Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were arguably the biggest stars in Major League Baseball in the 1990s.  Bonds was the best position player, Clemens the most dominant pitcher.  Their careers followed eerily similar paths, culminating today with what I expect will be the failure of both of them to garner enough votes from the Baseball  Writers of America to enter the Hall of Fame.  A dozen years ago their fate in this regard would have been unthinkable.

In 1985, Clemens debuted as a twenty-two year old pitcher for the Boston Red Sox.  The following season, Bonds became the starting center fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates.  He moved to left field in 1987.  Clemens established himself as a star during that 1986 season, winning both the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player Awards with historically impressive statistics.  He won his second Cy Young Award in 1987, and a third in 1991.  Bonds took longer to find himself as a player, winning his first Most Valuable Player Award in 1990, but he won two more in 1992 and 1993, the latter with the San Francisco Giants.

By the late 1990s, both men were considered the best in the business, superstars who were destined for the Hall of Fame.  Clemens had added two more Cy Young Awards in 1997 and ‘98 to give him a total of five, more than any pitcher in history.  He had his MVP award and was also a seven time All-Star.  He was on pace to reach the milestones that defined excellence at his position — three hundred career victories and three thousand strikeouts.  Bonds had won his three MVP awards, had been an All-Star eight times, a Gold Glove winner eight times, and Silver Slugger winner seven times.  He was on pace to reach five hundred home runs in his career — at that time a near-automatic qualification for the Hall — and was also on pace to wind up among baseball’s all-time leaders in runs scored and walks.

But at that point both men started down the path that would be their undoing.  Clemens, then in his late thirties, started to wear down, as aging pitchers do.  Bonds was still going strong, but his ego could not take the attention lavished on Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, during their historic (and, as it turned out, steroid-induced) assault on Roger Maris’s single-season home run record.  By most accounts, it seems that both men turned to steroids in order to enhance their performances and prolong their careers.  And they did so with spectacular results.  Clemens, seeming to defy the passage of the years, won two more Cy Young Awards and finished his career with over 350 wins and over 4,600 strikeouts.  His seven Cy Young Awards is still a Major League record.

Bonds’s performance in the early 2000s is even more astonishing.  He broke the single-season and career home run records, amassing statistics that exceeded even those of Babe Ruth in his prime.  He won the Most Valuable Player Award in 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004, giving him seven for his career, more than any other player.  He finished his career as the Major League leader in home runs and walks, and among the career leaders in runs scored, runs batted in, extra base hits, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.

And yet, the accomplishments of both men were so tainted by their rumored use of steroids that even these glittering credentials will not get them into the Hall of Fame.  Not this year, certainly, and perhaps not ever.

Clemens and Bonds were two sides of the same tarnished coin.  One white, the other black; one a pitcher, the other a position player; one (mostly) an American League player, the other solely a National Leaguer — they seemed to have so little in common.  But they reached the Major Leagues within a year of each other, and both retired at the end of the 2007 season, Clemens with his seven Cy Youngs, Bonds with his seven MVPs.  They were both prickly personalities who were not terribly popular with their teammates or the media.  And when baseball’s reputation was damaged by revelations of steroid use, they were the two men at the center of the controversy.  Both have been in court in recent years, arguing desperately for their innocence, both seeming to understand that baseball’s greatest honor, election to the Hall of Fame, would be denied to them if they could not clear their names.  And both will be disappointed today when the Hall of Fame voting for this year is made public.

At a time when our nation — indeed, our planet — faces issues of near-existential proportion, when people are struggling to feed and clothe their families, when tragedies seem an everyday occurrence, it is hard to muster much sympathy for these men.  There are more like them — men who might have thought they would make the Hall, only to discover that in violating the rules and the law in pursuit of gaudy numbers and gaudier contracts they had made themselves anathema to the writers who would decide their fates.  Palmeiro, McGwire, Sosa, Sheffield, Ramirez, perhaps Rodriguez in another few years.  The names are familiar, the stories now border on cliché.  All of them made millions playing a game.  As I say, it’s hard to feel sorry for them, or to see their fall into ignominy as any sort of calamity.

