On the morning of October 28, 1986, Darryl Strawberry knocked on his friend’s door. No answer. “Doc, c’mon.” Then he started pounding on it. Still no response. He shouted. Nothing.
Later that day, Jay Horwitz, the team’s media relations man gave the official word, “Dwight Gooden wasn’t feeling very well… that’s why he was absent.” On the day of the biggest victory parade in New York history, Bobby Ojeda and Keith Hernandez hadn’t shaved, or changed clothes and they reeked of booze — yet they made it. Dr. K never did. Team officials believed his “fatigue” was a coke hangover. He would be arrested that winter. Over the next few years, players from my team, the Mets, would not only be caught brawling, boozing, and snorting coke but even throwing lit fireworks in the direction of children. But every night they played, I watched them with my grandmother and we cheered. Scandal made the Mets hard to like sometimes, but it was harder to leave them altogether.
In the past two weeks, it seems every major sport (and several minor ones) has been hit with a scandal. In football, there is Michael Vick — a star quarterback who has been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges related to dog-fighting. The Tour de France brought us several cyclists who dropped out or were forced out as drug-cheats, including the one-time leader, Michael Rasmussen. Speaking of chemical impropriety, Barry Bond’s current chase of Hank Aaron’s all time home run record is widely considered the exclamation point at the end of baseball’s “steroid era.” Most troubling of all, an NBA referee, Tim Donaghy, plans on turning himself over to authorities investigating him for point shaving scandal that involves the Gambino crime family. In short, these are overpaid, sadistic criminals, and chemically-enhanced thugs playing in rigged games. And that’s just the last two weeks.
Reactions have been swift and ferocious. Adidas and Reebok stopped selling Michel Vick jerseys. NBA fans are posting their own edited videos of games Donaghy reffed, demonstrating malfeasance that may have changed the outcome of a playoff series. Bud Selig, the commissioner of baseball, now issues chilly statements, almost apologizing for the fact that he may be in the stands when Bonds breaks the record, saying he’ll attend “out of respect for the tradition of the game, the magnitude of the record, and the fact that all citizens of this country are innocent until proven guilty.” There’s a ringing endorsement.
But this isn’t the beginning of the end of professional sports. Though the 1980s Mets were terrible role models for me, my grandmother made each of their games her nightly appointment. We will do the same today. Why?
Sports thrive not only because they are a multi-billion dollar industry with gigantic financial and media institutions depending on their success, but also because we love them. Sports are more than simple entertainment. As spectators we vicariously participate in the contest. While we reward mediocrity in popular music and in our politics, sports remain the last cultural redoubt of excellence. Every segment of “Web Gems” on ESPN’s Baseball tonight testifies to our love of great feats, great effort, great physical prowess. We, the spectators, then compare achievements in sports with statistics. And we can give the numbers life through stories.
The bad characters and the criminals will be immortalized in their stats — no doubt. But no sports writer fails to mention that Ty Cobb was a tremendous jerk, that Dennis Rodman was a decadent and sad figure, or that Pete Rose was a degenerate gambler. If guilty, Michael Vick’s criminal reputation will last as long as his athletic accomplishments endure.
Bonds will likely break the home run record in the next week. Giants fans, having reconciled themselves to Bonds in some way, will rejoice. But when, God willing, I watch Mets games with my grandchildren, if his name comes up in the course of conversation, I will tell them about the “steroid era” — how baseball ignored the juice while McGuire and Sosa helped the game recover from a player strike; how Bonds likely joined them and how many of the stats from this era should be considered inflated. There are no stats without stories.
But Bonds is not the only attraction this summer. In the next week I expect to watch Tom Glavine record his 300th career victory, and Alex Rodriguez knock a ball over the fence for the 500th time. I’ll watch baseball games that have no obvious import because I can never guess when some young hurler will toss a no-hitter, or when a time-worn veteran will grit his teeth through incredible pain and make an extraordinary catch. I’ll watch because I never know when the game will be just an enjoyable diversion, or an incredible event that I’ll recall decades hence. The 1986 Mets were a rowdy, decadent, drug-stained mess. They were also one of the best baseball teams ever fielded. And that’s a story I’ll keep telling.