Tonawanda News — It is impossible for any baseball fan to escape being a kid. The game, in its majestic simplicity, has a way of drawing everyone who loves it back to the day, the moment, when you first really found it.
For me, it was sitting in my childhood living room watching Mark McGwire hit his 62nd home run, a decidedly unimpressive shot down the left field line that barely cleared the wall at the St. Louis Cardinals’ old Busch Stadium, on a muggy early September night in 1998.
I was 15 and that night I must have known I would watch and love this game — and that team — for the rest of my life.
I had already for years played Little League, watched Cardinals games, collected TOPS baseball cards — all the things boys do in the dog days of summer when there isn’t all that much more interesting to think about.
Now, 15 years later, I look back with equal parts nostalgia, sadness and embarrassment at the fabrication that night actually was.
McGwire was on the juice. So was Sammy Sosa, who darted in from his outfield position to congratulate McGwire (the Cardinals were playing the Cubs that night) on winning their historic race to overwrite Roger Maris in baseball’s annals as owner of the greatest home run hitting season of all time.
Like all baseball fans my age, steroids have provided the cynical and superficial backdrop to an adult’s intellectual interaction with the smartest game ever invented.
The dewy eyes of youthful admiration were long ago opened to the reality of baseball’s steroids era; almost all of the great players of my youth were cheating.
That’s what I was left thinking about when Major League Baseball handed down its shocking but hardly unexpected round of suspensions, its biggest effort to date to repair the game’s image and cast away the cheaters.
Of course it is impossible to ignore the name at the top of this most recent list: New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez.
When McGwire was slapping all those home runs in 1998 A-Rod was a much younger man, though even then he’d been in the league for five seasons. He and the guy I’d nominate as the greatest player of his generation, Ken Griffey Jr. — who did it clean — were playing for the plucky Seattle Mariners.
A-Rod represented for my generation what others must have thought when they first set eyes on Willie Mays or Hank Aaron — the knowledge you were fortunate enough to be watching the career of one of the greatest to ever play the game.
Aaron’s career home run record was the target almost immediately for Rodriguez. He looked like the kind of player who would, if he avoided injury, hit 40 home runs for 20 years and demolish Aaron’s career mark of 755.
I remember sitting at a junior high cafeteria table enthusiastically predicting he’d become the greatest slugger of all time.
Ironically enough, 2013 is A-Rod’s 20th major league season. If I’d have been right at age 15, he’d have done it two years ago.
Alas, that will never come to pass. What I didn’t realize all those years ago was A-Rod possessed all the emotional maturity of the 13-year-olds like me who idolized him. Vanity has made easy work of one of the greatest talents ever to swing a bat.
Now it’s plain to see Rodriguez is every bit the unhinged professional athlete incapable of filling the void where the demons ate away his soul. Now it’s plain to see he’s an actor starring as a version himself — except this is real life, not the glorifying Hollywood film playing in his head.
He should have been great. Instead, he’s a villain in the movie he wrote about himself. He’s a cheater, a fraud. All those gaudy numbers we baseball fans love to recite mean nothing for him because they don’t count a thing. They’re notches on a bedpost where he laid bare his delusions of grandeur.
So now baseball has suspended him for the rest of this year, all of next year and we’ll see what happens when he returns — if he returns — after that.
He’s appealing the league’s decision. He gets to keep playing while the case is heard.
But the jury’s out, Alex. And the verdict isn’t good, which is to say it’s great news for those of us who love the game.
A-Rod, his publicist, his entourage, the sycophants who spend his money and the guy who squeezes toothpaste onto a tooth brush for him after games (the service is written into his contract) — those guys can go pound rocks.Eric DuVall is the managing editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter, @EricRDuVall.