Theirs were sins of hubris, of greed, of vanity; the same foibles that have thwarted the ambitions of so many, in countless fields of endeavor, over the course of human history.  But what separates Clemens and Bonds from the other baseball players who used performance enhancing drugs — an occurrence so common that the very category of substances now has its own acronym:  PEDs — is that they didn’t need to do it.  Palmeiro and McGwire and Sosa were good players who made themselves great, hoping to find immortality.  But Clemens and Bonds were already great when they started to cheat.  They were destined to be in the Hall of Fame.  They would have been remembered as truly outstanding players.  And that wasn’t enough for them.

Maybe this disgusts you, or angers you, or leaves you shaking your head at their foolishness.  It leaves me sad, and nostalgic for the perhaps-imagined simplicity of my youth, when stars like Aaron and Mays, Bench and Morgan, Schmidt and Brett played the game by the rules, with respect for the traditions of which they were part.  Maybe that’s naïve.  After all, those guys were paid pretty well in their day.  But just as Paul Simon once wondered where Joe Dimaggio had gone, I wonder what has happened to the kind of stars I remember from my childhood.

We watched John Sayles’ movie Eight Men Out last night.  Netflix, of course.  It’s an old movie.  It came out in 1988, right around the same time as Field of Dreams, when  hollywood seemed to be in the midst of a mini-obsession with the Shoeless Joe Jackson story.  Hollywood does this — remember when Tombstone and Wyatt Earp came out within months of each other, after we’d gone years without seeing a movie about Earp?  But I digress….

For those of you who don’t know, Eight Men Out tells the story of the Black Sox scandal of 1919.  Seven players on the American League champion Chicago White Sox — including pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams, position players Happy Felsch, Chick Gandil, Swede Risberg, Fred McMullen, and Jackson, who was one of the game’s greatest stars —  conspired with a group of gamblers to throw the series to the Cincinnati Reds.  The Sox were the overwhelming favorites going into the series, and the conspirators believed that they could make a killing by betting on the Reds and letting them win.  Some of the players were more enthusiastic participants than others.  Jackson always claimed that he went along for the money but did nothing to help the Reds win any games.  Sayles film portrays him as naive, uneducated, and very much a victim of his manipulative, smarter teammates.  An eighth player, Buck Weaver, knew of the conspiracy but took no money and played to win throughout the series.  Sayles portrays him as a victim of his teammates’ malfeasance as well.  All eight players were charged and put on trial, and all of them were eventually acquitted.

By this time, however, baseball’s owners had hired the sport’s first commissioner, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who vowed to clean up major league baseball.  Landis chose to make an example of the eight Black Sox players and banned all of them from the game for the rest of their lives.  The ban was the only thing that kept Jackson from being elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.

It was a good movie — not great, but good.  And I’ve been thinking about it all morning.  I’m a huge baseball fan.  Or at least I used to be.  The recent revelations about widespread steroid use among some of the games biggest stars have shaken my faith in the game.  Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez — all have admitted using steroids or have been implicated so convincingly that their continued denials have become meaningless.  Other players are known to have used performance enhancing drugs, and several of them have been suspended temporarily.

And yet, over the past 50 years, only one player in Major League Baseball has faced a lifetime ban from the game like the one given to the eight Black Sox conspirators.  That one is Pete Rose, who didn’t use steroids, but did, it seems, bet on baseball games in clear violation of the league’s rules on gambling.  Rose’s ban was handed down by then-commissioner Bart Giamatti, but it was almost as if the ghost of Mountain Landis was hovering over the game.  Baseball has a thing about gambling that can be traced directly back to 1919, and Rose’s ban reflected that.  Now don’t get me wrong:  I’m not defending Pete Rose.  I’m not even suggesting that Rose’s ban should be lifted (although I think that a case could be made for this).  The truth is, never liked Pete Rose.  I always thought that if baseball hadn’t existed he would have spent his life as a small-time thug.

But just as the men who ran baseball in 1919 turned a blind eye toward the corruptive influence of gambling on the game until Landis forced them to face the problem and deal with it, today’s owners and the media outlets that account for much of their revenue, have ignored the steroid problem.  In 1998, when McGwire and Sosa staged their epic joint assault on Roger Maris’s single season home run record, baseball was still reeling from the 1994 strike that nearly destroyed the sport.  Never mind that McGwire’s arms looked like something out of a Popeye cartoon.  Never mind that Sosa had transformed himself from a skinny little kid who could run fast into the most consistently prolific home run hitter the sport had ever seen.  It was all good!  The balls were flying out of the park and the sport was popular again.

