2005-03-18 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

I am in inveterate baseball fan. I love the national game and look forward each day to watching the games played by the local teams unfold, reading the stories and the statistics, involving myself in a local fantasy league.

It has been that way since 1948, when my father took me to opening day at Yankee Stadium to watch the Yankees and Vic Raschi face the Cleveland Indians with “Rapid Robert” Feller on the mound.

I was eight years old, two months short of my ninth birthday and this was the first of a long line of Yankee opening days that my father and I attended, driving from Rockaway and parking nearby McComb’s Dam Park before walking through the park to the stadium.

The Yankee opening day lineup had Gus Niarhos catching (Yogi Berra was the regular catcher, but was hurt that day), George McQuinn at first, Snuffy Sternweiss at second, Billy Johnson at third, Phil Rizzuto at shortstop and Joe Dimaggio, Tommy Henrich and Johnny Lindell in the outfield.

The starting rotation had a typical Yankee season. “Steady Eddie” Lopat was 17 and 11, Vic Raschi, “The Junkman” was 19 and 8, Allie Reynolds (“The Chief,” who once threw two no-hitters in one season) was 16 and 7. Spec Shea and Bob Potterfield rounded out the rotation because Whitey Ford was still two years away.

Joe Page, the first baseball “closer,” was 7-8 with 16 saves in a day when most pitchers finished the game unless their arms were falling off or they were getting shelled. Others in the bullpen included Tommy Byrne and Randy Gumpert.

My favorite ballplayer, Cliff Mapes, a U.S. Marine who had spent World War II attacking a series of Japanese-held islands, was on the bench.

The team also included such luminaries as Dr. Bobby Brown, “King Kong” Charlie Keller, Hank Bauer (my second favorite player, another Marine), Ralph Houk, Frankie Crosetti and Joe Collins.

The Yankees did not win the pennant that year, coming in third behind the Cleveland Indians and Boston Red Sox, two teams who had a one-day playoff to see who got into the World Series to face the Boston Braves (Spahn and Sain and pray for rain).

Many of the players who played for both teams that day had fought in World War II. Their salaries were so low that all but the best had winter jobs in stores, automobile dealerships and public relations firms all over the tri-state area.

They loved baseball and they loved playing it. There were no million-dollar contracts and no free agent deals. They played with the team they signed with until they were either traded or they retired.

Most of them would have played baseball for nothing.

A few, stars such as Ted Williams and Hall of Fame announcer Jerry Coleman, both Marine fighter pilots, flew both in World War II and then again in Korea.

And, while many of the players in those days were alcoholics, nobody used drugs to enhance their performance and their records could be trusted as “pure.”

Not so today.

Most of the players are spoiled crybabies who need special perks before they’ll walk onto the field. Would any of them fight for their country, even in a popular war? You could probably count the number who would go voluntarily on the fingers of one hand and still have change.

The majority of them care nothing for the game, only for their own stats and therefore, their own salary.

A few years ago, a black rookie was asked about Jackie Robinson, the man who fought hard to break the color barrier in baseball and made it possible for all the other minority players to get into the major leagues. The rookie admitted that he never heard of Robinson.

It is clear to me that many of the records set in the past few years are suspect. The homerun record is just the most obvious. When all is said and done, the ledger will show that both Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa used steroids during their record-breaking seasons. While the steroids were not illegal in baseball circles (and we have to wonder why), they were illegal substances under U.S. Law.

Should it be proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that the two men took steroids, then those records should not have asterisks. They should be wiped out of the record books entirely.

The old saying, “cheaters can’t win,” long heard on playgrounds, has to hold for the major leagues as well.

Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, however, does not agree.

He said that there will be no changes to the record book.

“It would be unfair to do that,” he told an Associated Press reporter. “In fairness to those players, no one has been convicted of anything, and we can’t turn history back.”

“My job is to protect the integrity of the game,” he added. “Each decade has had its situations where people said that there were unfair advantages.”

Protect the integrity of the game. Selig is not doing a very good job.

First, MLB denied that there was large-scale steroid use in baseball. Then, Selig and others joined the player’s union in fighting a testing program.

Only when the BALCO scandal broke did MLB officials put a weak testing program in place and back it with even weaker punishments.

I can’t see how that protects the integrity of the game.

Then, when Congress stuck its collective nose into the game and a number of baseball greats were issued subpoenas to appear before the House of Representatives to answer for their steroid use, Selig and his subordinates decided to fight the subpoenas, arguing that drug use in baseball was not the purview of the nation’s elected officials.

“It is absolutely beyond the legal pale,” MLB’s lawyer said. “It is an excessive and unprecedented use of congressional power.”

That does not protect the integrity of the game. It makes it look as if the game has lots to hide from the nation and from its fans.

If Selig really wanted to protect the integrity of the game, he would get this whole thing behind him by letting in the sunlight.

For years after the “Black Sox” scandal in the 1920’s baseball went into a decline.

Fans did not trust the game to be straight. It was just too easy for a pitcher to throw one over the plate at a critical juncture in the game or for an outfielder to “misplay” a ball and allow it to go over his head.

Then a new, no-nonsense commissioner, Judge Kenshaw Mountain Landis, came along and put it all straight. People believed again that baseball was straight, that the playing field was once again level.

Perhaps that’s what we need today. A new commissioner to make sure the game is straight and some assurance that the records set by the players are legitimate. What the game needs is for the truth to see the light of day.

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