My family and I spent a long weekend at a youth soccer tournament outside Oxford, Ohio, and I even got a bit of quiet time, reading the local paper over lunch.
Lunch was strange – locals might even call it food – but I’ll just call it Skyline Chili. And next to the platter of thin muddy chili and the onions, cheese and beans, was the Sunday Cincinnati Enquirer.
And there in the sports section were accounts of two of baseball’s greatest sinners.
One is Pete Rose, the game’s great hitter, Charlie Hustle with the Prince Valiant haircut, who turned 70 on Thursday. Rose was banned from baseball for gambling on the game, though his fans hope he’ll get one foot into the Hall of Fame before he dies.
The headline: “At 70, Does Rose Have Hall Hope?”
The other baseball sinner is Barry Bonds, the angry slugger who was convicted of obstruction of justice in a federal court after denying that he “knowingly” took performance-enhancing drugs.
So I read the sports section, my eyes drifting over the box scores to check on my White Sox, inching back toward baseball, remembering. Not as the soccer dad driving the silver van, the middle-age fellow with the gut and the golf umbrella and polo shirt, carrying those ridiculous canvas chairs equipped with the holders for the iced latte on soccer sidelines.
But as the immigrant’s son on South Peoria Street, the smell of the Union Stockyards on my skin, the 6-year-old me holding imaginary conversations with the great Sox and Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio.
The imaginary Little Louie walking me to Leo’s corner store, the store with the flypaper and the penny candy. Or Louie waiting for me outside Sherman School. And my pretend Louie on the corner at 51st dressed in the neighborhood’s casual uniform, white T-shirt, black pants, those shiny and pointy black Stacy Adams shoes.
Hey, Louie, I’d say. He’d just nod, so cool, so Louie Aparicio, the best shortstop in the game.
Back then we didn’t want to play soccer, the game of our fathers and uncles in the old country. We were born here, in America, and Americans played baseball. Our public school teachers pounded a secular religion into us, the religion of the melting pot, not the religion of the hyphenated ethnic. We were desperate to melt into America, and so we played baseball desperately.
And now we come to Rose’s melancholy birthday and the story of Bonds, both accounts somewhat apologetic, seeking compassion for their protagonists.
The column about Bonds had been reprinted from the New York Times. It dared compare the spoiled and narcissistic slugger to former heavyweight champion Jack Johnson. But Bonds was a pouty, spoiled child of baseball privilege. And Johnson was a proud black man who had to make his own way, hounded by the law in the early 1900s because he liked women who had white skin.
The Bonds piece had this ridiculous line: “But the eight-year pursuit of Bonds also reflects America’s discomfort with prominent, powerful, wealthy black men.”
Really? Bonds the victim of racism? What a laugh. I’ve covered Chicago politics for years, so I shouldn’t ever be surprised when the race card is played, however clumsily. But seeing it invoked on behalf of a narcissistic juicer who made millions – in the same game played by Jackie Robinson – is just too pathetic for words.
Here is what America believes of Bonds: That he saw the muscled-up Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire hitting all those homers and getting all that love and he wanted some too, so he did what he did and stole honest and hard-won glory from Hank Aaron, baseball’s true home run king.
Even a child could see the difference between the thin Bonds and the Bonds of the bull neck. But chicks dig the long ball, and so do sportscasters and fans and owners and advertisers. When the Bonds steroid story broke years ago, I was helping coach Little League baseball, and WGN radio sportscaster Dave Kaplan called me to talk about Bonds, so I asked the fifth-graders in the dugout about him.
“Juicer,” said one boy. “Juicer,” said another. And it went on that way down the bench, little boys casually using “juicer,” in flat voices. And I could hear baseball crying.
Bonds’ sin wasn’t merely his own. He shared it, distributing his sin like some baseball-transmitted disease, sharing it with every fan who cheered him, and sharing it with every executive and every sportscaster shouting “boo-yah” into a microphone, glorying in that ball, crushed, sailing over the wall.
The newspaper article raised the question of whether Major League Baseball might wait until he died and then have him inducted posthumously.
Gee, let’s hope not, I thought. Let’s keep the living Rose out of the Hall of Fame. Let’s keep his dry bones out of it, too.
I remember watching the 1970 All-Star Game, when Rose crashed into my favorite player, Cleveland catcher Ray Fosse.
I was sitting in Stanley’s Barber Shop on 55th Street when Rose came running home. He lowered his shoulder and destroyed Fosse’s promising baseball career. It was a meaningless run.
And now I wonder if Rose had money on it.
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