Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Over the last several weeks, I've been trying to figure out how to express the feelings that I have about the Mitchell Report since it has come out. Maybe tonight, the night before Congress convenes to hear Roger Clemens testify that he never took steroids or HGH, and hear his trainer say "yes, he did"....maybe this is the night to do so.

I've read most of the Mitchell Report, and I would have to say, I believe it. Mitchell did not report hearsay, but instead reported the testimony of suppliers who could provide copies of the mailing labels, cancelled checks, doping schedules, voice mail recordings of orders, and so on. Names were not simply thrown out there. There was significant evidence for the names that were listed on that report.

The whole controversy over Clemens has (maybe thankfully) overshadowed two players that had been near and dear to my heart. Paul LoDuca and Eric Gagne, and I am sure but for anyone but Clemens, Gagne's save record would have been the media focus. I'm not saying he should be spared that. I'm just glad that I have been.

More than in any other sport, in baseball, you really become attached to the players. The ball clubs make sure you do. You see them play every day, you root for them every day. They make sure you know why each man on the field is special so that you will cheer for them, so that you will be at the plate with them, and so that you will buy their jersey.

The year before I became a Dodger fan, the O'Malleys, who had owned the Dodgers since they were in Brooklyn (and for decades before) decided to sell the team to Fox Network. The Dodgers had gone from being family-owned, steeped in tradition, to another corporate pawn (which really the point in Fox's buying them was to stop ESPN from establishing a regional network chain like Fox Sports has now). In the process, a well-loved GM was fired (Fred Claire), and a battle for salary started with the much-loved Mike Piazza. Piazza to this day insists that he wasn't asking for as much as Fox says he was, but he did want a no-trade clause so that he could have his entire career be as a Dodger. Fox very speedily traded Piazza to the Marlins. The hole at catcher wasn't nearly as big as the hole in most fans hearts. Most Dodger fans remember the day Piazza was traded, and whether they were mad at Piazza for holding out, or at Fox for betraying the fans so readily, the pain was tangible.

The next few years were followed by a tortuous experience with a terrible GM who pretty much let Scott Boras run the team (and several of the new players were making gobs more than Fox refused to pay Piazza), and we suffered several mediocre catchers. When Jim Tracy was hired as manager, he said he was going to give this kid a chance that had been waiting for years down at AAA. Kid was a misnomer. Paul LoDuca was 30, and he'd been waiting a long time. He was good, dang good. But he was short, and the general belief was that he didn't have the build to be a good, everyday catcher.

But the masterful art of Vin Scully weaved a legend out of LoDuca, waiting in the wings -- about how he struggled, about how he almost returned to help his wife and his dad run a little bitty restaurant in Sedona, Arizona, but he loved baseball so much. There were stories about how his mother used to pitch beans to him that he tried to hit-- which is why he almost never struck out. And then there was the touching effect of how every first at bat, Pauly would write his dead mother's initials in the dirt before he entered the batters box. That combined with how scrappy he was (one time he was hit in the face with a pitch. After just a couple of minutes, he trotted over to first, after every fan was sure his orbital bone must have been fractured to bits...then after one day off, he played every day while that huge rainbow welt healed). Then there was how he handled his pitchers. They all liked him...but he took care of them, whether they liked it or not. He took the ball from Darren Dreyfort and from a fuming Kevin Brown (two pitchers whose bodies were falling apart at alarming rates..and Kevin Brown was another mentioned in the Mitchell Report -- none of the coaches had the gumption to do it, and he spotted that something was wrong before anyone else was ready to act on it. Sometimes I wonder if they listened to him because he knew they were doping as well-- at least Brown was.)

Then there is Eric Gagne....oh man. Every time that kid got on the mound to pitch in the first inning, you knew it was "Game Over" even then. Only back then, it was clear that if Gagne was pitching, we were going to lose. He was a bundle of nerves, but everyone had faith in him. He spent 5 days each week working himself up for the game and tying his stomach in knots (then he'd go back down to AAA and pitch shutouts). The only game he started masterfully was the one where he was sent out onto the mound only ten minutes after he had arrived on Sept. 1st, when the roster was expanded. That was the Gagne everyone said was there. And that was the Gagne that became this masterful closer. He did well when he didn't know he was going in, that made him perfect. And when that guitar started into the first few notes of "Welcome to the Jungle" and all the lights around Dodger Stadium flashed "Game Over" as he trotted out on to the field, I cannot even begin to convey the excitement. Only a Dodger fan knows it. Gagne's dirty cap and his consecutive save record were some of the most exciting baseball I will probably ever see.

