Cloudy Opening Day

April 03, 2006|By RAYMOND DANIEL BURKE

Baseball welcomes Opening Day under the lingering cloud of a scandal of its own making.

The recently announced investigation of steroid use, headed by former Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, cannot mask the fact that the home run binge the sport promoted, while ignoring meaningful control of performance-enhancing drugs, has come back to haunt its most sacred records.

This season arrives with the disturbing specter of Barry Bonds surrounded by ever-increasing and more thoroughly documented allegations of his use of an array of illegal performance-enhancing substances while he is poised to challenge the legendary career home run records of Babe Ruth and Henry Aaron.

Intoxicated with unprecedented long-ball exploits, baseball turned a regulatory blind eye while the six greatest single-season home run totals in history, all accomplished by Mr. Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, occurred during just a four-season span from 1998 to 2001. In fact, 11 of baseball's top 17 single-season home run performances have occurred since 1997.

Last season was preceded by a congressional hearing on steroids, marked by Mr. McGwire's inability to deny steroid use, Mr. Sosa's sudden unfamiliarity with English and a strong denial of impropriety from Rafael Palmeiro. The season that followed witnessed Mr. Palmeiro's suspension for steroid use and Mr. Sosa's pathetic but apparently steroid-free season in Baltimore. Nevertheless, the game was spared a confrontation between its icons and Mr. Bonds, who missed all but 14 games with an injury. No such luck this year. He begins the season just six home runs shy of the immortal Babe.

The failure of baseball to have policed itself casts suspicion on all accomplishments. Uncertainties about the impact of steroid use have sullied the legitimacy of even honest achievement and broken the sanctity of statistical comparison that has been the game's generational adhesive.

Moreover, doubts about whether the efforts we are witnessing are pure athleticism or pharmaceutically enhanced diminish the capacity of heroic performances to provide the spiritual uplift and inspiration that makes sport so compelling and culturally valuable.

Where sport displays the capacity to call greatness from the heart, mind and body, it can create moments that deliver transcendent lessons.

One such moment was provided by a player whose career home run total was recently eclipsed by Mr. Bonds and Mr. Sosa. It was in Game 6 of the 1971 World Series, and it was the quintessential illustration of a great competitor pushing his body beyond its physical limits.

The Orioles, having won the first two games at home, had proceeded to lose the next three in Pittsburgh and returned to Baltimore on the brink of elimination. The game moved to the bottom of the 10th with the score 2-2. The O's Frank Robinson, hobbling on painful knees, was on first. On an ensuing single, he determined that he would reach third. Sheer will brought him there safely with one out. Then a fly ball drifted against the cloudy October sky into shallow leftfield. As the Memorial Stadium crowd watched the flight of the ball, everyone knew that, on that shallow fly, Frank Robinson, failing knees and all, was going to tag and try to score. His hard slide into home tied the Series and allowed the Orioles to play for another day. It was a single moment from a single game, but it was a singular event that epitomized the character of a champion.

Opening Day 2006 marks 40 years since Mr. Robinson made his Orioles debut. He led them in 1966 to their first modern-day pennant and World Series title with a dominating Triple Crown performance.

Ultimately accumulating 586 home runs, Mr. Robinson provided leadership that brought the Orioles four league pennants in his six seasons here. But it was not just his statistics that made for success. He showed the team how to win and demonstrated what can be accomplished by the sheer power of determination.

And on an October afternoon, he gave us the gift of having witnessed an athlete calling on the full measure of his abilities. That is the true allure of sport, and it only derives from the certainty that the performances we are witnessing are real and not chemically induced. Because only then can they inspire all of us to call on the best of our own abilities. And that's what provides the foundation for the celebration and hope that should be part of every Opening Day.

Raymond Daniel Burke, a Baltimore native, is a principal in a Baltimore law firm. His e-mail is rdburke@ober.com.

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