I adore baseball, warts and all

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 December, 2011, 12:00am


It was a time for an epiphany; at least it was for me. It was San Francisco back in the mid-1980s at a symposium of sports writers where I was listening to the late Leonard Koppett, a venerable scribe described as a writer who had a novel approach to sports. Koppett had been with a number of publications, most notably The New York Times, but was semi-retired and living in northern California so the title below his name simply read: Editor Emeritus.

He was asked why baseball, more than any other team sport, lends itself to great literature. 'It's the pace,' he said. 'The game moves at a pace that is tailor made for introspection.' And just to reinforce the point, he added: 'There is no such thing as a great basketball story.'

Ironically, Koppett had written almost as many basketball stories as baseball ones but nevertheless a light went on in my head. I get it now; I love baseball because it allows me to. The game is alive with possibilities, most of them unfolding at a digestible pace. And there is romance.

Baseball engages you subtly in ways that American football, basketball and hockey cannot. I mention all of this because Ryan Braun broke my heart and, in hindsight, that's a very good thing. Braun is the reigning National League Most Valuable Player. Thanks to his hitting heroics the Milwaukee Brewers had their most successful season in close to 30 years. He did and said everything right. He was the engaging, intelligent and caring half-Jewish, half-Catholic boy next door. At least he was up until a few days ago when it was announced that he had tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug and would be suspended for the first 50 games next season. Of course Braun is pleading innocence and has the right to a legitimate appeal process. But of the 12 players who have appealed previously, none have won.

Baseball is not the only sport players cheat in, not nearly. It seems, though, that the same romantic myth of the game that fools like myself cling to makes the stakes for impropriety so much more damning. NFL players get suspended for performance-enhancers and some have come back to make the all-star team that same season. But once you get exposed as a druggie in baseball it's an irreparable black mark and you have no chance, regardless of your career greatness, to be enshrined in the oh-so-hallowed Hall of Fame.

Well, at least I haven't lost the ability to be surprised. I believed in Braun and in some respects I still do because the day I lose the capacity to believe in something then what the heck is left in life? Even though he was signed through 2015, the Brewers managed to ink Braun earlier this season to a five-year extension for US$105 million that will keep him with the team through 2020. Braun said it was a validation of his character from the team's owner. 'I think the biggest thing is clearly he believes in who I am as a person,' Braun said. 'If the team didn't believe in my work ethic and my character and my commitment to this game or to this team, there's no chance that they sign somebody to a deal like that.' Ouch.

The day before Braun's positive test was released, the St Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols, who is the greatest player in the game and a man of deep religious faith and apparently the highest moral fibre, left the team he had played with the previous 11 seasons to sign a 10-year, US$254 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels. He broke a lot of hearts in St Louis and in baseball but mine was not one of them.

It's almost always about the money for these guys and it should be as well. The Cardinals offered him US$44 million less than the Angels and many fans figured he could get by on US$210 million. But baseball is a business and Pujols is a businessman so it was hardly a dark day for the game. Dry your eyes St Louis. The guy gave you 11 great years and two World Series championships and all of it at a fraction of his market value. An athlete taking top dollar is hardly unique. But a virtuous young superstar exposed as a cheater? Now that is a dark day for the game.

There is a certain, almost unspoken smugness to baseball fans. This ain't no hillbilly hoedown like Nascar nation or blood lust of the NFL. Baseball fans indulge in subtlety, romance, endless possibilities and limitless strategy. Ours is a time-honoured ritual, steeped in folklore, history and all too often erudite literature.

You say baseball is boring and, yeah, it most certainly can be. But once you crack the code the game is an unrivalled treat. And while it's not my intent to come off like just another dated and incurably insufferable windbag doting on the joys of baseball, it is what it is and what it is is love and love ain't love if it's logical. Ryan Braun broke my heart. And that's a good thing.