Three days, 23 hours and 15 minutes to the arrival of pitchers and catchers. Hope renewed once again.
Winter is loathsome to me. I am a baseball fan. It has been central to my life from the moment I came into this world because it was central to my father’s life.
More than that, I am a Yankee fan. The Yankees have been the constant in our family. The team has held us together through the turmoil of life, providing something to cheer for, something to cry over, or when father and sons struggle to find common ground, something to just get us talking. Yankee Stadium was as much our home as the two bedroom apartment in Mt. Vernon, NY.
So from the moment the last out of the World Series is recorded, I get anxious. I look into the bleak abyss of winter and, God forgive me, wish my time away. I need baseball.
Normally, I’d be starting to breathe a little easier right now. 3 days. 23 hours. 6 minutes.
But I just spent the past two days trying to explain to my Yankee-worshipping son that real reporters don’t print explosive and personally damaging information unless they have it locked down tight. Regardless of the information that is yet to become public, Alex Rodriguez took steroids.
On Monday, Alex Rodriguez came clean. He told the truth. He admitted taking steroids and when given the opportunity by Peter Gammons to spread the blame, didn’t blame anyone but himself. In our eyes, he regained a small amount of credibility and perhaps a little sympathy.
Don’t get me wrong, we were never big A-Rod fans. My father idolized DiMaggio. My brother had Mantle. I chose Thurman Munson (and still say a prayer every August 2nd in memory of his untimely death in 1979). My son has Derek. We really thank God for Derek Jeter. But A-Rod, for all of his personal flaws, is a tremendous talent. And after the misery of the last few years, following the revelations that exposed and hopefully ended the steroid era, we all needed a player to prove that you don’t need the juice to hit home runs. We were willing to forgive Alex his off-field indiscretions, his psychological neediness and even his consummate ability to choke in the clutch. We were stuck with him when they foolishly resigned him. So we were ready to have his back. He has to play to his potential for the Yankees to be successful. Like any fans, we want our team to win.
Now, I have a personal dilemma. I have been public about my disdain for the steroid cheaters. I participated in the landmark book, Game of Shadows, by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, about the BALCO investigation. I defended those two American heroes against threats of being sent to jail for refusing to name the source who leaked to them Barry Bonds’ grand jury testimony. Mark and Lance, in my view, were as responsible for cleaning up baseball as the Justice Department — particularly the U.S. Attorney in San Francisco Kevin Ryan — that investigated the steroid operation. At the time, President Bush agreed with me, telling them that they had performed a great national service.
But now, I’m not angry. I’m not screaming for A-Rod to be drawn and quartered. I’m just sad. I’m trying to put it all in perspective from the point of view of a true fan. And as a fan, I think we have to take our share of the blame for allowing the cheating to continue for as long as it did.
Let’s start with the players. The baseball season starts with Spring Training in February. The regular season starts in the first week of April. It runs 162 games over 6 months. It is physically and mentally grueling. The constant cross-country traveling alone wears down the players. It is the definition of a grind.
From the beginning, baseball players have sought a little extra help to get through the season. Some resorted to booze. Others popped speed to help keep their energy up through the dog days of August and September. Too many started snorting cocaine or smoking pot back in the 1970s and 1980s.
But none of those chemical fixes made them hit the ball harder, higher and farther. Steroids give normal humans extraordinary strength. In baseball, it meant that a lot of long fly balls that without the ‘roids would drop harmlessly into the outfielders’ gloves, instead floated over the walls for a 4 bagger.
So imagine you are 32 years old right fielder. You’ve been playing in the majors for 8 years. Your career average looks like this: .292 batting average; 22 home runs; 90 RBIs; 420 slugging percentage. You’ve made the All-Star team twice and are considered one of the best everyday players in the game at your position. Announcers routinely pay you the highest compliment: “He’s a ballplayer.”