My heart broke the day that X*#@% new GM traded away Paul Lo Duca. And I know I wasn't the only one. Jim Tracy, the manager took Lo Duca's # for his own. Eric Gagne had #16 written on his famously stained cap in several places, and it didn't go away until they faced each other...and Gagne lost and three Marlins, including LoDuca came across the plate that inning, winning the game. And before that inning, you could see him in the bullpen, sitting by the window. He wasn't even watching the game. He always watched the game. He didnt want to pitch..whether it was facing his best friend, or the catcher who would have the best insight into beating him, or was it the one who knew he was taking steroids, who helped him get them and injected him with them....who knows. But I knew we lost when he came out....from how he was acting, and from the fact that this was the first game ever that Vin Scully did not say "Bienvenu Monsieur Gagne" as he came out of the gate (and again...why did Gagne walk LoDuca...why did he lose that game? Was it emotions, or was it that LoDuca knew Gagne was on steroids, and that he had something on him? That's the evil thing about cheating...you never know how far it goes, what is real and what is not. That's what wrong with what Pete Rose did...and that is what is wrong with steroid use).

These are the things that are in my heart. And the first thing that comes to my mind is "its all a lie." The stories Vin told, the love that I had for them...the joy, the sweat...lies. Big fat doping lies. I don't think Vin lied. He did his job, and did it well, and Vin loves with all his heart, too. But Pauly lied. Gagne lied. The Dodgers who figured they were both doping lied. And the fans are the ones who sit there with their hearts broken trying to figure it out. It was just another Hollywood production.

But I don't know how much of it really was lies. Lo Duca I was prepared for...after hearing about his escapades with the Mets -- cheating on his wife, and acting like a jerk in many various ways. I want to think that was not the Dodgers' beloved Pauly. The Mitchell Report says that the Dodgers didn't think that LoDuca was taking after his first season when he hit a bunch of homers. I don't know. Lo Duca had several more great years...never big homerun years...but he was on fire to make the All-Star team, to be recognized after the years he waited...and he was, and he became a regular. Who knows what was real or fake? I just know that as a fan, I feel betrayed.

I don't know when Gagne started. The fact that he had to call the supplier to ask how to get bubbles out of a syringe (a very basic thing) in 2005 leads me to hope that the Cy Young and the all time save record weren't lies....It doesn't makes sense that he wouldn't know how to do that if he had three years experience with them, even if he wasn't always the one who injected himself.

But the point is...I can't tell. And I really despise them for it.

I understand the temptation they went through...if that was even an issue for them. I can imagine the pressure they were under to make it...but as a fan...I would've rather never cared...never heard about their sainted mothers or seen their tears when they were sent down yet again...I would've rather never gone through it with them...if their journey was a lie...if it wasn't them...it it was them mutating themselves. I would've rather heard the stories of those who would be in their places who weren't injecting themselves with steroids..even if the stories weren't nearly as interesting. I'm sure the Dodgers would've made it so.

I've known for a couple of years now that Lo Duca had a slimy side to him. I've been through hearing all the stories about Gary Sheffield's journey into Christianity only to see him threaten to destroy a team because he wanted a new contract in the middle of his old one. And quite honestly, I knew it was a possibility that Gagne was taking steroids as well. He went from a skinny kid to this big mound of a man...all fat and sloppy. He could've been a steroid posterboy....but I still hoped. I know this is how it goes. I hate that part of it...but I know this is how it goes. And I know there will be other players that I will "fall in love" with (thanks to Vin's masterful art of weaving these stories) and I know I will probably go through this again...but if anything shattered my innocence....this did. This all started when Mark MacGwire wouldn't give a straight answer, and I realized "Oh my God, it is true." when I knew it was..but the fact that he wouldn't answer was worse than the truth.

And tomorrow, more lies will be added.

I apologize that this is all over the place, because in reality, that is where my thoughts and feelings still are, even two months later. As each year goes by, I realize that as much as I love this game - and it is impossible for me not to love it, I hate being a fan in the steroid era. There will never be another player in my lifetime probably, that will be successful without that hanging over his head. And I hate them for destroying the innocence of so many fans...and so many fans to come (kids especially)...who will be cynically evaluating every player, every statistic, wondering if it is safe to really like them...to cheer for them...to be a fan, a real fan and to wonder whether the heartfelt stories are something that Hollywood would eat up...or whether it is a dream born in a chemistry lab.

1 comment:

rstetradio said...

I can definitely relate to your emotional seesaw. Gagne is my favorite, has been for years. I'd heard the steroid whispers for some time, but wanted to give him benefit of the doubt. But these latest revelations (Mitchell List, HGH shipments with receipts, asking about needle usage)have been very depressing. I felt for Gagne when LoDuca was traded (though personally I could give a shit about LoDuca). I know that had to be really tough for Gagne emotionally; I think the LoDuca trade was likely the source of Gagne's 2005 hostility towards farm fresh rookies, making angry statements about not wanting to remain on the team with them.
When baseball stops being about the game, and starts being about the MONEY, stories like this one are the tragic results. These guys start resorting to desperate measures to keep their high dollar contracts. I have bad feeling this is just tip of the iceberg.