I was always a small kid, and I’m a small grown-up.  One of the things I loved about baseball was that there was a place in the game for guys like me.  Unlike football or basketball, which demanded that its stars be huge, baseball could be played and won by smaller players.  Sure, everyone loved Babe Ruth.  But if a guy could bunt and steal a base and slap a key hit to the opposite field, he could win ball games for his team.  The game that I see on TV today isn’t like that, at least not the way it used to be.  Everyone is expected to hit home runs.  And everyone does.  Which means that everyone is suspect.  Look at a major league roster these days and you’ll see guys with Popeye forearms playing every position.  Are all of them juicing?  I want to say no, of course not.  But in all honesty, I don’t know.  When the penalty for using steroids is a fifty game suspension that still leaves intact two-thirds of a multi-million dollar annual contract, it’s hard to see why players wouldn’t juice.  The downside risk is minimal; the upside earning potential is staggering.

But a lifetime ban would balance that equation.  Alex Rodriguez is a great player.  So was Barry Bonds.  Their accomplishments on the field, however, have been forever compromised by the fact that they cheated.  Playing baseball at the major league level is not a right, it’s a privilege.  If placing a bet on a baseball game is cause to strip a player of that privilege, isn’t using steroids?  If Joe Jackson and his fellow conspirators are considered cheaters because they influenced the outcome of games by not trying hard enough, shouldn’t Manny Ramirez be considered a cheater for influencing the outcome of games by making himself into a juiced-up physical freak?  Isn’t it possible that baseball needs to be saved again, even if it means barring from the game some of its greatest stars?

I used to love baseball, but the game lost me when it decided to tolerate lies for the sake of television revenue.  If baseball can lose me, it can lose any and every fan.  I loved it that much.  The only way to get me back is for its leaders to say, “Enough!  If you cheat, you leave, never to return.”  The fact that this hasn’t happened yet tells me that the steroid problem is so big, baseball’s owners and commissioner can’t afford to take such a stand.  There’d be no one left.

April Fools’ Day

April 1, 2008

My kids came down to breakfast today all riled up because they’d heard on the radio that Barack Obama was dropping out of the Presidential race.  My nine year-old, who is a Hillary supporter (yes, like the National Democratic Party, ours is a house divided) was excited.  My twelve year-old, who is an Obamaniac, was a bit more skeptical, but she wanted to make certain that the report they’d heard on the radio (which apparently included a clip of Obama announcing his withdrawal “in his own voice”) was merely an April Fools’ prank.  I assured her that it was.

Maybe it’s just me, but this seemed a pretty clumsy attempt to fool people.  If you’re a radio station looking to trick your listeners, and your target audience turns out to be somewhere between the ages of 9 and 12, you’re aiming too low.  Off the top of my head I was able to think of several false stories that would have been far more convincing.

Let’s start with the obvious:  tell us it’s Hillary Clinton who’s dropping out rather than Obama.  THAT would have gotten my attention.  I still would have been skeptical, but at least she’s in more of a position to give up the race.  The guy with the lead in money, delegates, popular vote, and current horse race numbers probably isn’t going to quit….

Or tell us that John McCain has chosen his running mate and will announce the name at noon today.  Drop a few names as possibilities — Crist, Rice, Huckabee, Romney, Pawlenty. And then throw in a whopper just to make it interesting:  Lieberman.

Or, with baseball season starting up again, tell us that new names have surfaced in the steroid scandal, including not only several current major leaguers, but also Vice President Dick Cheney.  As proof, point to Cheney’s baldness, his jowly look, his hyper-aggressive statements and behavior.  That one I’d believe….

Happy April Fools’ Day all.  Oh, and by the way, did I mention that I’ve decided to pitch the whole writer thing and run for Congress?  Yeah.  I think voters here in rural Tennessee are ready to elect a liberal New York Jew with a beard and an earring.