It is February. You’re packing for Florida with the awareness that your contract is up and you’re heading into free agency at the end of the season. You are coming off a slightly down year – .270, 15 homers, 70 RBIs. Fact is, you’re getting a little older and you played hurt for a good part of last season. You’re married and have 3 kids. You came up with a small market team and stayed when they offered you a pretty good deal after your rookie contract was up.
As you pack your bags, knowing that you have to have a great season if you’re going to have any negotiating leverage, you can’t help notice that an awful lot of players who were in that same, better than average, solid ballplayer category that has made you valuable, were having better years as they got older. You heard the whispers. You saw the bulging muscles and “bacne” in the clubhouse. It wasn’t for you to judge. It just wasn’t your thing. But damn! Those guys were signing huge contracts, guaranteeing there spot in the lineup and their financial future.
And you have a wife and three kids. You’ve been playing baseball since you were 3. You’ve been dreaming about being a big leaguer since you put on your first little league uniform. You spent hour after hour shagging fly balls and hitting in the cage when your friends were watching cartoons and eating chips. In high school, Friday night was go out and chase girls night for your buddies. For you, it was hitting clinic night.
Your pals went off to college. You got the minor league contract. While they were cramming for finals in between frat parties, you were living the first stages of fulfilling your dream. You were playing in Altoona for the Pirates Double A farm team hoping to move up to AAA with the Indianapolis Indians before the end of the season.
When they were heading to law school, you finally got the call up to the big time. You met a girl in Altoona. She was the one. You got married and she put up with the time apart. You love her for that. You love her so much that while some of the older guys were off drinking and cheating on their wives, you spent hours alone in the motel room just talking to her. You were a team. She was pregnant with your first child. One day, you’d make it to the show and all of the separation and sacrifices would be worth it.
As you put your glove (yes, you don’t let anyone else carry your glove) in the carry-on bag, you think, “If I don’t have a great year, I won’t have any leverage. In fact, I may get cut. After all, the GM was quoted in the papers talking about the great prospects down on the farm that would be a lot less expensive. Heck, I might not get picked up at all. I have a wife and 3 kids and I’ve been busting my tail since I was 10 years old. I couldn’t get a job outside of baseball that didn’t involve flipping burgers.”
You get to Florida and immediately notice the change in one of your teammates who is also in a contract year. He seems to have put on 40 pounds of muscle in the off-season. You can barely believe how fast the ball is leaving the park as he just crushes every pitch. The sound of the ball on the bat sounds like a bomb exploding.
Later in the clubhouse, you walk over to his locker and tell him that you were in awe watching his BP session. You tell him he looks great. You ask him what kind of work-out program he was on over the winter. He just smiles at you and scribbles a name and a number on a piece of scrap paper. “You’ve got a wife and 3 kids and you’re in a contract year,” he says as he hands you the number. All you think of is your family and their long-term financial security.
Or imagine you’re in Triple A. You’ve been there for 3 years. You’re 22. You were the big team’s top draft pick out of high school. They had big plans for you. You were the shortstop of their future. You flew through A ball and Double AA. But you seem to have hit a wall in AAA. You’re good. You have a great glove, a .320 batting average and a high on base percentage. But you’re not hitting for power the way major leaguers hit for power. You’re 6′ even and 180 lbs. The third base coach walks over to your locker after a practice one day and says, “Look kid, you need to put on some weight and start tagging the ball otherwise you’re never getting out of here.” In your mind you know what he is really saying is, “Omar Vizquel was the last of the speedy little, slap-hitting shortstops. Get it?”
And you think about how much money you’ve been spending on protein shakes and how many hours you put in the weight room and you realize that you just haven’t filled out yet. And you realize you can’t wait or the team is going to drop you as another failed experiment. So you ask the coach if he knows any good supplement suppliers, “you know… vitamins and protein.” And the coach hands you a name and a number that he scribbled on a piece of paper.
