Have you ever spoken to an older baseball fan about the game? Take a moment and listen how they speak about the players of “their generation.” The reverence someone who grew up in the 1950’s had for players such as Mickey Mantle, Duke Snider, Willie Mays and Jackie Robinson. Look ahead to the 1970’s and you hear of the beauty of the game played by Mike Schmidt, Reggie Jackson, Joe Morgan and others. That doesn’t even begin to describe how they speak about such legends as Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Roberto Clemente, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. Those were history makers and the general public saw that. I grew up in a neighborhood where my neighbor made it to a big league camp as a pitcher and he talked to me about his competition that spring in Indians camp. He described one player in particular who had “one of the best fastballs he had ever seen.” That man was Bob Feller. He “wisely chose a career in the military” he would tell me; just one of the many examples of stories from the past. That generation was privileged (some) to play against and see these extraordinary baseball players play and knew that when they were finished they would take their place among the other legends in Cooperstown.
There was no doubt. There were no arguments.
I was born in 1984. That year the Tigers were the toast of Baseball and the game was still relatively innocent. I began my interest in the sport in 1989 (coincidentally my first team was the Tigers) and that year would be significant. You see, that year, the Oakland Athletics were the best team in baseball. Led by two young mashers that fascinated the sports world in ways one could never imagine. Those sluggers were Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. At one point in their careers when spoken of they were considered the best players in the world. Their names would have a different significance years later.
In 1990, a young superstar was blossoming before the nations eyes in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. “The Modern Day Clemente” was just one of the many labels placed on this 25-year old left fielder, whose father made a pretty good name in the game of baseball in his own right. Barry Bonds, son of Bobby and godson to Willie Mays, started his prime years by not only making his first All-Star team but also winning the first of seven National League Most Valuable Player awards. He would go on to break the most storied record in American sports history. Yet the American public would have more doubts and questions about his personal dealings than adoration regarding his accomplishments.
Some years before, almost running parallel to the young superstar in Pittsburgh, was a young Texan by the name of Roger Clemens who began his career the year I was born. He started in Boston, where he would lead the Red Sox to the 1986 American League pennant with a Cy Young campaign. He set a record for strikeouts in a game that season with 20 against the Seattle Mariners. Ten years later he duplicated that feat against the Detroit Tigers in his last season in a Red Sox uniform. He would have a career renaissance in Toronto the next season that, in most cases, would seem like a man vindicated in proving the naysayers in Boston wrong for casting him aside like a 33 year old pitcher in decline. Now we look back and wonder if they were they right all along?
Baseball is a game that because of its history is special. Debating and discussing historical topics in baseball is a way of life for fans; whether they are a purist of the game or otherwise. I get envious when I talk to people who saw the greats play because they do it without a hint of doubt that it was done the right way. They speak of Hank Aaron knowing that every one of his 755 home runs cleared ballpark fences aided only by his strong hands and wrists. When they talk about Sandy Koufax and his blistering fastball and knee-shaking curve they know they saw a man who truly gave all that the good lord was willing to grant him until an arthritic condition pushed him out of the game.
This is why we should feel cheated. I’ve spent a long time wondering why these and others deciding to cheat themselves out of honest and productive careers should matter to me. But as time goes on and it comes time for some of those names to be up for consideration for Cooperstown I realize exactly why it should matter. When I talk about some of the legends that have put up record-breaking numbers from my generation there is skepticism. Every time I mention a name from my era I have to preface it with “if he did it clean.” Historians will look at the time when I was a kid growing up watching baseball and point out that our best pitcher and hitter could both miss out on the hall of fame because they cheated. They will look at the modern day single-season home run leaders and scoff at their accomplishments; most notably because one of them at the top of the list has admitted to doing it the wrong way. They will also consider some of them a clog on the hall of fame ballot, keeping honest players from getting their just recognition.
It’s a shame, really.
But I still have players I can look up to. Tony Gwynn was the smartest hitter since Ted Williams and I’m able to debate that confidently. The most cerebral pitcher spent the majority of his career in my home state of Georgia and I feel lucky to have been able to watch Greg Maddux pitch every five days. Of course the two guys that followed him, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, weren’t second fiddles by any stretch. I also can look at Cal Ripken, Jr. and not feel wary. Chipper Jones and Derek Jeter, who are two modern day ambassadors for their leagues, are still putting up numbers, but doing so gracefully with age.
It’s funny how it plays out, life. Looking back again, I began following baseball in 1989, which was the year the Oakland Athletics won the World Series behind those aforementioned mashers. In 1990 the Athletics, led again by McGwire and Canseco, made it to the World Series but were swept by an underdog Cincinnati ball team in a matchup labeled “David vs. Goliath.” A 26-year old future hall of famer who would be inducted in 2012 led that team. His name synonymous with the legends we speak about with such reverence but this time he is a representation of my generation. That player?
You see although we feel cheated, we can still take solace in the fact that clean always wins out in the end. While Barry Larkin was inducted into the hall of fame the others are still pleading their case through court systems and with the writers who vote on such matters. There should be no exceptions, and I don’t believe in such a stipulation as the “steroid era.”
They cheated us out of an opportunity to speak of them as true legends without a hint of doubt. It is only fair they be punished for doing so.