Today’s music:  Sphere

Opening Day

March 25, 2008

It’s a bit early in the year, but nevertheless, today marks the opening of the 2008 Major League Baseball season.  It’s before 8:00 am here and the first game is being played right now.  How weird.  Red Sox-Athletics, in Tokyo.  Part of MLB’s continuing effort to expand the game globally.

In spite of everything that has happened in the baseball world over the past several years, I remain a committed fan.  Here’s hoping that this season brings competitive pennant races, spectacular individual achievements, and an end to the steroid/HGH scandal.

Happy Opening Day, everyone.

Go Mets!

Spring Training

February 12, 2008

Pitchers and catchers report tomorrow, which, for those of you unfamiliar with baseball terminology, means that spring training is about to begin.  This is usually a time of rejoicing for me; an end to a long, lonely winter of sports about which I don’t really care.  Football, basketball, hockey — usually they’re just games to read about when there are no boxscores, a way of marking time until baseball awakes from its winter hibernation.

This year was a bit different, in part because of the Giants’ unexpected success (I’m still in shock) and in part because it was such an ugly offseason for baseball.  All steroids all the time.  I feel like I’m holding my breath, waiting to see how the sport will disgrace itself next, wondering how much more of this I can take.

But spring training is a time of possibility.  The trades have been made, the ink is dry on newly signed contracts, rookies are gearing up for the exhibition season, hoping to make that magical leap from unknown to phenom.  The Mets managed to sign the best pitcher in baseball, Johan Santana.  The Yankees managed to re-sign the best everyday player in the game, A-Rod.  And the Red Sox, for the second time in the last four years, begin the season as defending world champions.  Wouldn’t it be great if the baseball world found a way to get their collective s#%t together and put together a great season?  A few pennant races in the variouis divisions, close competitions for individual honors, maybe a no-hitter or two.  It wouldn’t take much.  Those of us who love the game are looking for reasons to care about it again.  

A new season.  Hope springs eternal.

My Dad’s Birthday

December 20, 2007

Today’s my Dad’s birthday.  He would have been 88.  It’s been eleven years since we lost him and I still think about him every day.  And each time I do, the memory of him brings a smile to my face.

He was an easy man to love — great sense of humor, terrific smile, infectious laugh.  He became friends with pretty much everyone he met.  He only got to know my older daughter briefly before he died; he never met the younger one.  He would have adored them both, though, and they would have been crazy about him.  He also never got to see any of my books in print, and I think he found it a bit strange that I wanted to spend my life writing what he thought of as fairy tales.  But he would have gotten a kick out of seeing my career progress.  I can see him shaking his head and saying, “They actually pay you to do this?”

He would have been fascinated by cell phones and mp3 players — he loved gadgets.  On the other hand, my siblings and I tried for years to get him to buy a computer and he always refused.  “When would I ever use it?” he’d ask.  To which we’d say, “All the time!”  But we never convinced him.  He would have been disappointed by the baseball steroid scandal.  He would have gotten a kick out of watching Tiger Woods play golf.  And he would have despised this President and his immoral, illegal war.

He worshipped my mother and spent the last few years of his life helping her cope with the illness that eventually claimed her life.  He stuck around for a while after she died, but his heart wasn’t in it.  His father lived to 103 — outlived him, actually.  His mother died at the age of 91.  But without my Mom, Dad barely made it to 77.  Love is a powerful force, and so is grief.

This post isn’t intended to elicit sympathy.  Far from it.  I miss my Dad a lot, but it’s been years since we lost him, and at this point my memories of him are joyous and fun.  Think of this more as a birthday card, and a way for me to tell you a bit about my father.

Happy Birthday, Pop.  I love you.

It’s been a dark couple of days for us baseball fans as the fallout from George Mitchell’s report on steroid use in the sport continues, and it promises to get worse before it gets better.  Players implicated in the report are starting to put out statements either accepting blame for what they’re said to have done, or, more likely, denying having ever taken steroids or HGH.  It won’t be long before the Players Union marshals its PR forces to fight the report, and the team owners and management look for ways to absolve themselves of culpability.  Congress intends to hold hearings.  This is going to be ugly.

