In the heart of every sports fan is a kid. A kid who played one or more sports, or wanted to. A kid who dreamed of becoming part of the orchestrated ballet team sports can become when many souls act as a single organism.
I was a kid like that.
One of my most powerful memories is the first time I tried out for the 3 & 2 team sponsored in the Waldo area by Hunt Electric. I was pudgy kid who didn't run very well or swing a huge bat, but I was pretty good catcher who could make the throw to second base like a cannon. I could hit the same spot one foot to the right field side of the bag every time.
When they cut me on last day of tryouts, I wept big, deep, heart and soul shaking tears from the deepest part of me. I'd never worked harder or wanted anything more in my life. And I loved baseball from that day forward.
I learned to love baseball because I'd learned how hard it is, how lucky you have to be (even if you're good) to play the game at the highest levels. And I'd learned how to see the ballet it can be, and to respect it when it is ballet. Few teams reach that level. It takes players who love the game as much as I did to play it so well it looks and feels like ballet.
You have to understand baseball the way a player does it in order to love it completely.
If you don't know a batter's tendencies, or a pitchers weaknesses; it's impossible to understand why the fielders shift to certain places on certain pitches or in certain situations. Or for that matter, any other number of subtle nuances that make the game what it is.
Ah... but once you do understand the nuances, it becomes possible to love the game in ways the casual observer cannot. Like the way Cookie Rojas used to move into the hole before a batter ever started to swing, and then catch the ball off the first bounce in a full leaping pirouette, casually starting the double-play with an easy toss to Frank White.
That's the way I loved baseball.
That is, that's how I loved it until 600 or so players and owners saw fit to cancel a World Series because they couldn't figure out how to split up a billion dollar pie.
What a disgrace. I haven't watched a Major League Baseball game since.
I used to be able to tell you every team any Major Leaguer played for. Now, when ESPN starts talking baseball, I change the channel. Not in protest or anger, though it started that way, but from boredom.
I wasn't the only one to leave baseball after the strike. Many fans were outraged, and the game suffered huge problems with live gate attendance and television ratings.
Until they "juiced the ball."
From the first time I heard the term "juiced the ball" I thought it an odd expression to describe a ball batters could hit further. Looking back, it makes me wonder how many players were already "juiced" before MLB juiced the ball.
Even more disturbing is I knew immediately what the term meant, and so did everyone else.
So, MLB juiced the ball to promote higher scoring in games hoping to improve fan interest and attendance proportionally. Simultaneously, several players starting hitting home runs with greater frequency than they ever had before. Canseco, McGwire, Sosa, and of course, Barry Bonds.
When McGwire broke Roger Maris's record for home runs in a single season, he and Sosa's race to break that record were credited with 'The Restoration of Major League Baseball."
What a crock it all turned out to be.
Recently, the news of yet another (cough) superstar (cough, cough) baseball player came to light. Alex Rodriguez confessing to use of steroids during the 2003 season when he, among other things won the league MVP award.
That news should have outraged me, but all it did was inspire me to reflect on my attitude about MLB since the strike. And I reached an incredible realization.
Major League Baseball has ALWAYS BEEN CORRUPT.
Now before you trot out the firing squad, listen to my argument.
Baseball has always been fickle about which cheating it tolerates and which it does not, at least as far back as the Chicago Black Sox scandal. Players, including some who would have made it into Baseball's Hall of Fame were banned from the game for life in that deal, including one who never took a dime or did anything to throw a game or the series. MLB hammered those guys.
Yet time after time, MLB overlooks other forms of cheating.
Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson was notorious for throwing a spitter—and has even been quoted as saying: "As long as pitchers pitch, they're going to load the ball." MLB has turned a blind eye to this kind of cheating for years.
Manny Sosa was caught red-handed using a corked bat. And he's not the only one who's been caught red-handed either. Again, MLB does nothing.
No fines, no suspensions, no comment for certain kinds of cheating.
Cut the ball, load it with Vaseline from the dollop on the back of your head, smear pine tar all the way up the barrel past the logo, nobody cares. Obliterate the back line of the batters box so you can stand further back than the rules allow, and get an extra nanosecond to read the pitch. Slide into a tag with your cleats so high it injures the baseman so bad he misses games. Fine, fine, that's "all part of the game."
The simple truth is MLB does not now, and has never deserved our respect or our money. They're as complicit in the state of the game as any player, and the men who were entrusted to guarantee the integrity of the game have not only violated their sacred trust, they have raped it with their indifference.
Let's not forget the role of the almighty dollar in all of this either. As television revenues started to rise in baseball, 35 or 40 greedy old men flatly refused to share the wealth with their players. Resulting in the strike that drove me from the game forever.
Then the players union made demands based on percentages of revenues, and pretty soon owners had to build new temples for the games so they could sell seat licenses, and sky boxes and naming rights. Nowadays, blue collar family men cannot afford bleacher seats to take their son to a game on a weekday afternoon.
What a shame. A terrible, terrible shame.
The real shame is how much harder it is for kids to dream of becoming part of the great ballet sports can be. There are fewer stories of inspiration from sports these days because the Alex's and Jose's have sold themselves out for big bucks by any means.
There is nothing sacred, or inspiring, or even interesting about that.