Thursday, January 10, 2013

A Field of Redemption: Why the Hall of Fame Vote May Save Baseball

One of the clearest memories of my childhood was the first time I saw a game at Dodger Stadium.  The waiting in lines, the long walk to the tunnel.  Then, there it was.

This field of green, so vibrant that it almost seemed like it couldn't be real.  Squinting from the brightness, it all came into focus.  The clean chalk lines, the meticulously groomed infield, the banners from victories of the past, the flag blowing in the gentle breeze in the outfield.  

The sounds.  The crack of the wood in batting practice.  The crowd, united in every moment, gasping, cheering, sighing.  

The ways to fill the down times.  The wave.  The idea that thousands of people could simultaneously be engaged in this crazy tradition just to amuse one another.  

The hot dogs, the cracker jacks. The hollers of the concessionaires.

Shielding your eyes from the sun as the game stretched further into the afternoon. 

My glove, in my lap.  Waiting for that moment.  I would be ready.

I'd venture a guess that most of us have some incarnation of that memory from our childhoods.  That most of us remember with vivid clarity our first game.  The color of the field.  The excitement when someone got a hit.

Most of us probably had a favorite player.  Almost all of us claim loyalty to one team or another, and with that comes an unavoidable animosity towards the sworn enemy of our team.

I'd venture a guess that most of us spent some time on a field too.  Learned to play catch in the backyard, remember heading to the batting cages for some practice.  Baseball is the true American past time.

The players on the field, often considered heroes.

I got as caught up in the home run race as most people did.  A true fan of the game, we watched in nervous anticipation as Sosa and McGwire chased history in 1998.  The television was always tuned to a game for months it seemed.  Roger Maris' record had stood for 37 years.

It was magic.

Until we found out why they were able to hit the ball so far.  Until we knew why Bonds was able to hit even more home runs a few years later and steal the record from McGwire and Sosa.

They cheated.  They all did. They got caught.

Then Roger Clemens got caught too, and lied to Congress about it.

It was all tainted.

Would they have been able to break the records without steroids?  Maybe.  No one can say for sure.  Were they all great baseball players, even in light of the controversy?  Sure.

Is it harder to give full credit to them for their accomplishments now?  Hell yes.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I'm not some naive sports fan who believes that everyone will play fair. I know that players cheat all the time.  I know that there was probably a decent percentage of them using steroids copiously in the late 90's, early 2000's.  Back then, obliterating records was the stuff that made you the highest paid player, the hero, the icon.  They were chasing fame and fortune, and were willing to shoot themselves up with drugs to do it.

Sound like anyone else I've written about?  I'm talking to you, Lance.

There are those who come to the defense of all these athletes, who claim that their cheating should be irrelevant because "everyone did it".  I wonder, at what point in our society did the jumping off the bridge logic become acceptable?  I mean, honestly?  If your child came to you as a high school athlete and said, but Mom, everyone is using steroids, and I want to play football....would you agree just because "everyone else does it"?

If everyone else had an affair, killed someone, robbed a bank, would it then also be permissible for me to do it?

Of course not.

Then why do we look the other way when professional athletes do it?  Our children idolize these players, carry cards around in their pockets, hang posters on their wall, beg for signatures, and we don't even demand that they play fair?

I can't even begin to tell you how many conversations I've had with people who are unwavering in their admiration for athletes like Lance.  Who refuse to see the truth.  Who can't understand that just because "everyone else did" it, that didn't make it okay.

I've been a little frustrated with society, truth be told.

I want to believe that people can live with integrity, even if they're being paid to play a game.

Then yesterday happened, and there was a glimmer of hope yet for our people in this cynical sports fan's heart.

The Baseball Writer's Association of America didn't elect any of them to the Hall of Fame.

Some were outraged.  I stood and applauded.

Clemens, Bonds and Sosa were all on the ballot for their first year of eligibility.  They should have been no brainers for an automatic invitation.  McGwire has been waiting for years.  Clemens got the most votes of the group, and he barely received half the number he needed to get in.

The voters sent a clear message here.

These players may have the records, they may have the fame.  They may have had magnificent careers in this sport that America loves so much.  They may have been considered heroes at one time.  Hell, some of them even inspired a nation and reignited our collective love of the game.  But it's not enough.

Not anymore.

It's been said for years now that if and when these men are ever granted admission to the Hall, it won't be untainted.  There are asterisks that follow them and their records wherever they go, and rightfully so.

Maybe we can save this game and make it something we're proud of again.  Just maybe.

The state of baseball is the barometric pressure of America's soul.

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