The Substance of Baseball

As the season begins amid the whiff of new scandal, the sport faces perhaps its toughest test yet – even as Mariano Rivera and others give us reason to cheer.

By Jere Hester
|  Saturday, Mar 30, 2013  |  Updated 1:00 PM EDT
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The Substance of Baseball

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Mariano Rivera offers baseball fans a reason to cheer.

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George Carlin, in his classic comic comparison of baseball and football, used the differing language of the two sports to contrast their spirits – the harsher-sounding helmet vs. the more benign cap, gridiron vs. park, penalty vs. error.

"Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life," Carlin observed. "Football begins in the fall, when everything is dying."
 
But as the 2013 baseball season gets set to start on Easter Sunday, it feels like winter never ended. Some ugly sports terms – steroids, human growth hormone, performance enhancing drugs – that post-date Carlin's four-decade-old routine threaten again to overshadow the sunny hope spring should bring.
 
Baseball's latest battle for its soul bodes perhaps the toughest test yet for fans' battered yet resilient hearts.
 
Just over a week before Opening Day, Major League Baseball officials launched a risky attempt at a spring-cleaning in the form of a lawsuit that could yield a hall of shame list of players who allegedly doped. Some big names already have dripped into the media.
 
The lawsuit promises a stark continuation of a bleak off-season in which the Hall of Fame ballot proved a rare shutout. Not even Mike Piazza, the home run leader among catchers, made the cut, likely due to largely unspoken, unsubstantiated suspicions. And at a time when the economy is only just beginning a comeback, we learn, via Yahoo! Sports, that this season kicks off with baseball's first cumulative $3 billion payroll.
 
But as it always does, the sport of Ruth, Aaron and Mays lures us with new – and old – reasons to cheer. The recent World Baseball Classic showcased the game as a vibrant, international pastime, with teams culled from five continents. The Mets are set to host their first All-Star Game in nearly a half-century, offering a guaranteed bright spot for those of us stubborn (and masochistic) enough to still love them. Mariano Rivera, the greatest relief pitcher of them all, is defying age and injury to return for one final season of putting out fires. 
 
Whether baseball can extinguished the inferno threatening the sport while keeping fans' passions burning, though, is shaping up as the big story of the 2013 season. 
 
Carlin, a cynic about nearly everything but baseball, extolled the sport’s endless possibilities and sense of optimism, as promised by a diamond with foul lines stretching to infinity and the lack of a game clock.
 
“Baseball has no time limit: we don't know when it's gonna end – we might have extra innings!” he said.
 
But he might be proved wrong on that account: After a two-decade rollercoaster of labor disputes, home run records that turned out to be shams, and drugs, performance enhancing and otherwise, fans’ patience could be running out. Lance Armstrong’s admitted doping, while not an offense against baseball, only promises to make the public more jaded.
 
Spring carries hope for redemption and renewal. Baseball, which offers the opportunity for both on the diamond, is in bad need of both off the field. 

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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