While sitting with my teacher friend Dale, the subject of great baseball players is always bound to come. He’s in his early forties and I’m in my late thirties, so it wouldn’t be wrong to think that we would tend to reflect on the 1970s and 1980s as the glory days of baseball, but for the most part, you would be wrong since the greatest games for us were the ones that we weren’t even alive to see. In no small part, we owe a mega burst of gratitude to Ken Burns for his contributions to the history of baseball because it’s clear to see that Major League Baseball has no respect for the history of its game unless it’s for its fan to buy the latest current slab of what happened this year as a DVD at the end of the season.
If they had any foresight at all, they would instead be focusing on the ability to post lots of historic video of the past online for all generations to see. The fact that any time anything really cool happens, let’s say Jacoby Ellsbury stealing home off of Andy Pettite two years ago, it’s up for a day or so on Youtube and then the backwards thinking bastards that be choose to have it pulled down out of copy right protection concerns. Now, I’m not saying that it has to stay on Youtube, but couldn’t MLB start a pay per view library service so that any time I want to watch something great happen, say watching Albert Pujols jack a Brad Lidge pitch into the wall of Minute Maid Park to keep the Cardinals alive for one more game, I can salivate over the memories of the past?
However, this is impossible, and other than the history of baseball up until 1990, I can’t watch any of the real great players of history focused upon. Thus, to dream about Brooks Robinson throwing deep to first from deep in the corner, I have to go to the third greatest gift that my wife ever gave me, and watch the celluloid footage of that World Series game to see what the heroes of the past were truly like. What will the kids of today have to do in order to watch Dustin Pedroia and Matt Holliday star for the Red Sox and Cardinals? How will these youngsters know why Adrian Gonzalez is or isn’t worth mortgaging the future for in an offseason trade that is supposed to tip the balance of all things?
Simply, they won’t - at least until ESPN or MLBTV say it's so OVER and OVER and OVER again.
And for the same reason that MLB has no concern for its history, we won’t know how “great” the steroids era players were because it’s easy to say that the media was duped into reporting how great they were to make up for the fact that baseball went on strike and killed the World Series in 1994, and their apologies are word enough for the rest of the impressionable youngsters of today to throw away their parents’ baseball card collections, but to still retain hopes in the present - especially that somehow Whiff King Ryan Howard isn’t tainted, and even though Alex Rodriguez is slightly dented, his “apology” and “great play” in the 2009 World Series makes up for everything – unlike Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire who will forever wear their scarlet letters for eternity and then some.
However, for those people willing to look back on baseball history, they would see that Major League Baseball did memorialize Race for the Record on VHS, which is still available for $1.99 on E-bay. Nevertheless, I have my copy and have cherished it since the fall of 1998 when it first came out. I don’t make apologies for owning it. Mark McGwire was and still is my favorite player of all time. Steroids or not, the summer of 1998 was a magical moment that made me who I am. For that, it’s as important to a baseball story in 2011 as it was to a baseball story in that magical summer of a dozen years ago.
And while I liked other players from that time period when I was younger and more concerned about this sport than anything around me, I find the moments of that season to be almost (but not quite) as special as the moments of my marriage and courtship, which took place over the last few years. In that, there was a day that I would have went into a winter of depression having seen the Yankees win, but frankly, I didn’t feel more than a slight sting for what had transpired against Philadelphia’s weak pitching staff (sorry Cliff Lee and game 2 Pedro, you tried) and sorry ass strikeout king (sorry Chase Utley, at least you tried unlike your counterpart) because of the perspective that I have for where my life is with my beautiful wife besides me.
And it's great to have Tim Lincecum take down Cliff Lee, but it's not the same as spending vacations and time in general with my wife. Five years ago, that would have been something, but now there is adult and the memories of the great games of youth that still drive me back to the game for a well-placed second place in my life.
So before this gets all soppy, I should get back to baseball, and say that like Dale, I find it hard to find interest in players the same way that I did when I was younger. Maybe it’s being married and redoing a house and contemplating children and the Arizona / Utah border vacation that I want to get back to for some summer week that keeps me from thinking of some of these players in the way that I did when I was younger, but in part, I don’t find them as magical. Their interviews are generic. The plays were done better by other players in the past, and I’m not ready to believe in anyone new, other than Albert Pujols and Ichiro Suzuki in the way that I once believed in Ryne Sandberg, Paul Molitor, Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, and David Ortiz. The play of the past few years and the less than believability that is associated with Dominican birth certificates has come to take its toll on me. For that, this blog is an exercise to getting back to the great players of the past and comparing their deeds to those of the current crop of players that seems to be changing incredibly from what it was even five years ago. Will Tim Lincecum and Jon Lester become the next Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Bob Gibson, Sandy Koufax, or Bob Feller? One can only hope.
As the Ramones sang about their own existential void, probably not the one that wonders if Joe Mauer will ever be the next Josh Gibson and which anonymous rookie could be the next Roger Maris, Honus Wagner, Satchell Paige, or Ted Williams, but the wonder about another time where it feels as good as the magical moments of the past, “Nothing makes any sense, but I still try my hardest. Take my hand. Please help me man. 'Cause I'm looking for something to believe in.”
