Like most of the readers and writers on this site, I am not a sports journalist by trade. I am a special education teacher. I like writing, but I am by no means a professional (as my articles ably demonstrate).
One of the best pieces of advice my teaching mentors gave me was this: Don’t avoid telling the child that they have a learning disability. Many well-intentioned parents make the mistake of skirting around the issue, believing that if they don’t tell the child, the child won’t think anything of their struggles and power through their problems.
In fact, children usually understand that they have a disability long before the official diagnosis.
They know something is up when see their friends read and analyze full paragraphs of information, and although they dedicate their entire mental focus on the same passage, the words get lost in translation. The trick is to not label it an unbeatable problem, but one that can be overcome with extra practice or different strategies that work with their strengths. And they all have strengths.
When David Ortiz was allegedly linked to the infamous 2003 test that ferreted out Alex Rodriguez and other high-profile stars, the reactions came swiftly.
Hypocrite. A symbol of these particular times. The worst news ever given in the history of mankind. Some true, others steeped in hyperbole.
But the Ortiz story is a good thing for us.
Over the coming hours, days, and weeks, we’re going to get a flurry of self-righteous indignation from the sportswriting world. How Ortiz cheated the game, the two World Series-winning teams, his family, the United States of America, 10-year old Billy from Worcester whose been spitting in his hands and rubbing them together before his at-bats like his hero.
They will find juicy quotes from fans and enemies alike, talking about how their whole world has collapsed around them, or conversely, how they “always knew” that Big Papi used.
But who are we kidding?
Like the parents of a child with special needs, baseball writers have a skewed sense of their obligation to those they promise to serve. Not the New York Times writer who uncovered the story, but the reactionary prognosticators who take it upon themselves to be guardians of the sport’s impeccable moral code.
They’ll bemoan the news and try to remember when men weren’t using women’s fertility drugs to mask steroids or when a player’s head size didn’t grow 10 sizes in eight months.
They’ll call Ortiz a slew of names for cheating everyone and maybe even try to offer a few players (Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, Joe Mauer) who are above suspicion and crown them the new standard-bearers of a sport dating back to that magical period known as “a simpler time.”
The problem is just that: There never was a simpler time.
Whether you’re talking about amphetamines (which Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays allegedly used), a higher pitcher’s mound, the pre-1947 segregated league, the deadball era, or the Black Sox era of gambling-affected play, baseball has never been a uniformly-ruled sport. Hell, if we wanted to take it back to its roots, the hitter would tell the pitcher where to place the ball tailored to their favorable spot to hit.
The problem isn’t (just) steroids. The problem is us.
If Americans crave any two things, it is excess and simplicity. Baseball is considered our nation’s “pastime” because we have this childish notion that the sport fulfills these two needs without serious consequence. This is probably why baseball writers, more than the writers of any other sport, feel particularly stung and vehement when it comes to steroids.
Like a guy who pre-drank too much at his place and missed the main party, they feel slighted that the game’s biggest stars cheated under their very noses.
Mind you that the 2003 list was a direct result of the writers trying to find known users after the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa-Barry Bonds-Jason Giambi controversies made the subject too big to ignore. And they still missed on A-Rod, Manny Ramirez, Roger Clemens, and Big Papi for five years!
Like news reporters who championed the Iraq War only to find out that there weren’t WMDs and financial analysts who didn’t predict the enormity of the current recession, their embarrassment spurred a 180-degree turnaround.
However, to be so systematically bamboozled resulted in an institutional over-adjustment in how they cover the sport. Now they’re so hypersensitive about the issue that they become outraged when a player isn’t publicly booed when he comes clean.
But why should they be the only ones to shoulder the blame? They were only feeding our need for simplicity. It took 62 home runs to bring us back from the strike-scarred sport. Why 62? Because it was bigger than 61. That’s all we needed—a larger number to remind us that while our taxes, our careers, and our personal relationships are complex, there are still simple numbers out there to take solace in.
That’s all baseball is: 56, 714, .406, 511. We don’t want complexity. We don’t want to know that Ty Cobb beat up a black woman who was trying to defend her husband. We don’t want to know that Ted Williams cheated on his wife and was (by most accounts) an ill-tempered father and not the bastion of pure good that Bob Costas and company want us to believe. We don’t want to know that the big, smiling lummox who helped end an 86-year-old curse probably used performance-enhancing drugs.
We don’t want to know those things because that would make them complex. It would defy absolutes. It would...make them human beings.
If I were to ask you to define your life in one word, you probably couldn’t. You have too many aspects of you or moments in your life to sum up in a few letters.
You love your family, but I’m guessing you’ve had some knockdown, drag-out screaming matches. You love hanging out with your friends, but there are times you just want to get away from everyone. You love a particular dish or drink, but it might have caught your stomach the wrong way one time and you ended up on the toilet for hours.
We are complex people, and sports (like everything else) is a complex matter. Perhaps we as fans, writers, “experts,” and non-athletes should grow up and recognize something in Ortiz that we’ve known all along: There’s no such thing as perfect, and to pretend so is more damaging than the sin itself.
The tritest cliché that will be used over and over again is this question: What do I tell my kid?
It’s true in special education as it is in life. You tell them the truth. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Tell them about the homers and the mood swings and the loss of (ahem) abilities over time. Tell them the highs and lows. Tell them the consequences, not of suspensions or jail time or boos, but of the knowledge that you have to look at yourself in the mirror every day for your actions.
And no amount of money or fame can cover up the mistakes you know are true.