Page last updated at 14:22 GMT, Friday, 14 December 2007

Baseball's field of bad dreams

By Mike Carlson
US sports analyst

"Say it ain't so, Joe," was the apocryphal cry of the kid who couldn't believe Shoeless Joe Jackson would take money to throw the 1919 World Series.

Roger Clemens
Roger Clemens' denial of steroid abuse was issued by his lawyer
Say it ain't so, Barry, Roger, Andy, Miguel, Chuck, and so on ad almost infinitum is today's equivalent, but it's coming from the mouths of adults.

Football may be America's biggest sport, but baseball remains its national pastime, and nothing reminds us of that so much as the hand-wringing response to the Mitchell report, whose comprehensive tally of abusers of performance-enhancing drugs shines a spotlight on new names, but hardly on anything that the American public didn't already know.

Baseball will survive this scandal, because it's a great game, one that still represents America as it should be, if not is.


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So why are so many Americans, including me, disappointed in Senator Mitchell's revelations?

We don't wail about the Olympics just because Marion Jones is the latest scammer to have her medals removed.

We don't tune away from the NFL or college football, even though we know how the average lineman's weight has gone from 250lb to 300lb (136kg) in two generations.

Wrestlemania still sells out, while pro-wrestlers drop like flies from steroid and other drug-related problems. Those are all today's realities.

But Americans still hold baseball to a higher standard.

Home run explosion

This is partly because the broad church of baseball includes the most comprehensive and finely detailed statistical record of any sport in history; indeed, few areas of human endeavour are so well-documented with numbers.

The home run explosion of the past decade has thrown some of baseball's most sacred numbers out of whack, and learning that this has been helped by steroid-aided muscles is like learning that Moses' burning bush was a gas-effect fireplace.

Barry Bonds
Roger Clemens
Eric Gagne
Jason Giambi
David Justice
Chuck Knoblauch
Andy Pettitte
Gary Sheffield
Miguel Tejada

But it is also because baseball remains coloured, permanently, in the rosy-hued glow of childhood - the childhood shared by most sports editors and baseball writers: the 1950s.

Baseball's revival came when baby-boomers wanted to rediscover a sense of innocence: a phenomenon best-described when the same thing happened to British soccer a few years later, and Nick Hornby wrote Fever Pitch.

Baseball is the sport everyone can play: you don't have to be freakishly tall, like basketball, or huge like football, or be able to skate, like hockey.

You can be as fat as Babe Ruth, as short as Albie Pearson, as unathletic-looking as Yogi Berra, and still be a baseball star. Our childhood dreams were built on this.

We knew baseball players weren't angels. Jim Bouton's diary of the 1969 season, Ball Four, told us Mickey Mantle took "greenies" (amphetamines) to get up for games after spending nights on the town.

We didn't mind huge chaws of tobacco protruding from their cheeks, which helped keep them awake through a long day's double-header.

They were average working Joes, just like our fathers, and not making all that much more money than our dads either.

They were sportsmen, happy to ply their trade because it was better than working in the factory or on a farm.

Hair-loss and voice-change

Today, they are entertainers, paid their huge salaries but held to a double standard.

Babe Ruth
Babe Ruth was pushed into third place by Barry Bonds

Do we stop watching Robert Redford or Barbara Walters or Jane Fonda just because they had cosmetic surgery? We didn't boycott Stallone or Schwarzenegger movies when they did steroids.

We even understand this dynamic instinctively for other sportsmen. They can earn huge money, they will do what it takes to play well enough to get it. Just not in baseball.

When I worked in baseball, in the early 90s, the idea that you could build your body and become a better hitter or pitcher was still a relatively new idea.

Muscle mass would cost you flexibility, "the book" said, though the book was already being proven wrong.

We knew some players were using steroids - they'd suffered "roid rage" that ruined their personal lives, displayed the tell-tale acne, hair-loss, or voice-change I knew from covering track and field in the previous decade.

Of course hearsay and observation are one thing, proof - in the absence of efficient testing - is another matter entirely, and it is behind that shield of inefficiency that athletes have cowered.

Perhaps it's the sight of our sporting heroes in effect "taking the fifth amendment" (staying silent), that hurts the most.

Roger Clemens' denials of steroid abuse were issued by his lawyer. I wonder if Mickey Mantle even had a lawyer?

Mike Carlson will be the analyst for BBC television's coverage of the Super Bowl, and presents the NFL on Channel Five. He worked in Europe for Major League Baseball International and ABC Sports, and has been a baseball analyst for Screensport, NBC Superchannel, Channel Five, and Sky Sports.

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