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Saturday Morning Coming Down

Last night, my girlfriend and I were watching Spider Man 3. I've seen it a couple of times before, but this time, I was suddenly struck by something. When Peter Parker is under the control of the alien symbiote, and he's wearing his hair down toward his eyes, rather than combed back in typically wholesome alter ego fashion, Tobey Maguire looks freakishly like Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes. I don't have any point to this, and if that name doesn't mean anything to you, don't worry, you're not missing some really great story. However, I lack the necessary faculties to regulate the things I say, so this is what you get.

Morning, everyone. I'm going to be taking over Saturday posting duties. Lboros could use the extra day off, being a family man and all, and I can literally just ramble endlessly. It's a match made in heaven! Thanks to Lb for the vote of confidence; I only hope it isn't the same kind of vote of confidence managers tend to get a week before they're fired.

Anyway, I wanted to continue on with the discussion topic format Lb has been using over the winter. I like it; it's a nice, casual feel for the weekend. During the season, I also want to do a quick minor league wrapup each Saturday. A review of each team's record for the previous week, along with any notable performances and a couple of players trending up or down. I don't want to step on Future Redbirds' toes here; they do a Daily Prospect Report during the season. I'm more interested in giving the long view, especially for any readers here who care about what's going on on the farm, but don't have the level of interest to follow on a detailed, day to day basis.

For the moment, though, there isn't much to cover, so we'll just move right on. A quick plug, though. If you're not reading Derrick Goold's Bird Land blog on a daily basis, you're missing the best camp coverage out there. Goold is quickly becoming the best thing about the P-D's sports department; he's very much the heir apparent to Rick Hummel as the preeminent baseball writer in this baseball town. Always great stuff.

Alright. Here's what I wanted to talk about today. With all of the recent revelations about steroids, with Clemens and Petitte and all these other players, many of them pitchers, being outed as users of performance enhancers, how have your feelings toward Mark McGwire changed? Have they changed at all? What about Barry Bonds? If you were angry at first, do you feel the same now? The problem was obviously much more widespread than many of us originally thought. Where do the sluggers of the era, specifically McGwire, stand in light of the prevalence of PEDs, across nearly all strata of the game?

I'll put my own thoughts after the jump. That way you can skip over it entirely if you like.

Two things I don't want, though.

One, do not question someone else's integrity or belief system simply because they don't see it the same way you do. Just because you think these guys are all apalling cheaters who should be drawn and quartered doesn't mean anyone who feels differently is condoning immorality, or that they're just generally bad people.

Two, I don't want to hear a bunch of bitching about how Congress shouldn't be worrying about this at all. The way that this particular committee is composed, there's plenty of reasons for them to look at this sort of issue. If you don't feel that the government should be poking their noses into this kind of stuff at all, that there are more important matters than this bullshit, that's fine. However, those are political opinions, and there are better forums to express them. This is a baseball forum, and that's the extent of the discussion here.

I only say this because this is an emotional, volatile issue for a lot of people. I don't want a whole lot of other nonsense making the discussion any nastier than necessary. All right then, onward and upward.

In the fall of 1998, I was newly graduated from high school, and moving out of my teenage years. That autumn, there was a girl I was seeing, who lived in an apartment building on Chippewa, just across from Ted Drewes'. I was going to school in the mornings, and working a late evening shift at a meat market where my mother got me on. Most days, before I went in to work, I would drive up to this girl's apartment and spend a few hours with her. On the way there, there was a bar and grill, (it's called the Brick now, but it was something else then; sadly, I can't recall the name) that had one of those boards with the movable letters out front. All that summer and fall, they tracked the Great Home Run Chase on that board, changing McGwire's and Sosa's totals as the season wore on. And that's really where I want to begin.

My teenage years were not particularly good ones for me. I made all the bad choices teenagers tend to make, plus enough to cover anyone who didn't make those mistakes. By the time I turned 18, I had lived through, at various times, drug addiction, sex addiction, weight problems, and a brief flirtation with bulimia. I had lost both of my two closest friends from those years; one in a car accident that nearly killed me as well, and one to a truly wasteful suicide that I've never quite made peace with. In 1998, I was coming out the end of the long tunnel of my teenage years, looking back at who I had been before through the wrong end of a telescope, that person far and wee, far and wee, as they say. I had no idea who I was supposed to be now; I certainly wasn't ever going to be who I had expected. And at this point, at the end of what felt like a completely different life, I found something surprising.

I found baseball.

Now don't get me wrong; this isn't where I first fell in love with the game. When I was a very young boy, my grandfather, a former minor league baseball player, had taught me all the minutiae of the game; had instilled in me a passion for, and a fascination with, the rhythym of the game that I never thought I would lose. I played the game, I watched the game, I followed the statistics in the paper every Sunday. I wanted, more than anything in the world, to one day stand on a major league baseball field and live out the dream.

