When I was a kid, baseball was America's game. My memories linger around visions of classic summertime Americana; hot dogs on the grill, cold beer (or in my case Coca-Cola), sweet apple pie, and Vin Scully on the call from Dodger Stadium. Those days are long gone now; lost along with our memories and collective innocence as a nation. As our country's peace has been broken by 12 years of war and economic uncertainty, America's favorite game has evolved into a violent spectacle: college and professional football. Thugs have replaced the boys of summer.
Baseball used to represent the good and the bad of the United States all wrapped up into a simple game that offered dynamic scoring and statistical possibilities. It was easy to teach, and fun to play. It was a game dominated by the individual, rather than the team, which spoke to our American values surrounding freedom. And when Jackie Robinson broke the game's color barrier in 1947 it spoke to our nation's dreams of equality and upward mobility.
Robinson, in fact, changed the profile of the game forever, and in doing so not only gave a nation of kids hope for a baseball future, but showed the rest of the world the power of equality in action. According to Hall of Famer Hank Aaron, if it hadn't been for Robinson there would have never been a Hank Aaron, or any of the other black baseball stars that followed.
Societal change (eg., the decade long war and the loss of our collective innocence) can't take all of the blame for baseball's downfall, however. Baseball ultimately lost its grip on the American public through a series of public failures regarding performance enhancing drugs involving its most visible athletes, a strike that destroyed the 1994 and '95 seasons, and of course the 2002 All-Star Game, which ended in a tie and drove fans batty. How batty?
"They treated it like it was a meaningless game," David Cuscuna of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said to Sports Illustrated after the game. "They're telling the fans this game doesn't matter. Not to mention the $175 face value for tickets. It sends a lot of bad messages."
The issue of performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball won't go away anytime soon. It has soiled so many of baseball's heroes: Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez and many, many more. Perhaps the most flagrant of the bunch were Bonds and Canseco, who dubbed himself the 'godfather' of steroids and said his image was purely one of 'entertainment for the fans.'
Canseco was a freak show on and off the field. That being said, he spoke the truth about steroids (unlike McGwire and Clemons), and its role in the game of baseball. With hundreds of players having been banned from the field for using performance-enhancing drugs since the start of the millennium, it would seem that MLB has stepped up its efforts in terms of keeping the game clean. Canseco though, maintains that MLB knew of the problem all along and simply made him the 'steroid poster child.'
Even though my kids are young they innately understand the fun associated with the simple act of throwing a baseball, or swinging a bat at said ball. Baseball is in our blood, but for many of the same reasons our economy tanked, MLB became a national eyesore rather than a cherished pastime. When greed and big money become more important than integrity, we all lose. Opening day for the 2013 MLB season is on Sunday. Here's hoping baseball makes a virtuous comeback.