyone else to be one either. I have 3 sons, all of whom I want to grow up to be men who know and love baseball with the same passion that I have. I know that some athletes, such as Jim Abbott, can be role models, but by-and-large, most athletes are just average people who can play some sport exceptionally well. They are human beings prone to all the vices that we all are prone towards, except that they fall victim to their vices more often than the rest of us because they have access to large amounts of easy money and live in a society that tolerates foolish behavior from them.

Like most, I’m not shocked about the news about Manny Ramirez. Once the issue of steroids and PEDS arose, it’s hard not to suspect almost any current or former player over the past 15 years or so. I am, however, still angry at the news. Just like Alex Rodriguez, Pudge Rodriguez, Barry Bonds, and every other arrogant player caught up in the steroid/PED scandal, Manny broke the cardinal mystiques of baseball for me as a fan.

To be a baseball fan, you have to buy into 3 mystiques. The first is that baseball is the one constant through all the years. The field, the game, the way it’s played, etc. is the same now as it was in the past: baseball is the true sport. Unlike football, basketball, or hockey, baseball fans can discuss the merits of players from the past against those who play today. Fans believe that the best baseball teams from the 1950s would give the best teams from today a run for their money because baseball doesn’t require players to be so massive or so tall or so agile or so specialized that they can’t compete against players from different generations. That is why baseball fans debate the “all-century team” or the “all-Angels team” because the fans believe that players from different generations could compete against each other. And that is why when I couldn’t talk to my dad about anything else, we could always talk about baseball.

The same cannot be said about any other team sport. The worst football team today would crush the best football team from the 1950s because the players today are so much more massive. In basketball, the game has changed and the players are taller and faster. The same is true for hockey. Only baseball stands the test of time for team sports—at least it did up until the whole steroids/PEDs scandal.

The second mystique of baseball is that the game is utterly fair. Sure, there are blown calls, but, there aren’t partisan calls. Both teams get their fair outs: whether your team is winning or losing, it still has 27 outs. Neither side can use penalties or tactics to circumvent the game. A team can’t control the clock or the ball to win the game as they can in football, baseball or hockey. The better hitter or the better pitcher wins the battle.

Steroids and PEDs change all of that. Now, players who are injured can play through injuries or recover much more quickly. Hitters can crowd the plate and hit the ball further than normal because of enhanced strength that they otherwise would not have. Pitchers can go deeper into the game throwing harder than they should because the drugs give them endurance or resiliency that they otherwise would not have. It makes all plays in every game suspect because no one knows for certain if that was a legitimate outcome or an enhanced outcome. Steroids and PEDs strip away all sense of fairness in the game.

Finally, the last mystique for baseball fans is one of the most important ones. It is the mystique that if only I, as a fan, dedicated myself to baseball as much as the pros, I could excel in the game just like I did as a kid. As an adult, I’m only 5’6” tall. I’m never going to dunk in the NBA, nor am I ever going to stop a 250 lb running back. I’d get crushed if I tried to check someone in hockey. And, I’m okay with that for those sports. I watch and enjoy those sports for the beauty in the athletics that I can never do.

But baseball is different. I played baseball as a kid. While I couldn’t field worth a lick, I could hit and I believed that a guy my size could become an MVP of the World Series, just like David Eckstein did. When I watch a player take a pitch right down the middle, in my mind, I tell myself that even I could have hit that pitch because when I was younger I did crush those pitches off guys who were then in the majors or were on their way to getting to the majors. And I’m not the only who feels that way. Go to any game or read any message board during a game and you’re bound to hear or read tons of comments to that effect. While it may be a fantasy, it’s an integral part of the fantasy for baseball fans.

Steroids and PEDs change all of that. I don’t do drugs, and I don’t cheat. I don’t know many people who do either of those things nor did I play baseball against people who did. Consequently, the steroids and PEDs crush the fantasy for me and relegate the sport back to the realm of things in which I will never excel. They taint the sport forever.

What gets me most about the whole steroids scandal is how the players, the owners, and in particular Bud Selig have all responded to it. I’m sick of all the mea-culpas from players. No one forced the players to sign such massive contracts. If the pressures to perform to their gargantuan contracts were too much, they should never have signed them in the first place. Or, if the pressures came about after signing the contract, then they should have renegotiated them to a more acceptable level. The arrogance of the players is appalling. Their hubris is completely out of whack: they act as if they are bigger than the game and in the process, insult fans everywhere.

But, the worst offender has to be Bud Selig. Besides turning a blind eye to the whole scandal as it happened in the 1990s, he has totally mismanaged the efforts to clean up the game and in the process dragged the scandal out much longer than it needed to be.

In order for baseball to get past this ugliness, it needs to truly do a complete airing of its dirty laundry once and for all. Bud Selig needs to act in the best interest of baseball and give the players a deadline for coming clean about all of their past abuses. All players who prior to the deadline completely admit to any use of steroids or PEDs should receive a complete amnesty for any act admitted. But, after the deadline, any player who fails to admit to any use, and is later found out to have done so, should receive a lifetime ban from the sport and from the Hall of Fame. Only then can the three mystiques of the game be fully restored and only then can baseball get past steroids and PEDs.

While there are many reasons to dislike Manny for his antics as a player, the long-term damage he did to the sport by using steroids or PEDs is truly the destructive act of all. While a 50-game ban may punish him and the Dodgers, it does nothing to restoring the dignity of the game I love so much. For that, I hate steroids/PEDs and have no respect for the players who took them.
Love to hear what you think!


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