You win some, you lose some, and some get rained out—but you have to dress for all of ‘em.” —Satchell Paige
I remember the moment when I decided, quite deliberately, to care about baseball.
I was maybe twelve years old, I was at my grandparents’ house, and I was seized by a sudden need to avail myself of the bathroom. Then as now, I hate it when I have to do Number Two and there’s nothing to read. So I grabbed the only printed matter in the house that looked remotely appealing—the sports section of the Morristown (N.J.) Daily Record—and barricaded myself in the can.
The first story I came across—it was a single paragraph, near the sports agate, under the heading BASEBALL—concerned a relief pitcher with the porn-worthy name Rollie Fingers. Once an All-Star, the fading Fingers had blocked a proposed deal with the Cincinnati Reds because the club rules would have forced him to shave his trademark handlebar mustache. He chose retirement over the razor.
I don’t know what it was about that story the captured my attention—the ridiculous name, the ridiculous facial hair, or the ridiculous way he chose principle over filthy lucre; if someone offered you half a million bucks to shave your mustache, you’d do it, right?—but at that moment, in that bathroom, with my pants still around my ankles, I decided to follow baseball.
This was in the mid-eighties, which was when the Mets fielded a team for the ages. Gary “The Kid” Carter, Dwight “Doc” Gooden, Darryl “Straw Man” Strawberry, Lenny “Nails” Dykstra, and the rest of the Metropolitans wound up winning 106 games in 1986, a National League record, and won the World Series in dramatic fashion when a dribbling ground ball rolled between the legs of Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner.
Usually, when the lonely eyes of a sports nation turn to a particular team—in ’86, everybody in the tri-state area suddenly started donning blue and orange caps—it compels you to hop the turnstile and join the bandwagon, especially if you’re not already a fan of some other squadron.
But I didn’t like the Mets, and I really didn’t like the bandwagon-jumpers, so I chose instead to root-root-root for the Yankees. Don Mattingly, the slick-fielding first baseman with the sneaky power and the Tom Selleck ‘stache, became my hero, and I developed an intense and uncomfortable man-crush on Dave Winfield.
Unfortunately, the Yankees sucked. George Steinbrenner III, the power-mad principal owner and meddler-in-chief, killed the team every year by eschewing quality pitching for big, slow guys who hit home runs when the team was already up by six. This came to a head in 1989, when King George traded the young left-hander Al Leiter—who would go on to have a long and stellar career—to the rival Toronto Blue Jays for fat-assed outfielder Jessie Barfield, who played the exact same position as Winfield.
(Steinbrenner hated Winfield. With a passion. I mean, he loathed the guy. He went so far as to hire a sleazy second-rate mafioso, Howie Spira, to “get dirt” on Winfield, and wound up being banned for life from baseball—a sentence that was subsequently, and unfortunately, commuted).
For most of the Mattingly era, the Yankees were mediocre. Then, at last, in 1994, they were good. Really good. In first place for the first time since I started following them ten years before, and poised to blow past Cleveland and crush Montreal in the World Series. Ten years of waiting, but victory was all but assured!
And then…they called off the season. Sorry, folks! Thanks for playing!
This is like your girlfriend telling you she’ll have sex with you after the prom—and then they cancel the prom. What made it worse was, that was the summer I stayed in D.C., between my junior and senior years of college, and I was in the habit of watching baseball every night. Habit is the right word, because there were withdrawal symptoms when I was forced to quit cold turkey, including watching The Natural on TBS every day for two months.
Bud Selig, the feckless commissioner of baseball and slave to the interests of the moneyed owners, and his counterpart at the players union, Donald Fehr, were responsible for the strike. My hatred for them is such that, had Dick Cheney’s sometimes-torture-is-necessary argument involved Selig, Fehr, and waterboarding, I would have alacritously voted yea.
The four Yankees championships after the stoppage were nice and all, but because they didn’t include my favorite player, Mattingly, I could never fully embrace those teams—although I loved certain players on the roster, especially Paul O’Neill and Mariano Rivera, who both pre-dated the strike. Never again could I fall in love one hundred percent with a baseball team. The affection might be there, but the trust was gone forever.
“We’ll always have baseball,” is the line in Field of Dreams. Yeah—except for the summer when I needed it most.
What “saved” baseball for other disgruntled fans after the strike was the surge in home runs. In the summer of ‘98, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa slugged their way into the collective American heart, and all seemed forgiven. Sportscasters and beat writers returned to their conservative, santimonious opining best exemplified by the cloying Tim McCarver. And fans returned to the parks.
In the decades since Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s record, only a handful of players had even achieved the fifty-homer plateau. In ’98, two sluggers had sixty in their sights.
The ball is juiced—that was the explanation given at the time by Major League Baseball for the unprecedented spike in home runs. Something was juiced, as it turns out, but not the balls.
(Years after the fact, Congress was shocked, shocked to discover that there had been cheating in baseball. But if we’ve learned anything in our years as a republic, it’s that Congressmen are dopes.)
By turning a blind eye to it—the same way AIG executives turned a blind eye to the London office as long as the coffers kept filling up—Selig and Fehr exacerbated the steroid problem.
Let me explain. When I lived in Hoboken, the taxis would line up by the PATH station late at night, for guaranteed fares. Usually, people would form a line, this being the fairest and most efficient way for everyone to get a cab in turn. But there was always some dickbrain who would cut in line, running a block ahead to hail a cab. When too many people did this, it became futile to wait in line. You had to cut the line yourself, or you’d be there all night.
This is what happened with baseball and steroids. So many players were using performance-enhancing substances that eventually, everyone had to use them, or risk being left behind. And being left behind could cost millions of dollars in guaranteed contracts.
The Hoboken PATH station needed velvet ropes and a dispatcher to enforce the line, like they have at Penn Station and the Port Authority in New York. Baseball needed the authorities—Selig and Fehr—to do the same with the steroids policy. But Selig and Fehr were making too much money to blow the whistle. This was exploitation, pure and simple, knowingly exposing players to certain health risks in order to make a buck. To blame A-Rod—or Barry Bonds or Jason Giambi or any other transgressing player—for this is like blaming a toddler for eating too much Halloween candy.
In the end, I abandoned baseball for the same reason I left that other mainstay of my youth, the Catholic Church. While there was much appealing about both—elaborate ritual, cool uniforms, a long and storied history, veneration of that long and storied history at the expense of the present and future, a cast of colorful canonized ex-participants (including Ruth), fixation on the number nine, the prominence of Cardinals—in the end, any enjoyment derived from the participants was negated by my distrust of and dislike for the people in charge.
The love that began on a toilet has been flushed away forever. (Although, if pressed, I will admit to some small sliver of delight that the Red Sox lost…)