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Play Ball

By Russ Smith | Posted 3/30/2005

You’d think there were enough morality lectures in the media and in government these days without sportswriters getting into the act. A couple of weeks have passed since the embarrassing Congressional hearings on the use of steroids in baseball, an exercise that accomplished almost nothing aside from allowing elected officials to avoid more serious issues. As the MLB season begins, the sports pages are crammed with opinions about whether Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds deserve a spot in the Hall of Fame.

Gary Smith wrote a story on the controversy for the March 28 issue of Sports Illustrated and agonized at great length over the “fraud” perpetuated by McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998, the summer that supposedly saved the game from the players’ strike four years earlier. “What will we do, each of us,” Smith asks, “now that we know?” As a fan who wasn’t invested in the Big Mac-Slammin’ Sammy homer derby in ’98, I know what I’ll do: Eagerly anticipate seeing the Red Sox and Yankees on ESPN on April 3 and then the Orioles opener the following day.

Yes, the abuse of steroids is bad, particularly for hero-worshipping young athletes trying to get an artificial boost, and MLB’s management and union should’ve dealt with the problem a decade ago. But I don’t understand all the fuss from statistics-obsessed columnists debating over whether the records set by McGwire and, in particular, Bonds, should “count.” Bonds, potentially in a heap of trouble from the IRS, said last week that a faulty knee might sideline him this season, a whopper that’s as big as his head, but I’m betting he’s back in front of sell-out crowds by mid-July. He might be a creep, but I can’t think of a player more electrifying in the past 10 years, perhaps with the exception of Pedro Martinez in his prime.

One journalist who bucked the worrywart posture this spring was the Boston Herald’s Michael Gee, who wrote on March 25, “Baseball never has a level field. Artificial outside influences always affect the numbers. Look at [Fenway Park’s] Green Monster, or the team ERA of the Colorado Rockies. Drug testing won’t end the homer boom. Throwing strikes might.”

Now, can we talk baseball, a team sport, as so many of the cognoscenti have seemed to forget? For example, had the Orioles astonished not only Baltimore but fans across the country with their 1966 World Series victory over the Dodgers, would Frank Robinson’s triple-crown achievement that year be remembered with such joy?

It was reported by The Sun last week that O’s 2005 ticket sales are down 12 percent compared to a year ago. Big surprise, given owner Peter Angelos’ preference to battle in the courtroom rather than in Camden Yards. Nevertheless, as I queried Orioles die-hards last week, despite the recent skein of losing seasons hope abounds. And there was nary a mention of Bonds or McGwire. I’m a lifelong Bo Sox fan, but I can’t think of anything more exciting than the O’s actually competing with Boston and New York for the American League East division title (or the wild-card spot). Ticket sales would swell and even Angelos might not waste so much time bitching about the Washington Nationals.

I’m skeptical, but both behemoths to the north have rosters filled with creaky, injury-prone men, and one of those teams could nosedive in spectacular fashion. Naturally, I hope it’s the Yankees, and if Randy Johnson, Hideki Matsui, and Derek Jeter wind up on the disabled list by Memorial Day, they won’t be receiving sympathy cards from my address. As for the Sox, a season-ending injury to David Ortiz or Manny Ramirez, not to mention Curt Schilling, could kill the team’s chances for the playoffs.

One buddy is particularly enthusiastic, figuring that Daniel Cabrera, Eric Bedard, and Rodrigo Lopez might, bolstered by a terrific offense, make the Orioles a legitimate contender for not only a reversal of sub-.500 seasons but a breakout year as well. It would take a confluence of career years by Baltimore players, but unless you live in Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, or Kansas City, who can’t be optimistic about their team’s chances in 2005?

As for Sidney Ponson, a poor man’s David Wells, I think he might be angry enough about the local media’s lectures on his off-season altercations that he’ll have a great season. The Sun’s John Eisenberg, on March 26, was a real alarmist, suggesting that Ponson “needs third-party intervention to help him deal with alcohol.” Demanding that the arguably self-destructive pitcher be sent to detox as the season begins would be typical of the cautious Mike Flanagan/Jim Beattie style of management. Maybe he needs help, maybe not, but the time for that was after his Aruba fracas in the winter.

My bets for 2005: Yanks win the AL East, Boston takes the wild card, and the O’s finish above .500. In the National League, the Marlins win the pennant and trounce the overconfident Sox in the World Series.

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