Posted: Monday January 8, 2007 4:57PM; Updated: Monday January 8, 2007 5:01PM
Wandering past one of the display racks in the children's section of a major bookstore chain Saturday morning, I saw a youth paperback with Ken Griffey, Jr., Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire on the cover.
Despite the controversy surrounding Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, baseball is more popular than ever.
"What year is this?" I found myself asking.
Perhaps I had somehow time-warped it back to January 1999, when that trio's home-run exploits, led by McGwire, were still chestnut-warm off the presses and in our hearts.
The fascination with the sluggers' pursuit of Roger Maris' single-season home run record was portrayed as the culmination of a baseball renaissance, extending a feel-good movement carved out a few years earlier when Cal Ripken, Jr. surpassed Lou Gehrig's record of consecutive games played. The memorable home-run explosion seemed to exorcise the agony and anger surrounding baseball's 1994 work stoppage, reminding us that the business of baseball was baseball, not business.
In becoming the one to establish the new home run record, McGwire personified baseball's rebirth. He earned the adulation of a grateful baseball nation.
But a quick walk past the bookstore's magazine section showed that it really was January 2007, that the McGwire-Sosa-Griffey cover was an anachronism, and that when I got home I would not be reading more stories about whether McGwire helped save the game, but instead whether he had risked crippling it.
The funny thing is that in either scenario, I find the level of responsibility being assigned to McGwire overblown.
Whatever the truth is of McGwire's situation -- a truth that we might never fully know -- the game endures. Baseball takes body blows - the Black Sox, segregation, labor disputes, drugs, the San Diego Padres' old uniforms -- but it endures.
McGwire's feats and failings are part of the history of the game, and without trying to make him a passive actor in his own life -- judge him responsibly, but go ahead and judge him if you must -- it is possible to see them as a reflection of a sport that is part beauty, part beast, but overall too compelling to ever abandon.
If Ripken hadn't come along to revive the collective mood of baseball fans in the '90s, there was McGwire. If not McGwire, then someone else. Not to go all predestination on you, but baseball generates heroes almost helplessly. It couldn't stop if it tried.
Same thing goes with baseball's criminals, large and small. Players were bound to test the boundaries of the game, whether on the level of a Hal Chase or a Gaylord Perry. It's the nature of being earthlings that we have good guys and bad guys and folks who blend the two.
If McGwire's Hall of Fame chances hadn't fallen into limbo and the hero of '98 had endured, it's not as if his reputed saving of the game would have been the engine driving him to Cooperstown. It would have come down to the numbers he produced. No player is said to have had a more important and immediate effect on baseball's popularity than Babe Ruth, but if he had drunk himself out of baseball in 1921, it's doubtful he'd be in the Hall.
Some might argue that baseball enshrined Jackie Robinson for what he meant to the game rather than how he performed in it -- though his performance, especially since he wasn't allowed to break into the majors until age 28, was outstanding -- but throughout the history of Hall voting, eligible players have generally been judged for their play, not their citizenship. (It's the vast difference in how voters interpret a single player's resume that has made the Hall debate so intense.)
You don't see Buck O'Neil in the Hall, even though he in many ways became the most admired figure in the game following his emergence in the public consciousness via Ken Burns' Baseball. You won't ever see David Eckstein in the Hall, even though he personifies so many sportsmanship qualities baseball writers groove on.
This voting pattern demonstrates a subconscious belief that when it comes to baseball, the good outweighs the bad. Though people become alarmed when gambling or drugs threaten the sport's majesty, if goodness were truly a quality that voters thought baseball didn't have enough of, the sportsmen would get the ultimate honor.
So now here we are with McGwire, at the intersection of play and citizenship. And the fundamental question people are asking -- as far as the Hall vote is concerned -- is not whether McGwire is hero or villain, but how his actions might have affected his numbers.
If this is baseball's biggest worry, then baseball must not be in much need of being saved. And we can all be thankful for that.
The plaques that immortalize Hall of Fame inductees, as anyone who has visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum knows, occupy just a small part of the facility. My recollection from my trip there in 1982 was that they were veritably a wing off a wing. The majority of museum space, both display and storage, celebrates events engineered by many players who won't see any plaque anywhere but on their teeth.
Hall of Famers are a byproduct of a great game, rather than its saviors. The game is constantly saving itself - yes, with major events, but also with the smaller, everyday moments that keep millions and millions of fans from ever straying too far away. All the sport needs to do is make sure it keeps playing the games, and it will be okay. Maybe not the national pastime -- for all we know, in 2057 that'll be snowboard cross -- but still okay.
There's something inherently good about the game that can't be destroyed. Even if a scandal to end all scandals eviscerated the organization known as Major League Baseball, the game would reinvent itself somehow. It's like something out of a thriller, man -- you just can't kill it.