Saturday, March 19, 2005

Growing up big and strong

I was nearly the Montreal Expos biggest fan.

In 1994, my beloved Yankees were actually winning. These days, it's commonplace. But in the late '80s and early '90s, winning was somewhat of a novelty for the Yankees. In August 1994 they held the best record in the American League. The Expos were the best in the National League. I was primed for an amazing World Series. Then the Strike hit. The baseball card boom of the early 90s stopped on a dime and then collapsed. Lifelong fans turned away by the bushel. I warily came back the next spring, because I loved my Yankees too much. By fall, Buck Showalter had been fired and Don Mattingly was forced into retirement, both decisions made by George Steinbrenner. About the same time, the Expos decided that baseball couldn't make it in Montreal. They became a clearing house for young players -- baseball stars who found themselves traded to other teams like clockwork just as they started making the big bucks. The Expos never even came close to the World Series in the decade since '94.

The Yankees would win the Series in 1996, but it was bittersweet. The players I loved had been ousted. The very next year, I was no longer a Yankees fan. I pulled for Cleveland in the '97 ALCS, and the Padres in '98. Not five years after the Strike, I completely hated the New York Yankees. And the Expos were nothing more than a disappointment waiting for a new start elsewhere.

Baseball's been in some hot water lately, with so much in the news about "The Steroid Years" (as ESPN has taken to calling the last 10 years of the game). I watched parts of the hearings on Capitol Hill Thursday, which though absolutely full of political showboating and PR grandstanding, were still necessary in my mind. Nothing will come of the them on the Hill (as it goes with most congressional hearings), but it's given the public plenty to talk about -- and Major League Baseball plenty to fear.

I agreed with what Tony Kornheiser said that same night on PTI -- that he honestly thought that when McGuire started tearing up he was going to admit having used steroids. But he didn't. It was hard seeing one of baseball's greats get misty eyed over his past transgressions. But when push came to shove, he wouldn't admit (or even deny) a thing. Legally, he hasn't been convicted of anything. But in the court of public opinion, Mark McGuire's a liar and a cheat. If ESPN didn't have March Madness to take care of, Sportscenter might just as well be renamed the "The Steroid Years" for the next few days.

I never thought I'd see a baseball player plead the Fifth when the validity of his records were called into question. It's been a sad past few weeks for baseball. And it's a sad day for the years I grew up in, knowing that I haven't seen a season of ball yet untouched by labor disagreements or steroid usage.

But there are bright spots, like my Washington Nationals, the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes of the old Expos. That and the fact that Steinbrenner hasn't won a Series in a few years, despite carrying the biggest bankroll in all of baseball.

Go Nats.

And will somebody please give Bud Selig a new job? Make him the president of Johnson & Johnson or turn him into a lobbyist, I don't care. Just get him (and Don Fehr) away from my game.

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