The Mitchell Report
released this week on steroid use in baseball offered little new information. We had heard the rumors about--and witnessed the bulging muscles of--Gary Sheffield, Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi before. Lenny Dykstra, one of my favorites, had long ago winked at a reporter and told him "powerful vitamins" helped him morph from scrawny to solid. Still, my heart fell a bit when I read parts of Mitchell's 409-page tome. I had no problems when I had heard that players I disliked or didn't care about had used steroids. But I wasn't too happy to learn some of my childhood heroes might have taken them.
A major source for the investigation was Kirk Radomski, a former ballboy and clubhouse attendant for the New York Mets. Randomski joined the team a year before the Amazins' remarkable run to the 1986 World Series, a year when the team won 108 games and dominated with three 15-win pitchers and some of the most aggressive hitting in major league baseball. More than half the players on the 36-man roster weighed less than 200 pounds, and the highest salary was $2.8 million. (
For comparison, 26 of 40 men on the 2007 Mets weighed more than 200 pounds, and the highest salary paid was $14.5 million.)
Everyone hated the Mets, which made me love them more. In summer 1986 our family moved from New Jersey to Massachusetts, putting us in the eye of the (baseball) storm. At a time when I could barely communicate with my parents--because they "made" us move, because they were adults, because, essentially, they existed--the Mets were our common denominator. Regardless of my mood on any particular day, my defenses fell away when our family met at the television to watch our Mets. The voices of Tim McCarver and Ralph Kiner soothed my adolescent soul, and for nine blissful innings our family found a shared language. My heroes: Gary Carter, Mookie Wilson and Keith Hernandez.
While other teenagers rebelled by smoking weed or drinking and staying out late, I rebelled by wearing my Mets cap to school. My appalled parents worried I would never fit in, but I loved my blue-and-orange hat and how it prompted disgusted looks from my New England peers. I dared them to accept me and, if they didn't, my fandom gave me a reasonable excuse for the rejection. My clearest memory of pure happiness: howling and rising stickily from our leather sofa as a tiny white ball sailed through Bill
Buckner's legs to drive home Ray Knight in the bottom of the 10th of Game 6 of the World Series
. Writing about it, even now, still brings tears to my eyes. (Thanks for the pictures, Sports Encyclopedia.)
Now, I wonder, were these guys on the juice? Was that year the beginning of the end for Darryl Strawberry, whose swing remains the most beautiful I've ever seen? Were brawls with other teams born of competitive spirit or mood swings?
Steroids won't take my memories away from me. They also won't make me stop loving baseball. Like most fans, I've accepted "performance-enhancing drugs" as part of the modern game, and I blame the owners, the union and Major League Baseball for their prevalence, not the players. If any of them really cared about steroids, then we wouldn't have this problem. But as with most things today, making money is more important than the health of people or the "integrity" of the game (which I'm not sure ever existed, anyway). The goverment investigation of steroids in baseball is based on a disengenious premise anyway--that drug use among professional athletes matters in our "war against drugs." Does anyone believe the actions of this small group of wealthy men impact the violence and drug use in our communities? If so, I've got a bridge to sell you.
Much has changed in 21 years, in baseball and in life. I now cheer for my hometown Phils, and I accept that my heroes sometimes look like they just stepped off the World Wrestling Foundation stage. If I had a child, I would warn her against idealizing professional athletes and advise her to model herself after her grandparents and her teachers. But I'd still take her to a baseball game to experience the
same pure joy and excitement I did more than two decades ago. And I'll continue to hope that my heroes today--Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins--won't let me down. I'm crossing my fingers that these guys and a few others still like doing things the old-fashioned way: with grit, determination and training. I paraphrase a favorite quote I read in the Inquirer
from Phils pitcher Ryan Madson: "Who needs steroids? Eat a banana."