Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Football is done with (except for the combine and the draft and mini-camps and "voluntary" workouts) until training camp in July or August.  Hockey and basketball are in full swing.  But the sport that grabs the attention of fans everywhere right now is baseball.  Spring Training has sprung, and even fans in Kansas City, Washington, Pittsburgh and, yes, Baltimore have hope that this year is the year they break through and become the feel good Tampa Bay Rays of the 2009 season.

But through all the mess, there is still the dark, ugly cloud of steroids.  In the last week Alex Rodriguez (arguably the biggest star in the sport right now) was revealed to be one of the 104 players who tested positive for a PED in 2003 (the fact that the results of those tests were supposed to be kept private, and that part of the collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the player's union does not allow for those who DID test positive to be punished makes the release of his name and the timing of it to be more than a little fishy, but maybe next time we can delve into this with more fervor).  Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa...all have been tried and convicted in the court of public opinion without their guilt ever being proven.  Baseball has been tarnished and tainted by the steroids scandal.

Why hasn't football?

It is a valid question.  After all, it isn't like the sport is clean by any stretch.  In just the past few years a Super Bowl team and the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year have been accused or tested positive for steroids.  It seems like every year there is at least one player of note being suspended for violating the league's substance abuse policy.  And yet football is not painted with the same broad stroke of mistrust and anger aimed towards it that baseball is.  Why is that?  Well, I have a few reasons that I think explain it.

1. Football has been open about the existence of PED's being used and has tested for it for years.

Football has been testing since 1987 and has had a policy in place for disciplining players since 1989.  Baseball, on the other hand, had its head in the proverbial sand until a former player with a vendetta brought it up and forced it into the consciousness of the average sports fan.  And even then, the league moved lethargically towards an kind of policy or disciplinary action for offenders (of course, the blame for that is as much if not more with the player's union and their unwieldy amount of power than with the league, which was all but powerless to institute any policy until public opinion forced the union to change its stance).  Baseball's refusal to even acknowledge the possibility of the existence of PED's in the sport made the inevitable revelation that much bigger and more the object of scorn and derision.

2. Players are more visible in baseball.

Football is more of a team sport than baseball.  Baseball is a team sport, but it is a team sport that consists of a lot of one-on-one match ups, specifically pitcher versus hitter.  The team (except for the catcher) is only involved some of the time.  And there are a lot of closeups of players faces, which are easy to see, since the only thing on their heads is a cap.  In football there are head encompassing helmets with face masks, and many players wear visors that obscure their faces even more.  They are in big bulky pads that are underneath their uniforms, making them look bigger and not as human.  It is easier for the fan to root for the jersey number and the logo on the helmet.  In baseball you know what they look like and what shape they are, there are not all those artificial accouterments beneath the uniform.  Most any fan can pick Roger Clemens out of a lineup.  How many could pick out Rodney Harrison?  Being faceless has its advantages when it comes to public scrutiny.

3. More history means more reverence.

Who is the career home run leader?  Who's record did he beat?  Who's record did the PREVIOUS leader beat?  

There is a decent chance that you were able to name at least two of the three players (Barry Bonds, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth - just in case you weren't sure).  

Who holds the record for most career touchdown passes?  Who did he beat to get the record?  Who had the record before HIM?

You might have gotten the current guy, since his recent string of retiring and un-retiring over the last few years has kept him at the forefront of even the most casual sports fan's mind.  the second guy is less definite, and unless you are a sports nut you might not even know who number 3 is (Brett Favre, Dan Marino, and Fran Tarkenton - just in case you weren't sure)

Baseball has been around since the 1800's, and was the most popular sport in the country for a long time.  Baseball is known for its records.  Talk to a sports fan and say these numbers...
  • 56
  • 714
  • 4256
  • .406
I could go on and on with these (DiMaggio's 56 straight games with a hit, Babe Ruth's career home run total, Pete Rose's career hit total, Ted Williams' average in 1941, the last time a player has hit .400 or better for an entire season).  There is a reverence for baseballs' statistics and the players involved with them.  It goes back to the point about the individual players in a team sport.  Especially as a hitter, it is you against the world.  And hitting is what you watch.  Defense is a reaction to the bat hitting the ball.  So those numbers mean a lot to sports fans.  Especially fans who grew up watching and living sports.  Fans who can still remember the first time they walked through that opening of the stadium, past the concession stands, and saw the field laid out before them.  The green grass, the buzz of the crowd, the sun on your face, watching batting practice, seeing your team's big bopper in the batting cage hitting ball after ball into the stands until you didn't think there was any other place the ball could go whenever he stepped up to the all adds up to a Norman Rockwell painting, but it is real life, and it is as vivid a memory to me as anything I can remember ever.  And I know I am not the only person who has that memory, no matter what stadium they went to.  There is a piece of innocence there that football doesn't have, and that lends itself to fans being more hurt when that memory becomes tainted.  And that leads us to my final point...

