Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Next Year is Here

It is opening day for baseball, annual symbol of renewal. Winter is over, spring is here, we’re born again and there’s new grass on the field. This perspective is a legacy carefully handed down to me by my father. Last season brought me something he never got to see: a White Sox’s World Series championship. All post-season long I waited for those south-siders to collapse and return to the mire. Instead they rattled off a clean sweep against the Houston Astros. You’ve gotta love it.

You love it unless, of course, you’re from Houston. Who outside of Houston could love the Astros anyway? They play in that terrible stadium, Minute Maid Park, known affectionately as The Juice Box. It is indeed a boxy structure, large and metallic, built into the side of an old railway station, complete with a hill and flagpole jutting out of center field, and a crazy home run line scrawled along the left field wall. I hate the stadium and by extension it adds to my disdain for the Astros. Words cannot describe the joy I felt when Albert Pujols rang one off the back wall of the stadium, above those goofy train tracks, off of a Brad Lidge slider, to give the St. Louis Cardinals new life in the National League Championship Series. The Cards lost two games later and the Astros went on to meet the White Sox in the World Series. The rest is history. The Sox broke their 88 year old curse by felling the history-plagued Astros.

That is baseball.

This year Barry Bonds will attempt to pass Babe Ruth on the all-time home run list. He only needs seven more to break it. If he mounts a typical year he may even pass Hank Aaron and become the greatest home run hitter of all time. Unfortunately the source of his amazing late career power is now under considerable scrutiny thanks to the book “Game of Shadows” which closely chronicles Bond’s alleged usage of steroid and other enhancing drugs.

This too is baseball.

Ever since Jose Canseco’s tell-all book on illegal drug use in baseball, and Congress’s investigation, and Mark McGuire’s shameful “testimony” and Rafael Palmero’s 180 degree turn from hall of fane shoe-in to failed steroid test holder, baseball has been forced to cope with the method for its own recent success. People clamored to see more and more home runs, and what they got was a bunch of cheaters. For too long baseball turned a blind eye and ignored obvious questions because the game’s attendance was swelling, even if its pride was being compromised.
But, that is the beauty of spring, isn’t it? The cold winter gets washed away, rain brings green grass, and everything has a chance to start over. I have a strange suspicion that baseball will have no trouble moving out from under the shadow of steroid use. The game will benefit by being purer, faster, and smarter. If the World Baseball Classic has taught us anything it is that solid fundamentals are both more enjoyable to watch, and more successful, than bland powerball.

And so, here we go, the 2006 baseball season. The young, pure hitters are already ringing the opening bell. Albert Pujols hit two home runs opening day, Alex Rodriguez hit a grand slam. It’s a new year, and a younger player’s game.

Last year the White Sox won the World Series with defense (Joe Crede), speed and clutch hitting (Scott Podsednik) strong starting pitching (all four aces), relief pitching (Bobby Jenks) and some long-ball (Paul Konerko). It was a throwback to a more sincere and capable era. Home runs are just one part of the game. But when baseball is played on every facet, as Japan did in the World Baseball Classic, as the White Sox did last fall, it is a thing of beauty.

I will cheer the Sox on again this year, as an old childhood friend. I will cheer for the Cubbies too, because my mom loved the Cubs and they need a World Series title. And I will cheer for the Cardinals, the way I support an old college roommate. St. Louis was the start of wonderful things for me, and so they are also my team. I’m glad to have them all back for another year. Maybe there's even enough room in this big heart of mine for the Astros.


Play ball!

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