It is not easy being a baseball fan right now. The World Baseball Classic is going on, and pretty much everybody I spend my time around couldn't care less. Spring training is going on, but again, my excitement about it falls on deaf ears. But just because they don't care about the WBC or spring training doesn't mean I can't get them to talk about baseball. In fact, the mere mention of the word typically garners one of three responses: "baseball is boring, when is the NFL Draft?" or "who cares, March Madness is going on;" or a rant about how baseball is a joke.
The first two responses, I can understand. With the draft just over a month away, there is much excitement about where the college stars will land. And there may not be any sporting event in the world quite as enthralling as March Madness. Both events even have ways to further engage the fans, with mock drafts and bracket pools. But baseball being a joke has some bite to it. It came from a friend who pays very little attention to sports. It wouldn't be a surprise if that is the opinion of most who don't pay much attention to sports. And that would be the result of the most pertinent issue in baseball, one I really hate talking about-steroids.
Everybody has their opinion on the issue. Like I said, many non-observers or casual fans may view the game as a joke because of steroids. But there is another fallout that is far worse. The new younger fans, such as myself, grew up seeing the ugly part of the game, with the strike, but also witnessing a high point with Ripken's record, McGwire vs. Sosa, and the dominance of players in their twilight such as Randy Johnson, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. We thought we saw the worst baseball had to offer after the strike. But now our generation is dealing with a controversy that few baseball fans have had to endure. Now even those of us who are diehard fans, have many doubts about what is and isn't legit. Of the names mentioned above, only two of them have managed to avoid much steroid publicity. McGwire, Sosa, Bonds and Clemens have all had their reputations tarnished and possibly destroyed because of their connections with steroids. But those names weren't really that surprising. All the players experienced significant statistical surges at ages they shouldn't be happening at.
Then the latest bomb was dropped. Alex Rodriguez was accused of using, and ultimately admitted to it. Rodriguez was one of those guys who it seemed would never use. From his prep days, he was a super-talented athlete who was clearly created to play baseball. His stats were phenomenal from day one. People knew he would be a star, and he fulfilled that promise. Yeah, he experienced a statistical boost while in Texas, but it seemed logical because the Rangers played in a very hitter-friendly ballpark. He was it. The guy who could save the game. Yes, all these other "saviors" had used. But Rodriguez was the player who could prove that only a few players cheated. That most superstars put up their numbers based on God-given talent and hard work, not on injections of illegal substances. He could have proved that Bonds and McGwire were the exception, not the rule.
But Rodriguez gave into temptation. The temptation to cheat to become astronomically great. And with that, perception has changed. Cheaters have become viewed as the rule, rather than the exception. In the past, people would marvel when a player hits over .300 with 30+ homers and 100+ RBIs. Now, a growing number of people believe that anytime a player puts up those kind of numbers, they are juicing. Other players who put up big numbers during the steroids era are having their accomplishments placed in doubt. And any player today is under constant scrutiny. As their numbers grow, so grows the number of those that claim the stats are a result of steroids. Rodriguez should be given some credit, as he owned up to his mistake. He admitted he gave into temptation, but will likely be forever punished for even giving into temptation in the first place.
It's funny that temptation to cheat for greatness is what is hurting the game, while the group of players who could save baseball have a man who gave into another kind of temptation at their forefront. This man has one major thing in common with Rodriguez. He was a prep phenom, a guy who everybody who knew anything about the game knew would become a superstar. He also gave into the temptation to break the rules. But his temptation had nothing to do with trying to be great. It was a simple temptation that many people give into on a daily basis. One ultimately worse and more damaging then steroids. His illegal substance was cocaine. His name is Josh Hamilton.
I'm not going to tell you the story of Josh Hamilton, for the reasons that many people already know it, if they don't they can easily read about by googling Josh Hamilton, and because frankly I can't do the story justice in a few paragraphs. But Hamilton is a beacon of light in baseball. The home run derby in which he put up the jaw-dropping 28 home run round was simply a taste. Perhaps more so than Rodriguez, Hamilton was made to play baseball. His struggles make his story all the more remarkable. Addiction is a problem that many people face, and something Hamilton must conquer on a daily basis. Through his faith, he is winning that battle every day. And the belief and prayers of fans like us only help him through that battle.
My point is that there is still reason to believe. I read about a dream that Hamilton's wife, Katie, had while Hamilton was out of baseball, one in which God told her He would give Hamilton baseball again, but for a reason bigger than baseball. I felt compelled to write this post after reading that. The reason may be bigger than baseball, but I think there is little doubt that Hamilton's return to the game also helps baseball. After the juicers let so many down, baseball fans needed to believe that there is still some purity in the game. The problem is that so many are now attributing any players' success to steroids. But if everyone would open their eyes, they would see that there is light popping through the dark cloud that steroids is casting. Hamilton is a come to life Roy Hobbs, a player with so much God-given talent that had to go through hell before reaching his heaven as a big leaguer. "The Natural" can lead a group of players who show the fans and critics that great things can happen in baseball without the use of steroids. And he does have company in that category.
Albert Pujols shares a deep faith in God with Hamilton. Pujols claims that the "fear of God" keeps him from juicing. It also helps that he too was a prep phenom, just one without the publicity of Rodriguez or Hamilton. Life molded him into a man while he was still a child in age. For some reason, he was doubted at every step. He wasn't recruited out of high school after putting up excellent stats. He was a 13th round choice by the St. Louis Cardinals after continuing his dominance in college. And he was in the big leagues after one year in the minors. And since that time, he has never batted under .314, had fewer than 32 homers or 103 RBIs. He is a model of consistency. And of greatness. And of being clean. But just because he has those numbers, he has his fair share of detractors who claim it is all steroids. Instead of viewing him as a leading example that players can put up great numbers while being clean, they peg him with the others from his era who did cheat. That's a shame.
At least Pujols has help in the battle to remove steroid's dark cloud from baseball. Hanley Ramirez, David Wright, Mark Teixeira, Matt Holiday, Justin Morneau, Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder and numerous others are showing that there is hope for the future. Many of their accomplishments will be attributed to steroids, even if they never test positive or are actually accused, simply because they played during the Bonds-McGwire-Clemens-Rodriguez era.
But baseball now has a great hope, an anti A-Rod if you will, to help eliminate the stigma that all stars juice. Hope was lost when one seemingly untouchable uber-talented player was discovered juicing. It seems like Roy Hobbs himself is the only talent capable of saving baseball. After his awesome season last year, his first-full season in four years, Josh Hamilton may be that talent. He may have been given baseball back to serve a larger purpose in showing drug addicts that there is hope. But in the process, he may just show the entire baseball world that there is still hope that steroids' dark cloud will one day give way to sunshine.