Kirk Wessler's column from Peoria for Aug. 1.
As a student of history, I felt compelled to watch.
As a fan of sport, I knew I’d want to gag.
So I settled for clicking-in between visits to "Paula Zahn Now," because as blondes go she’s a brainy hottie to us over-50 guys, and "The Singing Bee," because it’s amazing how many people don’t know the words, and "The Bronx Is Burning," because I remember when, and "Mind of Mencia" reruns, because Carlos is just wickedly, honestly funny.
Never had baseball faced a night like Tuesday, when three men, playing for three different teams in three different games, had a chance to achieve such hallowed milestones:
The Mets’ Tom Glavine was trying to become the 23rd pitcher to win 300 games.
Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez needed one long ball to become the 22nd member of the 500-homer club.
No sport is cherished for its numerical records like baseball. Among the numbers, six are instantly recognized by every fan as career hallmarks. Three of the numbers represent achievement that, with two notable exceptions for violating the game’s sacred trust, has guaranteed enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. The other three are all-time records.
The first three numbers are these: 3,000 hits, 500 home runs and 300 wins.
The three records are these: 4,256 hits by Pete Rose; 755 home runs by Henry Aaron; 511 wins by Cy Young.
Think about this.
In 132 years of professional baseball, of all of the tens of thousands of players who’ve donned uniforms, Glavine, A-Rod and Bonds are in a group that numbers fewer than 50.
In 132 years of professional baseball, we have never seen a season like 2007, let alone a night with the potential of Tuesday.
Only once have four players reached one of these round numbers or broken one of those all-time records in the same season. That was 1985, when Rod Carew got his 3,000th hit, Phil Niekro and Tom Seaver each won his 300th game and Rose passed Ty Cobb as the all-time Hit King.
Since Blue Jays slugger Frank Thomas hit his 500th homer and Astros scrapper Craig Biggio got his 3,000th hit already this year, 2007 will surpass 1985. If not Tuesday, then today. If not today, then someday very, very soon.
And we had a chance to see such greatness celebrated as never before on one glorious night.
Yet, we’re left feeling empty. Unfulfilled. Sour.
Bonds, you know about. Whether you want to believe his body and his home-run numbers were chemically enhanced is ultimately up to you.
A-Rod was touted as the ultimate savior, the man projected to erase Bonds’ stain from atop the homer chart with nothing more than natural ability. But Jose Canseco, that erstwhile champion juicer and noted clubhouse rat, recently has slung mud on A-Rod’s rep. So we shall have to see.
I feel some for Glavine, about whom no accusation has been made, no questions raised.
But what does that even mean anymore? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything.
The sorry fact is the steroids storm has soaked everyone in the game with the same stain. The guilty are guilty. The suspects are guilty. The innocent ...
Well, who is truly innocent?
Bud Selig, the lord high commissioner of baseball, and his bungling band of owners allowed this to happen. For years and years, they looked the other way. Don Fehr and his players union allowed this to happen, too, by resisting any attempts to impose meaningful drug testing and sanctions. The players and managers, with their see-nothing, say-nothing, we-are-family mentality, enabled the use of every syringe in the clubhouse toilet stalls. The media, caught up in the scores and the numbers and the cult of personality, ignored what should have been evident. The fans kept throwing their money through the ticket windows and cheering wildly for the power surge.
Blame one, blame all.
It always has been in vogue for cynics to weigh the meaning of the numbers, which in fact do not provide for the seamless comparisons baseball purists love to cite.
Babe Ruth hit a good number of his homers into a short right-field porch at Yankee Stadium that was custom built to accommodate his left-handed power. Cy Young chalked up wins in an era when pitchers started several games a week. How many hitters from the early 1960s through the mid-1990s feasted on the expansion-thinned pitching ranks? Would Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux have so many wins if they had pitched their entire careers on three days of rest, going seven and eight and nine innings every time out? What would Paul Molitor’s and Frank Thomas’s and Reggie Jackson’s numbers be without the designated-hitter rule?
But the natural evolution of the game, from era to era, is one thing.
The unnatural evolution of players’ bodies is another.
What we have now is accomplishment out of context. Greatness without honor. Innocence without trust.
A night to celebrate, but with no joy.
On the West Coast, Giants outfielder Barry Bonds was swinging to tie Henry Aaron with his 755th home run, most in major-league history.
KIRK WESSLER is executive sports editor/columnist with the Journal Star. Write to him at 1 News Plaza, Peoria, IL 61643, call (309) 686-3216 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.