It’s the end of baseball as we know it. Stick a fork in it. This month’s drama with Alex Rodriguez only underscores the futility of trying to make it work the way it once did. If some use more drug enhancements and others less and still others none, and we only find out later in bits and pieces, then it has become more a game of deception and less a physical contest or a team sport.
Old baseball, real baseball was a game of statistics. Duke Snider could never have been on steroids. In five consecutive years, averaging 500 or more at bats each year, he hit 42, 40, 42, 43 and 40 home runs respectively. He was a left handed hitter in a lineup of right handed power that included Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, Carl Furillo, and Jackie Robinson. The Brooklyn Dodgers always batted Snider third in the lineup to make sure he got the most at bats possible for a power hitter.
By the time the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and finally built their stadium in Chavez Ravine they had become a pitching baseball team. At one time they fielded a pitching rotation of five twenty game winners in a starting lineup, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Tommy Johns, Claude Osteen and Don Sutton.
Their lead home run hitter in 1966 was Ron Fairly who hit only 14. I saw one of those rare events at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Later that year, in the same park, I saw Sandy Koufax and Dick Ellsworth pitch nine innings of shutout ball. Both men were lifted in the ninth inning and neither one got credit for the win.
The large expanses of Chavez Ravine purposely allowed plenty of room behind the plate to catch pop ups. Even the powerful Frank Howard, who was biologically engineered to hit home runs, only managed one big year with 31. Later, when he got was traded to the Washington Senators and a friendlier ball park he would hit forty or more home runs three years in a row.
After Duke Snider won the National League home run crown in 1956, it would take 98 years for another Dodger to do it again, when Adrian Beltre would hit 48 but by then the modern age of steroid in sports was upon us. Beltre would hit only 19 home runs the next year and in sixteen seasons he would never hit 40 or more home runs again.
In 2000 a talented Dodger outfielder named Shawn Green hit 24 home runs in 610 at bats. The next year he hit 49 in 619 at bats. It set all Dodger records. It blew Duke Snider, who as a left hander in a power hitting right handed lineup in the tiny Ebbets Field where the right field grandstands were only 257 feet away, out of the water. For one golden year, inexplicably, he accomplished what no other Dodger had done since their beginning in 1884. No one looked at Green’s spectacular year too closely. We didn’t want to know. But it’s hard to talk about Shawn Green and Duke Snider in the same sentence. Baseball statistics are now meaningless. And baseball without statistics, well, it is not the same game.
The game has changed. No one had to wonder if Ron Fairly was on steroids.
It’s not just the players that are on steroids. It’s the game itself. And it is driven by the fans. I thought this steroid age would spell the end of baseball. The crowds would stay home, the television audiences would diminish, but it hasn’t. It has evolved into some new kind of creature. You don’t have to wait for hours to see the home run or even the triple play. The waiting is all done for you and the finished product is shown in brief, exciting snippets, the whole day of events in the major leagues reduced to one half hour segments of video augmented by commentary and commercials.
Baseball has become like genetically altered food. It still looks and tastes the same, even better, but there is something creepy about eating chicken that comes to restaurant in tubes of pink dough looking substances or eating corn that isn’t corn and eating ice cream that is.
Most young boys no longer play the game, unless electronically. But the ones who do are well trained and groomed to perfection in little leagues, graduating upward. In some respects they are better, more polished players than the kids who fought their way up from the sandlots and the back yard games of earlier generations. It is still fun. But it is not a game. It is a career track. And the people who become the stars cheat to get there.
So what do they get? For a time, if they are really good at cheating, they get money, a few years of adulation. Then comes condemnation and in some cases an early death. What do we get? Like fast food, we get fast home runs. We don’t have to wait. Baseball is no longer the nation’s favorite pastime. It has become something different.