And for that, I leave you with the words from Eureka, Nevada, my unfinished first novel:
"I woke up and walked to the newspaper, looking at the Sunday sports headlines that said that Mark Mcgwire had been thrown out for disputing a called third strike the day before. The fans were irate and with good cause. The call was rotten and just like the media who were doing there best to put a damper on Big Mac’s quest for 62, the umpires weren’t cutting him any slack either.
Mcgwire’s angst was justifiable. He had been forced to endure the what he did, what he didn’t do and the will he break the record as he stood out as the sole highlight on a horrible St. Louis team. All the while, Sammy Sosa was hitting his homeruns, deferring the questions to Mcgwire and watching his Cubs fight for the division title.
I was tired of the drive. I was tired of the wait. I wanted to be in St. Louis, and that was where I was heading at the moment. I packed up and was off, though I found out that it was an evening game rather than a day game, so I would be driving in slower than I thought that I would be.
If only I was a little farther down the road, then life now would make more sense. At that moment it was all just a highway that took me to St. Louis, a game that would change my life, a perfect moment filled with more positive emotional content than an entire yearlong relationship would leave me. I was destined to be in St. Louis that evening, but first I was off to Mark Twain Lake and museum, which was somewhere in the empty middle of Missouri’s rolling forest land. I walked around, admired the sights, and thought of baseball. I was killing time.
A few hours later, I was at the game. I parked the car and ran up towards Busch Stadium and a sea of red shirts and signs.
“Go Mark Go.”
“Make it a great 1998.”
Even before I got to the game, there were signs such as the Billboard above Highway 70 that listed Mcgwire’s homerun total at the moment. St. Louis was alive with Mcgwire at the moment. The Braves, despite their perennial power in the East Divison of the National League were in town, but their fans were non-existent. This was St. Louis, home of the Cardinals and a special place that was filled with something that couldn’t be described, but rather could be felt in some special way, through some special sense. We were all a part of it and as I walked inside of the Mecca that was Busch Stadium, I knew I was in the presence of something.
Realizing the game was on ESPN that evening, I called my dad, begged him to tape it, and we talked about the trip, the Cardinals and what I was going to do after the game was over. It was a whirlwind of explanations, but only one mattered – get the game on video. I hung up, read my program and waited to watch the game.
From the stadium, you could see the St. Louis skyline. Several hotels and the great Arch line the Mississippi river, which lies off in the distance from Left Field. I took several photos, watched batting practice, and then the Star Spangled Banner played as 44,000 fans took to their feet in a mix of patriotism and a feeling that everything was right again with the national pastime after a horrible strike took out the 1994 season and World Series.
Today, the Cardinals were taking on Kevin Millwood, a hot young pitcher who was bolstered by a strong Atlanta offense that saw 2 homeruns by Andres Galarraga bring their team out to an early lead. I was dejected and angry, but still I watched, un-swayed by the lead that had arisen, and crossed my fingers and prayed to the Baseball God that everything would be made right in the universe.
On Mcgwire’s first at bat, he walked. The second at bat was a single, keeping his day perfect, and then came a double in the third plate appearance. Big Mac was 2 for 2.
When Mark Mcgwire stepped to the plate in the 7th inning, the sky was dark and the flashbulbs exploded as the crowd got to their feet to signal that now was the time. There were 2 men on and the cards were down 7-5. Millwood had been removed, and Dennis Martinez, one of the most dominant Latino pitchers of the time stepped to the mound knowing that he had never let up a hit to the man. His fate was sealed with that announcement on the Busch scoreboard.
After this, the at bat is a haze. I don’t remember what happened prior to it, but Martinez threw, Mcgwire swung and took the ball deep. I was on my feet as was everyone else and we were willing it to go. I didn’t want to believe it would go because it was hit long, since I wasn’t one of those people who ooh at every single long fly ball to centerfield. I was silent in that all of my energy was in my stomach, bottled down, unable to come up, I was breathless and I was focused on that moment, when the ball cleared the fence and I was still silent as I stopped to gather in the fact that my boy had launched a 501-foot blast off of Dennis Martinez to straight away centerfield. This 3 run shot, number 55 on his quest to 70 for the year, a mark that would shatter Roger Maris’ 37 year old record, left ever single one of the 44,051 fans on their feet.
Everything came out and I was screaming in complete jubilation at the moment. For lack of a better word though my mom would understand, it felt orgasmic. It felt like an eternity that the fans cheered and screamed, jumped up and down, gave high fives to each other and hugged. And there I was, hugging and cheering and high fiving strangers as I stood in the magic of a moment that was meant to last for an eternity, but vanished beneath a cloud of sorrow as even this mighty record was forced to give way to another. Yet at that moment, Barry Bonds didn’t matter, since every time I think of that laser beam, I think of my goose bumps and how I wasn’t sure if it was gone, but it was. It was a culmination of a summer spent rooting for heroes, questing for gold and finding it just as Mark did. The tragedies of Roger Maris and my later years wouldn’t and didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except being there in the middle of section 240 and the post-game fireworks as all of the fans scuttled down to the parking lot and drove out, knowing full well that we would be unable to sleep. This was one of those moments in time, and for me, it was so much more.
It was and is the greatest moment of my life, a culmination of a summer, a trip across America in search of all that was and could be, and it was America to me on that late August night."