4. We expected better of baseball.

Football is compared to war, and in war all that matters is that you win, and damn the consequences and the costs.  Even if that cost is your honor.  A lot of the terminology is based in military terminology (George Carlin does a much better comparison than I could ever hope to do.  Read it HERE).  Football is a violent, nasty sport where the average career is a little over 3 years.  I really think that we as fans are more understanding of someone using a PED to help them get through an injury or last another year.  Football breaks you, and fans laud the big hit that knocks an opponent out and who cares what it winds up doing to the hitter OR the player laid out on the field.  A lot of fans do not understand that while baseball is not a contact sport, it will grind you up into powder, especially at the major league level.  They play 162 games.  That is twice as many games as the NHL and the NBA and 16 times as many games as the NFL.  Mentally and physically it is taxing to a level that I cannot comprehend.  There is a reason that amphetamines were set out in candy dishes in the 70's and 80's.  But still we look at MLB and see ourselves playing sandlot baseball with our buddies, a ghost man on 2nd and two fingers down always means a curveball.  Football is us as a nation of overaggressive pain junkies, getting our fix vicariously through the hits on the field so that we can stomach another week of being cooped up in the office with those annoying coworkers.  Baseball is us sitting in the stands, enjoying the game with a beverage and a buddy, or playing catch on a hot, lazy, hazy summer day until Mom calls us to come in.  We are not personally offended when Jeff Mitchell gets busted for steroids.  We are when Andy Pettitte is.

So where do we go from here?  Who knows.  I think the baseball situation is going to get worse before it gets better.  And I expect that baseball will continue to be held to a higher moral standard than football.  And I will still be a fan of both.  Just a slightly more jaded one.

Friday, February 06, 2009

By now most of you have heard about Ray Lewis and his flat out refusal to think about giving the Ravens a "hometown discount".  I am having mixed reactions to this.

First, there is Mr. Bisciotti saying he doesn't see the team using the franchise tag on Lewis, and that he expects the team to go all out in re-signing him (which effectively cuts out a major negotiating tactic from Ozzie Newsome).  Then there is Terrell Suggs saying that maybe he, Lewis, and Bart Scott could ALL give the team a hometown discount in order to stay together.  And kudos to Suggs for even contemplating having a team first mentality, when that is such a rarity in professional sports (and major college sports too, for that matter). 

Now add to that the mixed feelings of understanding that this is (barring some kind of miracle) going to be his last contract (or at least the last one with any real big money to it) and that Lewis would want to maximize the amount of money he makes mixed with the fact that he has made a LOT of money in his 13 year career and that the team and the city showed him a lot of loyalty during his legal issues of 1999-2000.  So while I can see his point, to outright deny the possibility the prospect of taking a little less in order to stay and finish his career here in front of the fans who have made him a multi-millionaire many times over is a bit of a slap in the face, at least to this fan.  One would think the psychic income would account for SOMETHING, if he really means what he says about Baltimore always being his city and how much love and respect he has for us as fans.

So where does that leave me in regards to my previous post about the teams re-signing priorities?  Honestly, if anything it moves him down below Leonhard and Neal.  And that is iffy.  Probably it doesn't move him at all, at least to me.  But at the most it would move him from 3rd to 5th.  The big question becomes would the Ravens use the franchise tag on him, even after Bisciotti said they wouldn't?  If he truly trusts Newsome to make the personnel decisions (and looking at his track record with the roster why wouldn't he?) then it could still happen (although I would rather save it for Jason Brown, as stated in the aforementioned article).  The fact of the matter is that Ray Lewis IS 33, and about to enter his 14th season of football, playing a very physically demanding position.  He is in fantastic shape.  He seems to be playing as well as he ever has.  But this is the first time he has played in all 16 regular season games since 2003, and he is not going to be able to play forever.  It is not worth taking a cap hit that would cripple this team now or in the future in order to secure his services for another 2-4 years.  Offer him a fair deal.  If he refuses, we will have to see where he winds up.  If it is Kansas City or Detroit it is all about the money and always has been, and his proclamations of wanting to win another championship will be proven to be all talk.  If it is Miami, at least it is his hometown team, and they did have a good season last year.  If it is to the Jets or the Cowboys, he is probably trying to win it all AND get the massive payday (but if my memory serves the Jets are in salary cap purgatory, at least until Brett Favre makes up his mind about playing in 2009).

All we can do now is see how it shakes out.