The King's Gem and Melky's Shame: The beautiful and ugly sides of Baseball

It is ironic that on the same day, August 15, Major League Baseball produced two major stories which fundamentally epitomize the current state of baseball.  I am, of course, referring to Felix Hernandez’s perfect game against Tampa Bay and Melky Cabrera’s 50 game suspension for a positive drug test, both of which occurred yesterday.  In the short span of 12 hours, we saw both the ugliest and most beautiful sides of baseball.

Cabrera’s 50 game suspension for using testosterone is yet another sad chapter for baseball.  Cabrera has publicly admitted his performance enhancing drug (PED) use, and is not contesting his suspension.  Cabrera won the All-Star Game MVP award this year and was leading the league in hits with 159, and his .346 average was second-highest in the league.  It is absolutely disgusting to think that Cabrera won his MVP award at the all-star game because of his illegal testosterone use.  Even more repugnant is the thought that the National League secured home field advantage in the World Series on the back of Cabrera’s testosterone-fuelled performance at the All-Star Game.

On the other side of the baseball universe, we have King Felix Hernandez’s perfect game, which seems to have a lot more shine to it than the other two perfect games this year by Phillip Humber and Matt Cain.  I believe the fact that Hernandez’s perfect game was pitched against one of baseball’s best teams is responsible for this reaction.  The other two perfect games in 2012 were thrown against Seattle and Houston, two of baseball’s most hapless clubs.  Hernandez also has been one of baseball’s best, most respected pitchers for seven seasons, and his perfect game is being viewed as a deserving achievement, rather than a fluke. Hernandez’s perfect game is even more special because it has provided hope and joy to Seattle fans at a time when the Mariners franchise seems to have sunk to new lows with another losing season and the trade face-of-the-franchise Ichiro Suzuki this year.

Unfortunately, baseball has a long way to go before it is accepted back into the hearts of fans the way it was up to about twenty years ago.  It is now painfully obvious that baseball is no longer the “National Pastime” of America, and in fact has not been for many years.  Gridiron football, and in particular the NFL, is the game which most defines America and its sporting interests.  Between 2006 and 2009, the Super Bowl averaged better than 90 million viewers, while the World Series averaged no better than 23 million viewers for any game during that span.  In Canada, baseball ranked as only the sixth most popular sport in 2005 amongst those 15 and older, with 520,000 participants, or just two percent of the active population.

The PED scandals of the past decade have implicated some of the game’s greatest sluggers, including Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds, and brought tremendous shame and disgrace upon baseball.  The single-season and all-time home run records were shattered by men who used PEDs.  No longer could fans look at the game’s best players and emotionally invest in their quests to break some of baseball’s most hallowed records.  When a player achieves greatness in baseball, the first question we now ask is “what drugs is he taking?”.  At one time or another, there was a sacred bond of trust between baseball fans and the men who played the game.  Rightly or wrongly, fans looked up to baseball players as genuine role models, and looked to the game of baseball for inspiration in their daily lives.  Jackie Robinson’s breaking of MLB’s colour barrier in 1947 is a shining example of how professional baseball used to be a symbol and force of good in our society.

Baseball also used to take dishonesty amongst its players very seriously.  Eight men of the Chicago “Black Sox” were banned for life in 1920 for intentionally losing the 1919 World Series.  Pete Rose was banned for life in 1989 for betting on games involving the team that he managed, the Cincinnati Reds.  Today, PED abusers like Cabrera and McGwire, who is now the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, are inexplicably invited back to the game of baseball.  For some bizarre reason, the rules of the playing field apply to the world of MLB drug testing, as the league chooses to allow its players the chance to rack up “three strikes” in PED tests before they are declared “out” of the game of baseball for life.

There are other pressing issues facing Major League Baseball, including the ever-growing disparity between rich and poor clubs.  I do not have the space to address this issue in this article, except to say that if economic disparity in baseball is not properly resolved in the next decade, the game may become irreparably damaged.

Major League Baseball is still the pinnacle of professional baseball throughout the world.  It is the greatest stage for what, in my opinion, is the greatest sport in the world.  As Felix Hernandez showed us with his captivating perfect game yesterday, there is so much to love about baseball.  Unfortunately, as Melky Cabrera has proven, there is still a lot to hate about this wonderful game.  I look forward to the day when the Cabrera’s, McGwire’s and Ramirez’s of the baseball world are told that they are no longer welcome in the same way that the eight men of “Black Sox” were told 92 years ago.

…and that’s the Last Word.