Tuesday, March 21, 2006

On Children, Grown Men and Baseball

by Alan Eliot

Alan Eliot discusses the inner child of every baseball fan, in light of recent allegations against Barry Bonds and other suspected steroid-users.

Baseball, they say, is a child's game played by grown men.

And what a child's game it is.

I'm brought back to vivid memories of my own youth, and to baseball's indelible impression on this boy's upbringing. I loved baseball, purely, passionately, without question. I knew precious little about strategy, or pitch selection, or lineup placement- except from schoolground experience, where the "slugger" hit clean-up and where the weaker hitters ( i.e. me) occupied the latter numbers. But what I lacked in knowledge, I made up in enthusiasm, in deep love, and in a fiery memory for statistics that I felt were useful.

Today, I may understand OPS, and the double switch; I may feel that I could manage my team better than my local idiot manager or smiling buffoon GM; I may in fact have accumulated enough baseball neurons to fire off a column here once every other week. These things and more my adult self can do. These things and more add to my tremendous love and affection for the game of baseball. Nonetheless, stripped of these cerebral abilities acquired later in life, I can still say, without a doubt, that I loved watching baseball as a kid. Even more so, no less than I enjoy watching it today.

Little Alan followed the Mets religiously on ol' WWOR-TV (Secaucus, NJ). Like a boy, I cried when the Mets made the final out in Game 7 of the 1988 NLCS against the Dodgers- comforting my distraught young psyche with one phrase, repeated again and again: "I guess it wasn't meant to be."

God, that hurt.

And you can bet that bright and early on Saturdays you could find precious li'l Al in his backyard with Jon, the other little baseball fanatic in his grade. What child-like perfection we created with our ingenious system, Jon and I! One of us, at the makeshift plate, hitting balls out to the other, poised in the field, ready to shag down the routine fly balls, or to dive- bodily harm not a concern- for that super-spectacular play that would echo in both of our memories all year long. In this way, week in and week out, the two of us would play baseball for so long, that we'd routinely watch the shadow of the large tree completely turn to the other side by day's end. And we couldn't have been happier.

Nostalgic yet, anyone?

However, children are far from innocent. Children have yet to develop beyond rudimentary ethical systems. As demonstated by Kohlberg, and others, it takes emotional maturity to develop beyond doing things to avoid punishment or to get a reward. This is why children lie so often: to avoid getting in trouble. Before you object to my overgeneralization with examples of your past saintliness, tell me this: when you knocked your first baseball into Mr. Wilson's window, did you scatter for the hills, or did you "do what was right" and own up to your responsibility? I thought so.

But this is natural, too. Physician and famed lecturer Dr. Edward Goljan claimed (I am paraphrasing here), "Any child who doesn't lie isn't normal."

So OK. Kids are simple-minded creatures. Love baseball. Not so ethical. So what?

It is with this mindset that I processed the recent incriminating evidence against Barry Bonds- and how the explosive season and home run chase of 1998 convinced him to "give in" to steroids. A man playing a child's game. A grown man drawn to cheat because he saw how others cheated and prospered. A grown man drawn to drugs, because Mark McGwire did drugs and was insanely popular. And boy, did Barry want to be that popular.

In a recent column by Jeff Pearlman of espn.com, he delved into Barry's complicated psyche:

With Griffey's framed memorabilia as a backdrop, and Mark McGwire's obliteration of the single-season home run record a fresh memory, Bonds spoke up as he never had before. He sounded neither angry nor agitated, simply frustrated. "You know what," he said. "I had a helluva season last year, and nobody gave a crap. Nobody. As much as I've complained about McGwire and Canseco and all of the bull with steroids, I'm tired of fighting it. I turn 35 this year. I've got three or four good seasons left, and I wanna get paid. I'm just gonna start using some hard-core stuff, and hopefully it won't hurt my body. Then I'll get out of the game and be done with it."