Some thoughts:

Anyone who was surprised by the names on the list or the number of players involved hasn’t been paying attention for the past several years.  ESPN and the various news outlets made it seem that the inclusion of Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte in the list was a shock.  Give me a break.  Does no one remember the news out of Houston last spring, when they were implicated in the Astros’ mini HGH scandal?  Did no one suspect anything when both players suddenly shaved their heads a few seasons back?  (Hair loss is often a symptom of HGH use and players often seek to hide this by shaving their heads — For more information, I refer you to the coifing histories of Bonds, Barry; McGwire, Mark; Palmeiro, Rafael.  Head shavers all.)  Did no one think it strange when, during the 2000 World Series on a routine broken bat groundout by Mike Piazza, Clemens inexplicably picked up the head of Piazza’s shattered bat and threw it at him?  Granted, Clemens has been a head case for a long time (For more information I refer you to the American League Playoff series of 1989, when Clemens had a now-infamous meltdown with the home plate umpire) but didn’t the bizarre incident in 2000 raise any eyebrows?  (Hyper-aggressive behavior is another HGH symptom.)

Staying with Clemens, and Bonds as well.  One of the really sad things about this is that it has called into question the careers of two players who were certain Hall-of-Famers before they ever picked up a needle.  Clemens was the dominant pitcher in baseball from 1986 through the late nineties.  He won three Cy Young Awards without using any performance enhancing drugs.  He was on track to strike out three thousand batters in his career; he might well have gotten to 300 career wins.  He would have been remembered as one of the ten greatest pitchers in baseball history.  And Bonds, for all the criticism he’s taken throughout his career for being an anti-social jerk, would quite likely have been remembered as one of the three greatest left-fielders ever to play the game, along with Ted Williams and Stan Musial.  He was on pace to hit 500 home runs (a number that once meant something), to steal five hundred bases, to score close to 2,000 runs and drive in 1,700.  He won three MVP awards early in his career, as well as eight gold gloves.  They were the best of the best — both of them.  They didn’t need to do anything to make themselves better.  But driven by ego and money and, in Bonds’ case, his jealousy of the adulation heaped on McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, they threw it all away.  Now they’ll be lucky to make the Hall of Fame.  And their names will be linked first and foremost with scandal, cheating, shame, rather than with baseball excellence.

Isn’t it interesting that Miguel Tejada, the Baltimore Orioles’ all-star shortstop, who was named in the report, was traded the day before it was issued?  Was it just coincidence that Andy Pettitte completed negotiations on a $16 million contract also the day before the report came out?  Doesn’t the trade of Jim Edmunds (another head shaver, and a player who has managed to recover with notable swiftness from injuries that might have ended the careers of other men) the day after the report came out raise red flags for anyone?  The team owners and general managers knew what was going on the whole time — any attempt on their part to claim ignorance or innocence is completely disingenuous.  This was a scandal in the deepest sense of the word.  500 foot home runs and 100 mph ratings on the radar machines gauging pitch speed were and are good for attendance.  Baseball, for all its recent problems, has never been more profitable for players and ownership alike.  The performances made possible by steroids and HGH are partially responsible for that.  So players juiced, and owners, GMs, and managers looked the other way.

Just in case people think that steroids automatically make you a great player, I refer you to the following players listed as users in Mitchell’s report:  Mark Carreon, Chuck Knoblauch (a once great player who couldn’t save his career, even with the drugs), Jeremy Giambi . . . .  The list goes on.  HGH was used by players to speed the healing process from injuries and surgeries.  And, yes, it was used to improved on-field performance.  But as Mark Carreon found out, it couldn’t help a player learn to hit a curve ball.  As Knoblauch learned, it couldn’t restore the confidence of a once decent second baseman in his ability to throw the ball to first.  It could make a decent hitter better by putting more pop in his bat.  Maybe it could make a good player great.  Certainly in Bonds’ case it made a great player into the greatest offensive force the game has ever seen.  But I would be willing to bet that for most, the on-field results were nowhere near the cost in terms of long-term health and damage to their reputations.

For me, the saddest thing in the report was what Mitchell had to say about the prevalence of drug use in the minor leagues.  These are basically kids, barely out of high school or college, who are destroying themselves for a shot at glory and huge amounts of money.  The game has been poisoned, the problem is systemic, and the healing process is going to take years.

Today’s music:  Mark O’Connor