Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Our Nation's Pastime

Lately, I've played and watched a lot of golf, and it's probably the sport I know the most about. And when the fall rolls around, I love to spend my Saturday's with friends watching the games -- especially when my beloved Crimson Tide is involved. But when it comes to my favorite sport? I'd have to say it's baseball.

For my money, there is nothing more exciting than a meaningful baseball game. Whether it's Sox/Yanks, a great matchup between two starting pitchers (like Santana vs. Schilling last week), or October playoff baseball -- a meaningful baseball game is the most exciting sporting event to me. Some people say it's playoff basketball -- the NBA Finals or March Madness. Other people say it's football, hands down. But for me, it's baseball.

Each one-on-one battle between pitcher & batter captivates me. And whenever runners reach base, the strategy of stealing, hitting & running, or bringing in relievers just heaps on more drama. And this drama builds and builds until the decisive 9th inning. And even if no decision is reached by then, you have the edge-of-your-seat, sudden death drama of extra innings baseball. I just love it.

And so when it comes down to it, I don't quite agree with all the rage over the use of performance-enhancing substances in professional athletics. It doesn't affect the pace or flow of the game. It doesn't affect the integrity of how the game's rules are enforced. What's the big deal? As Chris Rock said some time ago, if there was a pill you could take that would make you better at your job, wouldn't you take it?

What people get their panties in a wod about is the records. "Bonds got his homers with steroids & HGH; Babe Ruth did it with beer & hot dogs." And guess what -- Ruth never faced a pitcher who was African-American or Latino! Listen. Babe Ruth was & will always be the greatest baseball player of all time. He was the best left-handed pitcher of his day who became an unbelievable slugger. When he first set the single-season homerun record, he shattered by over 30 swats. When he broke the all-time homerun mark, it wasn't even 200. And to this day, he still has as many career shutouts as Pedro Martinez. He was a phenomenon, and there will never be like him ever again.

Performance-enhancing substances are now a part of the game. The "Steroid Era" of baseball will have no end, so long as the people who make the designer drugs are making more money than the people who are coming up with tests for these drugs. And it's not simply baseball -- look at the beheamoths who suit up on Sunday's in the fall. Baseball is simply held to a higher standard because, for all the overgrown Peter Pan's out there, it is the sport where the numbers still mean something. And when Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays falls yet another rung on the homerun totem pole, these overgrown child-fans take it as a personal insult. It's as if one of these steroid-users has squatted and taken a dump right in the middle of their living room. And that's what baseball fans are really upset about: that the records of their boyhood idols have been poo-poo'ed on.

The real tragedy of these drugs are the athletes themselves. There are so many true-life cautionary tales of what happens to the athletes who used these substances. Lyle Alzedo is the poster child for how steroids can ruin your life. Whenever I see blurbs on about another former NFL lineman or WWF wrestling star dead in their 40's or 50's, I shake my head. We should be pitying Bonds, not throwing syringes at him. We should feel sorry that this guy is literally laying his body on the altar of athletics and forsaking years of future health in the process.

Whenever I hear other fans bemoan how the game isn't "clean" anymore & whine about how someone's numbers are "unnatural," I want to scream. It's part of the game now, a game that continues to evolve through the years & yet remain remarkably the same. A game that absorbs changes like the relief pitcher and designated hitter, & yet it's a game that remains amazingly entertaining. Our nation's pastime is just fine. If you want to get upset -- be upset for the athletes who use the drugs and for the families they leave behind. Because that's the real tragedy that remains largely untold. It's the tragedy of how our culture's demand for athletic excellence has robbed so many of their quality of life.

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