Or imagine you’re a rookie. You just arrived with the big club. And looking around the locker room, you can’t help but notice that 80% of the veterans are looking like something out of a superhero comic book. You heard the whispers when you were down on the farm. It was almost a joke. But now it’s just there in front of you. As you look at some of your new teammates, still pinching yourself to make sure it’s not a dream, you think, “If those three guys who are legitimate all-stars without the juice are juicing, then what the hell am I supposed to do?”
Suddenly, it’s not so cut and dried. Suddenly, the “cheaters” have a face, a real life and real responsibilities. They’re not all Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, but we the fans demanded that they try to be. That doesn’t excuse them one bit, but it does make us complicit.
Then there is the profit side of the steroid era. Enormous profits. The owners knew exactly what was going on. They loved the sound of home runs flying out of the ballparks — it was the sound of cash coming into the ballparks. They loved the way the women were coming to the ballparks to see the players and gawk at the biceps bulging through the jerseys. Home runs baby. Money. Money. Money. Sky boxes. Luxury suites. Merchandise. TV revenue. Sign Giambi. Sign Tejada. Sign Roger.
Perhaps the most disgraceful actors in this saga were the Baseball Players Union officials. They had medical proof that their eyes weren’t lying to them. But big contracts were good for the union coffers. It gave Don Fehr and Gene Orza the power and cachet that no other union reps had with their industries. It made them wealthy. So what if the players, whose lives you are supposed to be protecting, are headed for a future of liver and kidney disease? So what if the records are a fraud and you know that at some point it is all going to come crashing down? Who cares about the millions of kids who will be devastated when they find out that their heroes were injecting themselves in the fannies with steroids? That’s the price and they’re all adults.
Let’s not leave out the sanctimonious sports writers. Right now, they’re a bit much. They point the finger and write their columns and hound the players who get caught by the feds or have their names leaked. But they have access to the clubhouses. They’ve all sat in front of some slugger’s locker as he sat in a nothing but a towel. Don’t tell me that Mike Lupica didn’t realize that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were steroid frauds while he was writing the book, Summer of ’98, that glorified the home-run record chase. Heck, Lupica even pimped the emotional story of his young sons’ obsession with the home run race. Now Lupica is telling A-Rod to come clean and tell the truth. Message to Lupica and all of the holier than thou writers who are tsk-tsking away on their laptops: Save us the sanctimony. You knew, or you are the dumbest bunch of journalists in the business. And since you knew, you’re complicit too.
And how about the fans? We still went to the parks. We bought the caps and the jerseys. We joked about the ‘roid boys and expressed disgust with Barry Bonds. But we kept going, kept watching, kept cheering. Even me.
3 days, 21 hours, 29 minutes.
Despite the A-Rod revelations, Sunday was a good day. It was my birthday. It was unseasonably warm here in the D.C. area. The sky was shocking blue. My son and I hopped the fence on the little league field in our neighborhood and I spent two hours watching as he crushed pitch after pitch into the fence — from both sides of the plate. Had it not been for the incredibly strong wind blowing in from right center, he would have hit a slew of them out of the park. I was in awe, as I often am, of my little 11-year-old boy and his gift for every aspect of the game — hitting for average and power, throwing, catching, fielding, running. He’s the kind of kid that players and coaches at every level who’ve seen him — little league, high school, college and minor league — marvel at. And he loves the game. I mean really loves it. He changes when he walks across the white lines. He seems to grow taller, more confident, more relaxed.
He idolizes Derek Jeter. He knows that on Mickey Mantle’s monument in Yankee Stadium, it reads: “A Great Teammate,” and what that means. He knows about Joe DiMaggio’s answer when asked why he still played so hard, day after day: “Because there might be somebody in the stands who has never seen me play before.” He understands why Lou Gehrig could stand, dying, in front of 65,000 adoring fans — including his then 9-year-old grandfather — on July 4, 1939, and say that he considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth. Robert Corallo is a ball player. That’s all he knows.
3 days, 21 hours, 12 minutes. Now more than ever, it can’t come fast enough.