Palmeiro's lapse leaves fans pining for the past

August 04, 2005|By Daniel Munoz

EVERY GENERATION makes its case for greatness.

Our elders speak fondly of a bygone era, of simpler, harder times. They speak of the past as a place where real sporting heroes reside, where names such as Hank Aaron, Joe DiMaggio and Brooks Robinson set the tone for successive generations of baseball fans.

But growing up in Baltimore, I casually dismissed the past's patent-like claim on heroes. The chance to watch my childhood hero, Cal Ripken Jr., on our basement TV or to listen to Jon Miller's call of the game on the radio I kept hidden under my pillow was enough motivation to get homework done at lightning speed.

And it was enough to generally stay out of trouble, except when I hit a baseball through the garage window. Ever the 9-year-old diplomat, I explained to Dad that there was good news and bad news. The bad news was that we now had a new draft in our garage; the good news was that I had really gotten ahold of that last pitch.

But these days, I wonder whether the past is patented.

If hypocrisy ever wore an Armani suit, it would probably have looked a lot like Rafael Palmeiro on March 17. He appeared then to be the only redeeming member of an otherwise sorry panel of fellow major-league ball players called to testify before the House Government Reform Committee about the steroid problem in professional baseball.

Mark McGwire, a home-run hitting inspiration just years before, whimpered while evading questions, then effectively acknowledged cheating. The ever-shrinking Sammy Sosa transiently forgot the English language. Pitcher Curt Schilling, acting more like a politician than any of the elected representatives in the room, took a feeble and hollow stand against steroids while rejecting the need for increased vigilance by Major League Baseball or the federal government. Barry Bonds was too busy shifting blame and making excuses to even show up.

Then there was Mr. Palmeiro. With his finger wagging in admonition, he looked an entire nation of kids in the face and denied that he had ever used steroids. "Never," he told us. And we believed him.

On that day, he provided the single dose of hope to worried baseball fans. His testimony reassured us that there still might be big-league stars with sufficient respect for the game, for its storied past and for its fans not to cut corners or cheapen accomplishment by cheating.

Heroism, it seems, now has a progressively dwindling half-life. Mr. McGwire let us believe for at least a couple of seasons that sacred records are made to be broken. Mr. Palmeiro, who got his 3,000th major-league hit July 15, sustained our belief in heroes for only a few short weeks. In a development that only added weight to a sinking ship, Mr. Palmeiro was slapped with a 10-game suspension for violating Major League Baseball's steroid policy.

Mr. Palmeiro already has begun prolonging our collective agony by splitting hairs in carefully worded revisions and seeking cover behind his team of lawyers. His wrongdoing will not simply go away, and his fast-eroding image may never be cobbled back together again. That metallic clinking you hear is the sound of kids all around Baltimore hanging their Palmeiro jerseys in that part of the closet that is rediscovered only when it comes time to go away to college.

Our generation's pro athletes have failed mightily to fill the formidable shoes of those of past generations, who seemed to combine greatness with a genuine love of the game and an unstated respect for the fans and the rules.

Maybe it won't be this hard on my future kids. Maybe they won't care that the magic inherent in America's national pastime is gone because they were never around to experience it to begin with. Or maybe 15 years from now, there will be that rare star, a player who actually runs out ground balls, who walks into the ballpark every night with a vivid memory of how it felt to be a kid in the stands. Today's big-leaguers seem numb to the necrotizing effect they've had on an entire generation's innocence and wonder. And they seem powerfully indifferent to its repair.

But old-fashioned notions of accountability and remorse should not yet be dismissed as relics of a bygone era. Just tell us you broke the garage window and let's move on. Until then, I'm steering clear of the ballpark.

Daniel Munoz, 26, is a physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital who played Little League baseball in Baltimore.

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