As the years went on, though, and my own life spun out of control, I lost interest in basically everything. I played baseball into my high school sophomore year, but quit midway through the season. I put away the practice net that I had thrown into for three, maybe four hours a day, that my grandmother had bought for me to get away from everyday life. I threw away my glove. I even stopped following the Cardinals. I watched the playoff collapse of 1996, but I barely remember doing so. Life receded far back, and my childhood passion went with it.

My grandfather died on Halloween of 1997. I had barely spoken to him the previous year, and only went to see him once while he was in the hospital, receiving chemo for the cancer that finally killed him. The man with whom I had spent countless hours of my young life, poring over batting lines and breaking down pitchers' mechanics, was gone. He didn't live long enough to see me get fully healthy. He didn't live long enough to give me the chance to make amends.

And then it was 1998. Early in the year, my senior class went to a game at Busch. McGwire hit a home run, (he was in the high teens at the time, I believe) and the Cardinals won. More importantly, I found that I still felt the rhythym of the game. When my girlfriend at the time would ask a question about some small point, I always had the answer. I may have left the game, but somehow, the game had never left me. Over that summer, I watched the games sporadically, delighted to find that the fundamental rules applied, that no matter how things changed, they were still really the same.

As the year went on, and the Chase became a two man race toward history, I began to fall back into the game with the same passion that I had as a boy. Every day, even though I never could get a radio to pick up a Cardinal game in the market, and thus missed most of the games themselves, I followed McGwire and Sosa on that billboard, and in the paper. Every day, driving past that sign, I found that one thing in my life was just the same as it had ever been. Baseball was still a part of the fabric, the rhythym still woven into my soul. The man who had taught me the game was gone, but all those hours we had spent never seemed closer to me than they did that autumn, watching as the numbers climbed toward and then beyond 61, as the city around me celebrated their team. The city itself was coming back to the team after an absence; we were all rediscovering the game we loved together. Of all that I had lost, all I had forgotten, all that was just gone, baseball was still there, my one real connection left to who I was before the dark had begun to close in.

I wept the day that the season ended, with McGwire standing alone, the only man to ever reach the mountaintop of 70 home runs. I had found the game again, and was caught once more. All that baseball had meant to me had come back, and was overwhelmed with the simple gratitude one feels at meeting an old friend you had barely remembered losing, and finding that the years between had changed nothing.

When Mark McGwire sat before Congress and refused to discuss the past, I felt personally betrayed. I felt as if that golden autumn of 1998 had been a lie, that it didn't mean a goddamn thing, that I had been fooling myself. I was heartbroken the way only someone can be when they find out that something they've held dear for years was never what they thought it was.

Say for a second that you and one of your closest friends have both fallen for the same girl. One star crossed autumn evening, it finally happens between the two of you. The memory of that evening, though years ago, has never dulled, never become sepia and washed out. For you, that night has always been yesterday, and it always will be.

Ten years later. You and this beautiful woman have been married for years. Then, one day, through whatever circumstances you choose to invent, you discover that, in the weeks leading up to the two of you finally getting together, she had been sleeping with your best friend. It didn't go on after the two of you were together; she chose you. But still, things were not the way you thought they were back then. Suddenly, that perfect night, when she was yours for the first time, no longer looks the same to you at all. You feel betrayed, as if your whole world has just shifted subtly on its foundations. Was that the only lie she ever told you? Would they have been happier together? How could they have kept this from you?

At the same time, it doesn't really change you life all that much. You still love her, your life in the intervening years has been real, and a ten year old lie doesn't mean that much when measured against all that has gone since. You've been through all the ups and the downs, money problems, petty fights, and moments when you simply can't believe you could ever feel something this strong for another human being. You've struggled together to get pregnant, and cried together each month when it becomes clear it hasn't happened yet. You've been through a miscarriage, all the joy of thinking it will finally happen, only to see it unceremoniously lost, wondering if it was all for naught. And finally, after all the tears and the struggle, a baby. The culmination of your love, your life together. In the face of all that, what is one night, all those years ago? What does it really matter how it really happened? What matters is your life since, yet still it feels as if it has all changed, just a little bit. You can never again look back the way you could before. Now it's messy. It's complicated. It doesn't change the present, but the past is no longer the same.

As the years have gone on, and it's become clear that Mark McGwire wasn't the only player on the juice, not even close, my feelings have softened a bit. I still feel betrayed, but it doesn't change how I feel about the game. I love the game of baseball; I always have and I suspect I always will. I still think a little bit of my grandfather each time I watch a pitcher throw a ball and dissect his motion, I can still hear Jack Buck's voice in my mind, echoing out of my childhood. Cardinal baseball is still in my blood, and I still feel the rhythym of the game every night, April through September. Nothing has really changed.

But all those warm September nights. of almost ten years ago now, have changed. Those copper coloured memories of checking that billboard every day, and falling back in love with the game I had abandoned, are not the same for me now, and they never will be.

I've forgiven Mark McGwire. I still don't know if I could ever bring myself to vote him in to the Hall if I could, but I have forgiven him. My heart still breaks a little, though, each time I think back on September of 1998.

That's my story. How do you feel about McGwire? About the whole era? Have at it, folks.