The Sanctity of Sport In America Is Long Gone
One word, five letters, monosyllabic. Hundreds of subsidiaries can lay claim to this parent word. We raise our children through them, teaching them the importance of commitment, dedication, and working with others.
Our elders tell us stories which inspire us. Stories about Uncle Joe winning his state football championship with a broken arm. Grandpa reminds you of when he played basketball in real shorts with no three point line. Your Aunt Liz even chimes in about how the goalies in the NHL wear pads that are wayyy to big and how it takes away from the game.
When we cannot turn to our families, we turn to our favorite teams, our favorite athletes. As a country, even, we have turned to sports in the darkest of times. When World Wars came, so too did our beloved athletes sacrifice playing time for serving their country.
When the Cold War put international focus on the power struggle between the Soviets and America, it was Herb Brooks' group of boys who put the final nail in the coffin for the Soviets.
On an ice rink in Lake Placid, NY.
And that fateful night in Queens only days after the tragedy of 9/11, when Mike Piazza (then a new York Met) slammed an 8th inning home run against the Atlanta Braves into the Picnic Section of Shea, where all of New York's uniformed finest were there to root on their Amazin's, there was a sensation which ran through any one watching that game.
Whether you were in the park or watching it from the comfort of your own living room, goosebumps- and perhaps tears- overtook you.
You see, it is in the world of sports, and perhaps ONLY in the world of sports, where adversaries and companions are one in the same. Sure, the Braves were more than disappointed to lose a game to their hated rivals, but what it did for the city of New York far outweighs the importance of any regular season victory.
As much as Bobby Cox and his crew may have hung their heads after losing a close game, God knows even they were overwhelmed by the atmosphere of the entire night in Flushing Meadows.
Especially with baseball, it seems even a non-sports fan knows a thing or two about the game. The Yankees? A household name. Alex Rodriguez? The same.
Unfortunately, the dreaded 8 letter, multi-syllabic word written above is associated just as much with baseball as its five letter counterpart at the top of the page. And it doesn't take a sports nut to know it. Just turn on a TV, grab a newspaper, hell just open your eyes. But people seem to be missing the saddest part of it all...
You see, baseball has a very "important" nickname. Baseball has been dubbed "America's Past time." More-so than any other sports has historically, baseball represents America
(Now, I'm sure half the audience reading this just said to themselves, 'Well what about football??' It has not been given the nickname, nor has it been played in America for over 100 years like baseball has. Yes, it's winning the ratings game by an arm and a leg, but anyone over the age of, say, thirty will argue for baseball. And if you said NASCAR, feel free to never read my blogs ever again).
Baseball represents America.
Steroids represent baseball.
America represents... cheating?
It's a bold claim to make, I know. But let's now take a closer look. As much as we argue about baseball being America's past-time, let's look to a sport which about 35 Americans care about, yet runs through the blood of many of our neighbors to the north.
Hockey is Canada.
Even Americans would be insolent to argue that. Hockey has been on the brink of elimination from the North American mainstream for what seems like an eternity. The NHL- which lays claim to six Canadian franchises- is probably the least recognizable of the four major sports in America. However, through all the ups and downs hockey has gone through,
a.) There was never a scandal as big as the steroids one in baseball (Yes, Rick Tocchet bet on games, but it did not have nearly as wide an effect nor was it as noted by the general public).
b.) It made a comeback, and is doing well for itself.
c.) It is STILL Canada's national sport.
People laughed at hockey in America. When it went away for a year, no one noticed. Those who did, they didn't care. I mentioned to my friends the other day as we watched the Super Bowl how weird it is to watch this insanely successful event and know that one day, it will all be gone. Somehow, someway, all good things come to an end. Naturally, I was laughed at and mocked, but it's true. The AFL produced what is still considered today the greatest game ever played. The ABA was arguably more popular than the present day NBA. All these great leagues and associations, they all face rough patches. How they get out of them defines them.
Would Canadian currency still depict kids playing hockey on an ice rink had it earned the negative reputation baseball is slowly gaining? Mind you, we can argue over America's past-time, but you're going to be very hard pressed to find an argument against hockey in Canada. Hockey stood its ground through the late 90s and came out for the better.
Baseball faced a similar fate at the turn of the millennium. Ballparks saw attendance numbers dwindle, ratings were down, and the discussions we had about other struggling sports were now being associated with baseball. But that fateful summer of 1998 saw all this change on the bats of two soon-to-be household names. Two soon to be heroes to young sluggers everywhere. Two guys who had fought hard their whole career and were now going to share the limelight together. Yes, baseball once again was a place where adversaries became companions. And who were the lucky two?...
Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
Besides his 70 Home Run season, you may remember Mark McGwire as the man who suddenly forgot the English language while testifying before Congress about using steroids. Sammy Sosa, he's the guy who, after baseball began to crack down on performance-enhancing drugs, used a corked-bat to crush home runs. They were anointed the "Saviours of Baseball," a new generation of bash brothers- on bitter rivals mind you- sent to revive the pulse of baseball and place it back on the top of the proverbial sports pedestal ( I confess, hanging in my closet to this day is an authentic red Mark McGwire #25 St. Louis Cardinals jersey). This wasn't a solution, however, it was a short-term fix.
Making a long story short, Sosa and McGwire essentially admitted to taking steroids without ever taking them. They did so by bulging out of their jerseys and having career years. They did so through omission, never admitting to taking steroids but leaving observers a paper trail of clues thick enough to leave you one decimal place short of 100% positive that they did indeed do so. They got paid. And baseball isn't just two guys, it's 700+ grown men who, like it or not, want to get paid just like Mark and Slammin Sammy. So what did they do? They followed suit.
The end result- ALOT of guys in baseball are now juicing.
We now fast forward to 2007, one of the most turbulent years in baseball history. 2007 was the year where steroids took center stage in baseball, more-so than even the standings or playoff races. The reason? Barry Bonds was preparing to break the single most prestigious record in all of sports- the immaculate All-Time Home Run record. On April 8th, 1974, Aaron broke Babe Ruth's record for career home runs when he hit No. 715 off the Los Angeles Dodgers' Al Downing at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
When Aaron broke the record, he broke a barrier which represented the greatest internal struggle our country had ever faced- racism. Since Jackie Robinson's inception into Major League Baseball, black athletes had been scorned and abused by fans of America's pastime- a pastime which had been founded and played by white men. Now, Hank Aaron had put a black man in sole possession of sports' greatest record. The man whom he took it from, Babe Ruth, was a legend of the game whose number of adorning fans was smaller only than the number of pinstripes on his hefty frame.
But there was no debate about the legitimacy of the record. Aaron took his cuts at a playing level even with every other great hitter of his generation. A man who had NEVER hit more than 50 home runs in a season earned his legacy through consistency over a 23 year career which saw him finish in the Top 5 of MVP voting 9 times (including an MVP Award in 1957). For Bonds, the story is quite different. His "accomplishment" only heightened the witch-hunt in baseball for abusers of illegal supplements.
Bonds was a great- not good, GREAT- player for the majority of his career. He won 3 MVPs before the age of 30, as well as 5 Silver Slugger Awards and 4 All-Star Game appearances. He could have had a legendary career which would have put him amongst the greatest to ever play. He could have stayed clean and not messed with creams and clears and whatever else was in his medicine cabinet. He could have stayed away from Victor Conte and the BALCO enterprise.
At the ripe, tender age of 35 (yes, that was sarcasm), Bonds hit 49 home runs, a new career high. He finished 2nd in the MVP balloting in that 2000 season, just one year removed from batting .262 with 34 home runs and finishing out of the Top 20 in MVP voting for the 1st time since 1989.
One season later, in 2001, Bonds got a little crazy. He hit 73 (seventy-three, setenta y tres, seven-three) home runs and drove in 137 runs, both career highs. His .328 batting average was his highet since 1993, and his absurd .863 slugging percentage was a career... no check that, Major League Baseball all-time high. That's right, not even Ruth, Aaron, Sosa, McGwire, or any other great hitter ever to play the game had reached the level of annihilation at the plate which Bonds was playing at.
At age 36.
When the record was broken, everyone tried to make the best out of a bad situation. At least, those who believed the record deserved an asterisk next to it. Players like Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez- clean players to the naked eye- would challenge the record and eventually bring it back to the hands of a legitimate, honest baseball player. The most hallowed record in the most hallowed American sport would be clean once again.
So when the news came out about Rodriguez and steroids, what did it all mean? Yes, it meant more media attention on A-Rod, as if he didn't have enough already. Yes, it meant an inevitable teary-eyed interview with Sir Peter Gammons himself.
And of course, it meant a wide array of opinion from the smartest sports fans in the world (I honestly believe New York/New Jersey sports fans are the most knowledgeable in the country and not just obscene/rude/hypocritical like other major-market fanbases).
But it meant so much more than any single player, franchise, or single sport. It has turned American sports into an international spectacle. America can get over NBA betting scandals, NFL player arrests, and, well, anything pertaining to hockey.
But having their national sport being plagued by cheaters, dishonesty...Congress hearings, FBI investigations, player deaths...guys, these are not small potatoes. More-so, we are getting government involvement in a game, something that is supposed to be fun.
How can Sammy Sosa ever be a child's hero? He's facing federal perjury charges and major jail time. Barry Bonds may be the greatest hitter some of us will ever see, but the guy cheated more than Hugh Grant, Rosie Ruiz and the Patriots COMBINED.
And now A-Rod, the beacon of light at the end of this dark, arduous tunnel baseball currently finds itself it, burns out and only further extends the dark era of baseball. For now, there's only one word baseball fans should be feeling right now.
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