Thursday, February 12, 2009

MLB: Are baseball heroes still possible?

Back on November 5th, I wrote a long missive in response to Corry’s post “Baseball’s Demise II,” where I defended the game –with all its many scandals—as a true game of heroes. Ironically enough, in that same piece (which I call my “Love letter to baseball”), I defended none other than Alex Rodriguez as a “clean” ballplayer. In light of recent revelations and in response to Corry’s last post, I really wonder if Major League Baseball can, in our era (the “Steroid Era”), still have heroes. Can we really trust any player enough to get behind him? I’ll admit that, at certain times in my life, I cheered for Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, even Barry Bonds—only to be disappointed when word of the dreaded “juice” leaked to the presses. Who do we dare support these days?

Currently, my favorite player is probably Manny Ramírez—who I, personally, think is clean. (He’s been as big as a house since I first saw him with the Indians in the mid-90s.) As a loyal Dodgers fan, I pray he and Ned Colletti work something out to have Manny back in blue come April. (Maybe we shouldn’t pray for something as inconsequential as baseball contracts; but, since God is a Dodgers fan, I’m sure he appreciates the sentiment all the same—give him 5 years for $120 mil already!) For a while, the three teams in the running to score Manny were the Dodgers and their two arch rivals: the San Francisco Giants and Anaheim Angels (I refuse to associate them with L.A.). So, it’s not just ‘roids but also Free Agency that makes playing the hero game all the more difficult (but that’s an entirely other can of worms).

As a young boy, my first hero—baseball or otherwise—was George Brett. He is now one of the most outspoken opponents of PEDs in baseball. In fact, he’s mentioned that should Barry Bonds be elected into Cooperstown, he’d personally look Barry in the eyes and say “We’re both here, but I did it cleanly.” Maybe excessive pine tar is not in the same ballpark with steroids, but George—and we also—might do well not to be so short-sighted. History has forgiven his baseball trespasses, just as it will forgive our modern-day trespassers.

My point is this: just like in politics, baseball history forgives those whose legacy outlives their playing years. Jefferson, Lincoln and FDR were all polemical figures in their day, but their legacies have surpassed their supposed misdeeds. Ten years ago, Bill Clinton was synonymous with unrepentant womanizer; today he is a great ambassador to the U.S. Shoeless Joe took a bribe—he is still considered one of the greatest all-around players to ever take the field. Babe Ruth was a walking scandal—do we lessen his achievements? Slowly but surely, Pete Rose’s exile is drawing to a much-deserved close. Just the same, I think Barry, Jose, the Rocket and A-Rod will receive their due pardon. Will Bud Selig be remembered as baseball's Joe McCarthy?

Can we have heroes in baseball when we do not know what new information tomorrow’s papers may bring? My answer is YES, but only if we stop to recognize that in an epoch when more than an estimated third of players were “on the juice,” these men were still the best at what they did. Do I condone PEDs? No. Do I recognize the colossal talents of great players who happened to use? Yes.

So, as we welcome in Spring Training and prepare for the Boys of Summer to take to the diamond, I hold firm that baseball is and remains America’s Game. And, a more cautious version of myself still—albeit less brazenly—proclaims that baseball is a game of heroes.

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