I was eight years old when Roger Maris hit 61 homeruns. He wore the number nine, and I didn’t care how badly the little league uniform fit, that was the number I wanted on my back. My best friend wore number seven—Mickey Mantle’s number. He was for Mantle and I was for Maris. The M&M twins. We worshipped them.
Maris smoked. Mantle drank too much. They put a lot of crap in their bodies, and they still managed to bat themselves into the Hall of Fame. I’ve seen Maris’s bat there—and Ted Williams’. These guys hit with lumber. If Bo Jackson cracked one of their bats on his head, he’d spend the rest of his life a paralytic—and the bat wouldn’t break. The way those players abused their bodies should have held them back. In fact, it probably did. But every ball that went out of the park was a product of their skill at baseball—whatever their problems may have been off the field.
McGuire, Clemens, Palmeiro, Sosa, Pettitte, Bonds, and now Rodriguez (and these are only some of the biggest names) have all taken that away from today’s eight-year-olds. And they’ve taken something away from all us.
Consider the times in which we live—the real jeopardy people are feeling. Retirement savings have evaporated; homes have been lost; lifetimes of work flushed. These are the times baseball is most vital because baseball is truly a game of leisure. It’s an outing that takes you away from whatever oppresses you in your life. It’s an afternoon at the beach on a hot day; it unfolds before you slowly, with all its intricacies and sideshows, from the third base coach’s signals to the occasional action in the bull pen to the shortstop’s incredible catch. For a while it’s like watching a train pass, mesmerizing and compelling in its own way, and then suddenly a car appears with some item of extraordinary interest—maybe some industrial machinery that we wonder at as it passes. And then the train finds its rhythm again, and the wonder of what we’ve seen stays with us. It becomes part of the grammar of the game. A story unfolds—it has characters, a plot, subplots, a language of its own. It compels us to watch.
If I plagiarized someone else’s work in my writing, I’d be sued (and I’d sue someone who stole my work). Cheating isn’t allowed. If you steal from your clients or your company, you not only lose the account and your job, you may end up in prison.
Alex Rodriguez believes that saying he’s sorry means there’s no consequence. His sorrow is the consequence; bad press is the consequence; a few humiliating weeks of torment is the consequence. The checks will still clear. He was still talking about the Hall of Fame in the interview with Peter Gammons in which he admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs.
If major league baseball was serious about getting rid of the drugs, here’s what would happen: Every title in every category would be stripped from any player who used performance-enhancing drugs. Their records would disappear—blotto, as if they had never played. The Hall of Fame would be out. They’d be out—banned from baseball for however long—say a year (no less than a year—without pay)—and when they returned, they would have no record. They would start with zeroes.
Next, the owners would go after the money. Get it back. Contracts were broken, agreements flouted. A-Rod would owe the Rangers $250 million—pretax. It wasn't really him playing. They hired A-Rod and got a zombie. A-Rod didn't earn the money—and the zombie didn't sign the contract. The next player who thought taking drugs would move his career along could ponder that.
A-Rod’s timing was a bit worse than some of his colleagues’. Chewing on gristle is easier for a lot of Americans right now than finding sympathy for his Oscar-worthy performance with Peter Gammons. (And if you think it wasn’t a performance, just compare it to the interview from two years ago in which he lied straight-faced to Katie Couric.)
None of what we saw for years was real—from Rodriguez and from who knows how many other players. We cheered for them. We believed we were watching competition, sport. But Rodriguez has no credibility, and neither does baseball. Frankly, after seeing Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, I’d just as soon tune in to watch the The Undertaker’s amazingly-staged pile drives on WWF wrestling than watch one more overbuilt baseball player with a toothpick for a bat try to do what Maris did at 170 pounds with a real piece of wood.
If I want to watch baseball, I’ll stroll up to the community college near my home, where a bunch of 18- and 19-year-olds play the game for real.