The way I see it, the Great Baseball Fan in the Sky is trying to tell us something.
Why else would we have Pete Rose going for baseball’s all- time hit record the same day Yogi Berra’s son is confessing a cocaine habit to a judge?
Why else would teams in the thick of pennant races have to excuse players to testify that they made drug deals in their hotel rooms?
Why else — when else in history? — would a TV newsman promo the sports this way: “Pete Rose catches Ty Cobb, the pennant races tighten up, and the drug scandal continues! More on those stories, after this . . . “
Maybe it’s fate. Maybe coincidence. But I know we are at a critical moment, one never seen before.
Today we are standing at the intersection of Dream Street and Reality Avenue, seeing baseball for all it is, all it can be, and all we have mistaken it for over decades, sweet decades.
Glove, ball, pitch, home run.
Vial, razor, line, drug.
There is something here. And it’s time to face it. The good, bad and ugly
In “The Natural” — the book, not the movie — there’s a scene in which Roy Hobbs, the baseball hero, is shot by a woman in a hotel room. As he sees her pull the trigger, he instinctively cups his hands in front of his waist, as if to catch the bullet. To his shock, it has already entered his body.
I keep seeing that image: The hero falling, still thinking baseball makes him bullet-proof.
How bittersweet a picture for today, when baseball is at its most magical and its most mortal.
On one hand, we have Rose, the ultimate dugout munchkin, who lives Over the Rainbow in a world of innings and at-bats and singles up the middle. The game. It’s all he talks about. It’s all he does. And how many of us, in younger days, wished we could be like him — at least for a few seconds — rounding first base as our hat falls off?
He is baseball.
The dream to its core.
And at the same moment, we have ball players — Keith Hernandez, Enos Cabell, Lonnie Smith, Dale Berra — dressed like lawyers, ties choking their necks, as they sit in a courtroom and name names. This one did drugs. And so did that one. And so did I. Forty percent of the league? Fifty? More?
They, too, are baseball.
The reality to its core.
Don’t you see? The game is both. For years we’ve believed that one excluded the other — to be a baseball hero was to be beyond human frailty, and to succumb to human frailty would cancel your reservation at baseball’s table.
So when a man showed the former, the latter would be ignored. Look no further than Babe Ruth. A home run hero, drunk and cursing? The press turned away. People didn’t want to know.
Now we know.
And it doesn’t cancel Pete Rose. It doesn’t erase the thrill of the pennant race.
What it does is drive the truth home with a sledgehammer: On the field, ball players can be magnificent beyond us, and off the field, they can be just like us, sometimes worse.
The real-life Roy Hobbs. Heroic. And vulnerable to the bullet. It’s high time for the truth
Now, I don’t mean to be an ant at history’s picnic here. And yes, Rose is making history, just as his peers are doing in Pittsburgh.
But when our kids ask, “Who’s that man at home plate?” we ought to remember today, this intersection of fact and fantasy, before answering.
Sure, some people ignore the whole seedy side of baseball. Just as others say the game is dead, because they don’t want their kids looking up to drug addicts. Neither answer is very smart.
Remember when Kansas City star Willie Wilson, convicted on cocaine charges, answered the question of being a role model by saying: “I didn’t ask to be nobody’s role model.”
He’s right. We asked.
Now it’s time to withdraw the request.
Baseball the Babysitter has grown up. Gone to the curious world beyond. Time has come to take responsibility for our kids’ impressions.
So tell them. Both sides. Tell them about Rose, his hits, his hustle, his love of baseball.
Tell them also about Hernandez, his nose bleeds, his sudden weight loss, his playing a game while high on cocaine.
Remember that baseball is not a cleansing rinse, that players towel off into mortal form when the final inning is over. That it can contain the best in us, and the worst in us.
That it is a game, one that has never been in sharper focus than today. Pete Rose. Drug scandal. Glory meets grimness, sliding into second base.
Tell them that. Tell them all of it. It’s time.