Although the Cubs had taken the Division Title in 2003 and their pitching staff had an average age of 26, there were signs of a greater fall on the horizon: it was the beginning of the End of the Era of the Giants of Baseball that began in the late ’90s. If anyone was alive in the summer of 1998, they were tuning in to ESPN everyday to watch the Great Home Run Chase. Almost by the hour, we were checking to see if Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa had gone yard. The two of them traded blows and battled it out on the field to break Roger Maris’ record for home runs in a 162-game season. It was spectacular and the chase revitalized the game and brought in new fans, avid to see history in the making.
It seemed like it was more than just a game: these baseball players seemed to represent all that was good and true in us and in the sport. It harked back to Jackie Robinson’s breaking the color barrier and Sandy Koufax’s refusal to pitch on Yom Kippur. The St. Louis slugger had created a foundation to fight child abuse and neglect, and Sosa, a Dominican immigrant that grew up poor, vindicated the idea that America was a land of dreams. When asked how the game had affected his life, a smiling Sosa responded, “Baseball been very, very good to me.”
We were in awe. I recall watching Sosa at bat near the end of the season. WGN flashed his batting average, home runs and runs batted in, and I could barely believe my eyes. Not one, but two ballplayers had over 60 home runs in a season. This was a new era for baseball. Up until this point, a solid season for a slugger was 30 to 40 round trippers; fifty was exceptional. With Sosa and McGwire the record had been shattered and the legends of the past were in ruins.
But something about it seemed staged or artificial, as if Major League Baseball had planned the greatest publicity stunt of all time. In retrospect, we should have seen it: the league had stamped numbers on the game balls so that once the record had been broken, they could be sure that the relics of the new religion were authentic. The whole thing reeked of a Vatican conspiracy.
The record-breaking night occurred in St. Louis when the Cardinals faced the Cubs. In the stands were Roger Maris’ widow and sons, one of which looked remarkably like his father. They were all brought in to witness history in the making, as if they had to provide testimony of the fall of one giant and the rise of another. When McGwire finally lined one of Steve Traschel’s pitches over the left field wall at Old Busch Stadium the game came to a standstill: fireworks echoed and lit up the sky by the Arch, McGwire met his son as he crossed home plate; Cardinal players mobbed the field; Sosa came in from right field to congratulate his adversary; St. Louis management drove a new car onto the field in recognition of the slugger; and, McGwire walked into the stands to hug Maris’ weeping sons. Something was wrong, very wrong.
These giants were still in place when the Cubs almost made it to the World Series in 2003. However, there were indications that all was not well in Mudville. After spending time on the disabled list for an ingrown toenail, umpires ejected Sosa from the game when they discovered that he had been using a corked bat. Also, rumors began to circulate that not everyone in the club house enjoyed listening to his salsa music played at full blast. After the 2003 season, it became widely known that Sosa had tested positive for steroid use. A simple comparison of photos of Sosa in his rookie year with those of his heyday with Chicago indicate an alarming growth of muscle. His body had bulked up so much that a sneeze caused back spasms and landed him on the disabled list. By the end of the 2004, his relationship with the Cubs had deteriorated to the point that he abandoned his teammates during the final game of the season. The Sosa Era had come to a painful end.
This time the loss was greater. I had already lost my faith in the proverbial “Next Year”; now I was losing my faith in game and all of its meaning. After Jose Canseco’s tell-all book came out the situation was so bad that politicians weighed in on the scandal. First it was George Bush, the Child President, the one who made millions in baseball by hoodwinking the city of Arlington into buying a new stadium. This all came while the country was deeply embroiled in a never-ending war in the Middle East, Bush called for a crackdown on steroids in his 2004 State of the Union address.
While security forces conducted black ops and torture in Iraq, congressmen, dragged Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Jose Canseco up to testify before the House subcommittee on steroids. Baseball became the convenient problem, the one politicians preferred to have. They acted as if they’d just found out that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny didn’t exist. Where had they been living for the past fifty years? Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle were alcoholics, Shoeless Joe Jackson took payoffs, Ty Cobb was a racist, Pete Rose was a gambler and speed freak, Keith Hernandez was a coke fiend, and Barry Bonds took baths in steroids. Illicit and licit drugs saturate our society and these idiot politicians pretended to tell the world that these men had let America’s youth down: more deception on top of the deception.
Doug Glanville, former outfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago Cubs, wrote and article that appeared in the Sunday New York Times and commented the recent discovery that San Francisco outfielder Melky Cabrera had tested positive for illegal performance enhancers. As a former professional baseball player, Glanville is convinced that baseball is much more than just a game. Although he doesn’t state it directly, he considers baseball as a symbol of our national culture and hopes that the scandal will not cause us to lose faith in the game. If Glanville is right, and I think he is, our national culture is in worse shape than he allows himself to believe.
In retrospect, what did we expect? Did we think that our urge to win at any cost wasn’t going to have consequences? Did we think that these men were above cheating? Did we let our need for heroes blind us to the reality that was standing right in front of us? Our summertime ballplayers, who at one time depended on speed, strength and agility to take the field, had become as muscle-bound drug freaks as monstrous as any body builder. Why didn’t we see it? Was it because of the ubiquity of greed in our society or was it because we needed to believe in heroes to cover up our disbelief in hard work and ability? When it was all over and done, the giants fell, our heroes turned out to have more failings and frailties than the average Joe and the real tragedy has been that the average Joe, the one who went out to tried to teach his sons and daughters the values of hard work, fair play, and ability somehow got lost in the shuffle.
Cross-posted at My Ongoing Struggle with Misanthropy: http://jimmygabacho.com/?p=860