"Barry yearned to be the Michael Jordan of baseball, the icon of the game," says one ex-teammate. "He knew he was better than McGwire and Sosa, and at that point he was, factually, better. But everyone loved Mac and Sammy, and nobody loved Barry."

And down Barry went, down a road of deception, of lies, of cheating. Mountains of evidence support what we only suspected all these years, watching a 40-year old Barry dwarf the accomplishments of a 30-year old Barry.

Barry always claimed he knew he was the best. We now claim in hindsight that we always knew he was the best, even before 1999, when he supposedly started with "the juice". But is that supported by the facts?

Not many people remember the "All-Century Team" put together in 1999, by a panel of experts hired by Mastercard. A panel of experts chose the 100 best players of all time, which was to be whittled down to 30 based on fan-balloting. Yes, fans are notoriously bandwagon when it comes to these voting things- i.e. Piazza and Ripken in later years- but one would imagine that arguably the best player of his generation, Barry Bonds, would get some sort of nod. Sure, he wasn't liked, but eight previous All-Star nods, and three MVP's, give creed that the fans and experts, respectively, knew what they were doing when it came to Barry. They couldn't be that biased against him.

Or could they?

Mark McGwire made the team. Ken Griffey, Jr. made the team. Barry didn't even come close- his 173,279 votes fell way short of the last-place outfielder chosen- Stan Musial, who had 571,279. Seventeen outfielders in all garnered more votes than poor Barry. And fan stupidity can't be held 100% to blame- the expert panel held the right to select players overlooked by the fans into the final 30- which they did, with 5 players. But none were named Barry Bonds.

Barry Bonds. We say we knew he was the best, even then. Maybe we should concede the fact that maybe we didn't. Perhaps hindsight, in fact, isn't 20/20.

Perhaps being the only man in the 400/400 club at that time didn't appeal to us as we remember. We were bedazzled, like children, to the shiny home run. Few stats mattered more in that crazy era of the mid-to-late 90's. Homers brought back baseball after the fans left, frustrated. No one was better all-around than Barry. But who wanted all-around? We wanted dingers!

And there it was. The insecure man-child did what all children do best, fall to peer pressure. He wanted adoration, he wanted attention, and he wanted it now. And he got it- ethics aside, but he got it. The best player of his era who couldn't make the crummy "best-players" list was suddenly king of baseball, and then arguably the best ever. Not top 30. Numero uno.

No doubt that Bonds, and anyone else who succumbed to the golden promises of steroids after that magical 1998 season, knew what they were doing was wrong. Baseball technicalities aside, many brashly claim that there were no rules against steroids at the time in MLB. True. But if such an argument is indeed valid, why hasn't any (non-shamed) player actually publicly made that statement in his own defense? Now that the window is smashed, we see the players running for the hills, like kids. And when caught red-handed, lying under oath. Or blaming others. How grotesquely juvenile.

I love this game. And that little boy in me fuels that fire. I can still close my eyes and imagine a time when things were simpler, when baseball was essentially pure. I know such a vision is rose-colored. However, I'd like to think that baseball appeals to the boy in each one of us, the same boy who once sat wide-eyed, watching the first home run he's ever seen leave the park. The same boy in each of us who still jumps up and down with antsy energy as the fate of the game hangs in the balance- 2 outs and the tying run in scoring position.

The same boy who now has to deal with his heroes- not men, but children themselves- trading their baseball purity for the merest sniff of more- more home runs, more hits, more millions, more adoration. And as we close the chapter on perhaps baseball's ugliest era, we are left with fallen heroes, gods who have proven to be as petty as you can ever remember yourself being.

But you were eight.

Cry, little ones, for your mightiest have fallen.

Alan Eliot's column, "The Stories We Tell", appears alternate Tuesdays


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"I've had a pretty good success facing Stan (Musial) by throwing him my best pitch and backing up third base."
- Carl Erskine