Hope springs eternal still, but steroids, greed lurking

April 06, 2005|By LAURA VECSEY

ONCE UPON a time, the lunging catch by Miguel Tejada on Opening Day in the swirling wind at Camden Yards to save one, possibly two runs would have served as the most fitting metaphor for the return of baseball.

Hey, what did that crawl across the bottom of the ESPN screen say? Baseball has coughed up the first player to test positive under the new drug-testing policy?

Welcome to the new season.

Let's try to concentrate on the beauty of the game, the skill, the innocence ... if we can.

Here was Tejada, a great shortstop making a great play, breaking toward third base, then reversing course and tracking the little white orb that the gusting wind had blown 30 feet toward second.

Who else makes that play? What finer example for the common man, woman or child to witness on the first official April game and learn again what separates the professional ballplayer from us mere mortals?

Except that so much of the so-called heroics -- and so many of the so-called heroes -- shrink before our very eyes. Congress now calls Mark McGwire ...

It's not even illegal substances or cheating that commands us to be wary. Did anyone see yesterday's newspaper photo of Red Sox leadoff man Johnny Damon signing copies of his new book, something about idiots and life?

Talk about capitalizing on the good fortune of possessing a headful of matinee idol hair. Johnny Sellout gets more exposure than the Breck Girl.

There is a code in baseball about not singling oneself out for too much notoriety or acclaim, especially when the spoils of victory belong to the entire team, if not the entire Red Sox Nation.

But who can get enough of the Idiots?

Welcome to the new season, which promises to bring us so much Red Sox-Yankees theatrics, Congress ought to set limits on how many times Curt Schilling can rip Alex Rodriguez.

Is it me, or does the fact that Yankees captain Derek Jeter and Johnny Hairdo posed together for the cover of Sports Illustrated demonstrate that the "bitter" and "venomous" rivalry is really just a bunch of hype, another reality TV show, perfect to go against Survivor in prime time?

That was exactly the time the Red Sox-Yankees opener was broadcast Sunday night, meaning that all those kiddies between Maine and Staten Island had to turn in before the Big Unit was pulled after six imposing innings.

Welcome to the new season, where TV rules.

Once upon a time, it might have been easier to overlook all these ancillary trappings and revenue-generating necessities that are heaped onto the industry of baseball. Maybe that's what the folks in D.C. who sold their souls to the stadium-building devil -- all hail Council chairman Linda Cropp -- were yearning for: a date with an old beau who has not changed in 34 years, who still bears the promise of youth.

But 34 years is a long time. Baseball is a different animal than it was when the Senators left town.

That much has been made crystal clear by the amount of animosity engendered between Orioles territory and Nationals territory, whatever that may be, by the new TV deal dumped on the Nationals after Major League Baseball's "Whatever You Want, Mr. Angelos" agreement.

Proof of the new development came during the Orioles' Opening Day TV broadcast. It was the little icon on the bottom of the screen: MASN.

The newly created MidAtlantic Sports Network will grant the Orioles the vast majority of equity at the start of the agreement, eventually yielding up to 33 percent for the fledgling Nationals.

That means in D.C., no amount of nostalgia can help fans gloss over the heinous price to pay for the blessing (or is it a curse?) of having a home team.

Lord knows we try to overcome the evidence that says the industry of baseball can be dangerous to your health. There are still things to enjoy about baseball.

Like, how about that Opening Day home run by Orioles center fielder Luis Matos?

There, too, was a baseball incident far more momentous than what met the eye.

Matos, a fine young player with all the tools, eradicated in one thunderous home-run swing all the doubts cast upon him during last season's injury-hampered disaster. In spring training, when he was starting out slowly, head down, cautious, some observers wondered if the legs still bothered Matos, if doubt had crept into his psyche, endangering his willingness to go all out, run, dive, turn on a fastball.

Don't worry, Matos said in Fort Lauderdale, a serious look in his eye.

Watch me.

We did -- and it was terrific -- until a flick of the channels landed us in Cincinnati, where the Mets lost to the Reds and it seemed proof that committing $195 million for Pedro Martinez, Kris Benson and Carlos Beltran would guarantee nothing except to provide the Mets with star power for their new cable network ...

Until we heard that 38 minor leaguers tested positive for banned substances, which reminded us of McGwire as he sniffled through a display of cowardice not seen since all those years of Pete Rose denials ...

Until we remembered that Sammy Sosa is such a welcome addition to the Orioles, the Cubs are paying millions to keep him out of Chicago.

The purity of baseball once again attempts to shuck its barnacles, to evade the twin tag of deception and greed. The fool in me knows it will.

Welcome to the new season.

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