Friday, August 6, 2010

Our Best Defense

I remember as a little boy watching Henry Aaron hit his 715th home run, which he did against Al Downing and the Los Angeles Dodgers while he was a member of the Atlanta Braves. Admittedly, when that event occurred on April 8, 1974, being all of seven years old I knew scant little about Hammerin' Hank. I knew as little - or perhaps even less - about the man whose record he eclipsed. At age seven I knew significantly more about Baby Ruth than I did about Babe Ruth. Even so, I understood that I was watching history. All these years later, I can still see the image of Aaron circling the bases.

A lot has happened in the two or three lifetimes lived between being a boy of seven and a man of forty-three. Earlier this week Alex Rodriguez of the Yankees hit the 600th home run of his career and in the process (at least I believe I am right about this) became the youngest man ever to do so. I mean not to pooh-pooh Rodriguez's milestone, which unfortunately hung around his neck like a millstone in the 2 1/2 years that passed between his 599th and his 600th. I kid of course (it was closer to two weeks I think) but the way it was covered in the media it probably felt to A-Rod as if it had taken years to take that "one more" home run.

While I am a Yankees fan, I feel no great affinity towards Rodriguez. He is an immensely talented man and seems pleasant enough at arm's length but he is just not a player I have ever warmed to very much. A fair amount of comment passed in the media as he both closed in on and (eventually) achieved the mark regarding Rodriguez's admission last year to having used steroids at some point earlier in his career. Regardless of how much 'juice' he took and when he took it, his accomplishment is not insignificant. 600 home runs is, well, it is a heck of a lot of home runs. I have never hit an 'over the fence' home run in my life. Not even in batting practice. Not even when - a couple of summers ago our normal field for softball practice was being used for a crafts show - we ended up practicing on a Nutley Little League field. You want to know humbling? Discover as an adult hitter on a field built for 11/12 year old children that you only have warning track power. Forget humbling. That was humiliating.

In defense of Rodriguez (not that he either solicited or requires my help), not all of the active participants in the steroid era were hitters. Andy Pettitte, long a beloved member of the Yankees starting rotation and the starter and winner of Game Six in the Aught-Nine World Series, has admitted his use of "performance enhancing drugs" as well. Rodriguez - unlike the cheese - does not stand alone.

My lack of enthusiasm with regard to this particular achievement has its genesis not in any dislike of Rodriguez. Rather, its source is found in the diluted, substantially reduced and still-evaporating pool of innocence that I once possessed for things such as baseball. The problem with the, "Well everyone was doing it" defense is not that its logic is inherently flawed (it is not) but that it is soulless. It offers the violator a way to acknowledge the act without acknowledging the consequences arising from it like a wellspring. And I do not mean simply consequences such as suspension from the sport, monetary fines and perhaps (in the case of the true practitioners of self-denial such as Messrs. Bonds and Clemens) Federal prison. I am speaking of a consequence such as the deadening of the soul of a portion of the pool of people who consider ourselves to be a fan of the sport. For fans below a certain age, the "PED" era of baseball was the first era of baseball viewed live and as it happened.

For me, old enough to have seen Aaron nose past Ruth and still young enough to remember it and to place that memory into some sort of personal historical context, perhaps I have seen too much. Perhaps I have learned too much. An effect of life in the information age is that we know too much, too soon and too often.....whether we want to or not. Today, not only would Dorothy have known the Wizard was a fraud long before she and her tres amigos embarked on their gold-brick path to the Emerald City, everyone everywhere would have known regardless of whether they knew where Oz was located or who the Wizard was. There is a price to be paid for too much information.

Life in the first full decade of the 21st Century revealed for all to see that frogs are not the only creatures we can now view warts and all. The price paid for knowing too much all of the time? Maybe nothing more or less than the loss of the sense of wonder. The sense that something is perhaps a little special or even magical perhaps. Is what Rodriguez has just accomplished "tainted" but what he has admitted doing in the past? To me, tainted is too strong a word but it certainly feels downsized or reduced in significance in some degree. And maybe its diminution has less to do with what we know about A-Rod than what we know about everyone, all of the time. Familiarity breeds contempt. And it also breeds apathy. For me at least this week, it felt as if this "history making moment" took place at the point of intersection of those two emotions.

An intersection located just up the road a piece from innocence's end. You will know when you get there........if you are not there already.


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