I love baseball! I grew up in Cleveland as a die hard Tribe fan (emphasis on die hard). I remember as a young boy going to many a game with my twin brother, father, and sometimes my grandfather. The old Municipal Stadium seated 78,000 people. That, combined the fact that the Indians were consistently bad, meant that one could walk up to the ticket counter twenty minutes before a game and purchase choice box seats.
I wouldn't say I idolized my sports heroes, but I sure looked up to them. "Sudden" Sam McDowell on the mound, Ray Fosse behind the plate, with Greg Nettles on third base, and then Buddy Bell. In those days it seemed that the Tribe was really nothing more than a farm team for the New York Yankees, as any good player for the Indians ended up playing for championship teams in "The House that Ruth Built." It was frustrating every year to watch my team end up in the cellar most years, but no matter; the Cleveland Indians were indeed MY team, and I loved the game-- the sights and the sounds and gentle evening breezes of summer brushing by my face as I watched my heroes play their best, even if their best was often not nearly good enough to win.
But, somehow things changed. The game changed. I changed. The sport I loved began to lose its luster. I am still a fan, to be sure, but a healthy and sometimes cynical dose of realism has kicked in. I know that part of it is that I no longer view America's pastime through the eyes of a young wide-eyed boy. Life is more complex at forty-seven than it was at seven. As I said, I have changed.
But, something has changed about major league baseball as well, at least it seems that way. I do not mean to suggest that there was some golden idyllic age of the game. We can only label any time and place as "the golden era" by willfully employing amnesia when it comes to the foibles of the past. The boys of summer, who were my heroes, were imperfect on and off the field; and scandals have rocked the world of baseball long before the days of steroids.
But, still... it seems as if something has changed. It's difficult to rejoice in the record-breaking accomplishments of today's players because we can't help but wonder if they "juiced" themselves up in order to get into the record books. And then when players are caught actually using steroids, the lame response is basically the same-- the team doctor or the personal physician gave them the drug and they had no idea. At least, Manny Ramirez was somewhat creative in suggesting that he was taking female fertility drugs, not because he was trying to hide the signs of steroid use, but that it was for a personal medical problem, which is somewhat believable-- after all, many individuals Manny's age want to get pregnant.
Perhaps, however, the game hasn't really changed. Just maybe, baseball's problems amount to nothing more than "the same dance, just a different tune." The current steroid problem in baseball seems to be just another chapter in the age old drama of the willingness of human beings to do whatever it takes to succeed, even if the means are unhealthy, dishonest, and yes, downright corrupt. It must be difficult for an aging sports star to wake up one morning and realize that he is no longer a young Turk in the game, and that there are new young Turks looking to take over his turf. The Fountain of Youth is really attractive in our culture, whether that fountain comes in the form of steroids, Botox, or the nip-and-tuck.
I have some friends who are so disgusted with major league baseball that they have given up on the sport. I have not. Perhaps what we need is not retreat and surrender, but redeployment. Like all of the institutions of life, baseball will not get better if people with moral scruples abandon it in self-righteous anger. Perhaps we need to stick with America's pastime if for no other reason than many of our sons and daughters are growing up with the same enchanted passion for the game as that young boy many years ago watching his favorite team on the shores of Lake Erie. We need to stay with the game because our children need to learn that there is a better way than the way of Manny Ramirez, and they need the moral fortitude to resist such illegitimate temptations when they come their way. They will be unable to do so if those who love baseball and the moral character it is capable of displaying, abandon the sport leaving it to those who place winning above everything, including what is right and true. Perhaps we need to stay with the game because it reveals so much about ourselves with our hopes and disappointments, our failures, and our possibilities. Baseball, like so many endeavors in life, is not only about what is, but what can be. It reminds us that even when our team is in last place, there are always possibilities.
Hank Aaron once said, "I'm hoping someday that some kid, black or white, will hit more home runs than myself. Whoever it is, I'd be pulling for him." Perhaps Aaron's words reveal that the game has indeed changed; for we can no longer trust that the kid hitting more home runs is playing by the rules while doing it. That makes it quite difficult to "pull for him."
How to make sense of all this, I am not sure. But there are two things I do know-- I love baseball and I love the Tribe. Both give me joy and plenty of disappointment.