Baseball came all in a rush to my son Joe last summer. He got a Major League Baseball videogame for his seventh birthday that featured real players, and suddenly he was hooked. All at once he learned statistics, strategy and personalities, putting faces and physiques to real players' names. He began to make comments at the breakfast table like, "Travis Hafner is a good hitter, but he has a very small head." Also, "Randy Johnson is super good, but he's, like, 70 years old or something."
We spent the summer watching games on TV, attending Mariners games in our native Seattle, and following the Red Sox through the World Series. Joe began to collect baseball cards; lots of them. Lists began to appear around the house in his careful hand-writing of his favorite players in fantasy line-ups: Thome, Konerko, Rodriguez, Jeter, Ortiz.
He began to ask questions, loads of them, all day long. Do I think Magglio will be a Hall of Famer? (Too soon to know.) Is Felix Hernandez good? (Yes, he's good, but not yet great.) Who's better, Oswalt or Santana? (I have no idea.) Is Jeff Weaver good? (Regrettably, not anymore). Who was better, Williams or DiMaggio? (Ask your mother).
He knew about Barry Bonds' homerun chase and the accusations of steroid use. Joe made up his mind early, and on his own, that he wouldn't recognize Bonds' record when he passed Hank Aaron. As far as Joe was concerned, Hammering Hank would always be the Homer King, and that was fine with me. It was clear to Joe that if you cheated to play better, your records couldn't amount to much.
Every morning when he wakes up, Joe sorts his baseball cards, a collection that now numbers in the hundreds. He makes groupings of the best hitters, best second basemen, most strikeouts, or all-star lineups he'd like to see. We began to plan trips for next summer that would allow us to see games in different stadiums across the country.
And then the Mitchell report came out. Joe reads the sports section, and I couldn't keep the news from him. He learned that dozens of players had been named as cheaters and drug takers, buying and ingesting steroids and human growth hormones for more than a decade. Some of them were players whom he plays with on his videogame, and whose cards he studies and sorts. He read the lists of names and understood how steroids can grow muscles that make fastballs livelier, and make routine fly balls turn into home runs. And how it wasn't fair when ballplayers cheat the game.
Joe dealt with the news in his own way. First, he segregated the cards of the named cheaters: Gagne, Lo Duca, Segui, Brown and Clemens. They went into a new pile that he had never previously considered, and were separated from the other players.
But then my 7-year-old child went a step further. Scrutinizing the statistics on the back of the cards, he began to sort his players by who he thought might have taken performance-enhancing drugs.
"Look, Dad," he said, "this guy hit fourteen home runs in 1999 and thirty-six in 2000. He might have been taking drugs. And this pitcher had, like, four wins in 2000 and fourteen in 2001. Do you think he was cheating?"
What could I say? I have no idea if they were cheating or not. But if there is one thing we've all learned in the past month, it is that baseball players don't seem to have the courage or the integrity to come forward and admit their mistakes until they're publicly outed as having bought or ingested human growth hormone or steroids. Joe is trying to figure out how to deal with this new baseball landscape in his own way. I am wrestling with the question of how can I spend fifty bucks to attend a game next season with Joe and cheer for a third baseman, as yet unnamed by Mitchell or anyone else, who got a $64 million contract because he hit 48 homeruns in 2004, yet hasn't hit more than 26 since. And a hundred more players with similar stories being told on the backs of their baseball cards.
Joe and I talk a lot less these days about going on baseball-viewing road trips next summer. But then, it is basketball season now and Joe has begun to collect NBA cards. And with them come new questions. Is Iverson good? Is Carter? No, really, is he?