Tipping Pitches: Sports: MLB Network helps relive memories, open wounds


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sports: MLB Network helps relive memories, open wounds

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I applaud the person or people who put together MLB Network. Greatest channel ever created.

A "Greatest Games" marathon of All-Star games is ending tomorrow. I have watched several from the 1980s and 90s and will be recording several shorter "highlight" shows of All-Star games from those two decades as well as the 1970s tomorrow.

It's heaven, man. Games you thought you'd never see again. Names you'd never hear. Faces you'd never see. All relived.

I saw Jack Armstrong start the 1990 All-Star Game. Jack Armstrong! Man, I haven't heard that name in forever. One of many rookie cards I collected, hoping he'd continue his studliness and lead to my eventual wealth.

But being able to sit through a decade makes the Steroid Era seem all the more obvious. And painful.

Watching the games in progressive was interesting. You know why. Players started getting bigger. Then a lot bigger. Numbers and physiques were cartoonish. And early it was comical listening to announcers talk about new training methods, stronger players, bigger numbers. But unable to connect the dots.

I was watching the 1999 show, playing the "Juicer or Not Juicer" game when I suddenly became saddened. It happened right around the time I decided I couldn't be sure about guys like BJ Surhoff or Jay Bell.

This sucks. It sucks for the fans. It sucks for the players who were clean.

BJ Surhoff had 20 homers at the break. I know, that seems crazy. But it's no typo. He had 20. He would eclipse 20 in a season three times in his career, failing to reach double digits in 12 of 19 seasons.

But in 1999, the heart of steroid use, he had 20 home runs midway through the season. Guilty? I hope not. But it sucks for him if he's innocent to put up numbers like that at a time like that.

I don't know if he took steroids, but I can certainly see why he might. At 34, his career was winding down. He was a solid hitter, but an endangered species. He was a hard worker, a utility guy, someone who wasn't great at anything. And he didn't hit home runs in bunches.

He also had never before participated in an All-Star game.

Would you do it? I like to say I wouldn't. But it was a strange era. Everyone was doing it. If you didn't, you may lose your job to someone who was. Especially a guy like Surhoff.

I remember meeting the guy as a rookie in 1987 at a card show. I was a 12-year-old Brewers fan decked out in my team's gear, eager to get his attention. I idolized guys like Surhoff.

There is no real reason to dirty his name in this conversation. But it's the type of discussion that happens as a result of an era of lies and deception.

Jay Bell? I don't know how I missed this guy. He didn't look huge, I guess. Maybe just because he was surrounded by body building goons like Mark McGwire. He wore glasses. He could be your high school science teacher.

The year 1999 was Bell's 14th season. Until then, he had hit single digit home runs eight times. Eclipsed 20 twice (20 and 21 the prior two seasons).

But in 1999, Jay Bell set a career high for home runs in a season with 24. By the All-Star break. He finished with 38.

Bell and Surhoff are two of the many examples we don't usually hear when people start throwing around names. But it's the crappy game we end up playing when the league and its players have done everything they can to bury this era.

It sucks that we can't be confident about these guys. Instead of doing all we can to separate the cheaters from those who did it the right way, we're told to lump everyone together in the era.

It's not just Bell and Surfhoff. It's also the others like Cal Ripken, Nolan Ryan, Tony Gwynn, Paul Molitor and Barry Larkin. It's also those who never became stars.

It's easy to separate Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire. But it's near blasphemy to mention some of the others. Others that have clean images. Others who have never been accused of anything. Others we want to believe.

But there will always be that question. Did he? Maybe just once? Maybe just one season? Or was it several seasons?

We'll never know for sure. And we may even be understanding if we did.


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