by JL Wall
Like Steve Stone, I wasn’t exactly surprised to read about Sammy Sosa testing positive for steroids in 2003. It was the kind of thing we all knew was going on, but no one ever wanted to admit it. I (like the very rumpled-looking George Will ESPN put on TV at 11pm that night) defended him after the corked-bat incident, and now think that I made a fool of myself in the process.But I don’t really want to talk too much about Sammy Sosa. I still love baseball, after all. I still avoid Wrigley Field because I think I’m a jinx, but I still follow the Cubs somewhat obsessively (I have the Cubs-Sox game on the TV as I’m writing this). Yet I can’t say that I watch or follow them, or enjoy baseball the same way I did when I was first learning to love baseball, sometime about fifteen years ago.
It was the history, then. There still is something about that history, how it stretches far enough back that characters like Young, Wagner, Cobb, Ruth, Gehrig, and Williams seem more out of myth than history. The numbers that could be compared across nearly a century. Stories passed down through several generations. For me, at least, it was never so much about the ballteams as the ballplayers.
Now, many (most?) of the heroes of the Olden Days weren’t exactly upstanding men in their own right, but there’s a difference between being borderline despicable as a person and a cheating ballplayer. Maybe it’s just another sign of misplaced priorities, but Pete Rose’s gambling still stings more than anything he could have done short of cheating as an active player.
There can’t ever be another Homer in the Gloamin’, or DiMaggio’s hitting streak, anything that can replace The Catch or Thomson’s Shot Heard Round the World – not because those moments can’t be replicated or surpassed in terms of athletic ability, but because anything that happens in baseball, or has happened since some indefinite point in the 1990s, is severed from the history that was the first baseball I encountered. And that’s a sad thing, because I used to imagine being able to grow up and place the baseball greats of my childhood into stories with those of my father’s and grandfather’s. (I think this, above all, is why I would also be upset at an “anything-goes” policy for baseball, even though it “level the playing field” again.)
I no longer follow baseball for the history, or the numbers, or the hope of seeing some Great Moment as it happens. I watch it in the hopes of seeing a good baseball game, because I think the skill entails a kind of beauty. I stopped having “favorite players,” even just to watch, not long after talk of steroids first surfaced. If I compare players I have to worry about comparing enhanced vs. unenhanced, and individual glory ceased when we had to start looking at every great ballplayer with suspicion about whether they’d done it within the rules. I just watch the game, and cheer for the Cubs.
There’s that Seinfeld episode where Jerry says that he doesn’t understand baseball anymore, given the frequency of trades, because you’re not rooting for anything but the jerseys. The jerseys are just about all that’s left, but I think they’ll be enough for me, though the game’s certainly not unchanged.