Baseball And America

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Part X: 9/11, the Steroid Era, the Chicago Cubs

As America moved closer to the new century the home run barrage continued to grow reaching its peak of excitement in 1998. Outfielder Sammy Sosa of the Cubs battled St. Louis first baseman Mark McGuire for the first to break Roger Maris’s single season record of 61 homeruns. The leader changed hands numerous times in what can only be considered as a friendly competition. The press coverage grew with intensity each game, however the pressure did not seem to bother either player. The final count ended with both players eclipsing the record – McGuire with 70 to Sosa’s 66. All of a sudden the discontent felt by the fans due to the 1994 strike disappeared. The same year also saw a record broken that was considered unreachable – Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played.  Cal Ripken, Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles finally took to the bench after playing in a mind boggling 2633 consecutive games! Enjoying this renaissance of the game was the new commissioner of baseball, Bud Selig. Closing out the century there was one more strike but of a different nature. The umpires walked off their jobs in 1999 however it proved rather futile as minor league and college umpires were hired to replace them. The major league umpires returned in a few weeks with little gained. The Atlanta Braves continued their annual trips to post season play but lost out to the Yanks in a four game World Series sweep to end the century.

The country was not enjoying such good times. In Washington President Clinton survived an impeachment indictment in 1999 for perjury and sexual misconduct. George W. Bush was elected in 2000 just nine months before the 9/11 terrorist attack by the Islamic extremists group ( Al Queda) under the direction of its leader Osama Bin Laden  This marked the beginning of a presidency filled with difficulties and tough decisions. On March 20, 2003 the USA initiated an invasion of Iraq under the false illusion that Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein had accumulated and planned to use weapons of mass destruction. America’s 130,000 troops along with 30,000 allied troops invaded Iraq with full force for 40 days before Bush declared mission accomplished on May1. History has shown he was very premature in his declaration as the war continued for eight years and saw the creation of another well- armed extremist group (ISIS). In December of 2003  Saddam Hussein was captured and was later convicted and sentenced to death as a war criminal by the new Iraq government. Despite the continuing conflict, George W. Bush was reelected in 2004. In 2005 Americans were stunned watching the videos of the viciousness of Hurricane Katrina as it struck New Orleans leaving a death toll of over 2,000 and many thousands of displaced residents. Starting in 2006 there were signs of a troubled economy. These signs mushroomed into a full scale recession by 2008 caused primarily by banks issuing sub prime mortgages to those who would not have ordinarily qualified for home ownership.  The failure of millions of home owners to make their mortgage payments, caused the stock market and housing values to tumble while unemployment rates surged to over 10 percent. Anxiety ruled the nation as doomsayers predicted a repeat of the 1929 depression. The government was put in the position of bailing out some of the nation’s largest lending institutions and car manufacturers. The recession began a slow recovery but not before millions of people suffered financial hardships. Bush also was presiding when a lone gunman killed 32 and injured 17 students on the campus of Virginia Tech University.

Baseball has since its inception demonstrated a healing solution to our country. We have witnessed how the spirit of baseball has engaged our cities with excitement and pride as their team drives towards and wins championships. Baseball has enabled Americans to put aside their disagreements and come together to support their team. Twenty days following the tragedy of 9/11 baseball returned to New York City. The New York Mets hosted the Atlanta Braves in what was an emotional start of the healing process for the country. A salute to the first responders and victims of the tragedy allowed the country to cry together and collectively feel the relief that the call of “Play Ball” can bring. When the Mets Mike Piazza hit a two run homer in the eighth inning to take the lead, the cheers of the crowd was a sign that America was starting a return to normalcy. The 2001 season was a memorable season for baseball. San Francisco outfielder Barry Bonds broke the McGuire home run record when he hit 73. In the American League, Alex Rodriguez (A-Rod) who had signed a $250 million dollar 10 year contract with the Texas Rangers, was connecting almost as much as Bonds. There were others showing an amazing increase in power which was causing some to wonder “why?” . Accusations were being made that were eventually confirmed that many players were injecting themselves with steroids to gain strength and overcome injuries. Future investigations included a 2005 Congressional Hearing questioning three well known ball players. Sammy Sosa, Mark McGuire, and Rafael Palmeiro of the Orioles. The following year Barry Bonds was at the center of a Senate Investigation Committee for illegal use of performance enhancing drugs. In 2010 pitcher Roger Clemens of the Yankees was called to testify before Congress.  Although no players were convicted in a court of law, many including A Rod, then with the Yankees, received 60 game suspensions.  Many reputations, including Barry Bonds, were tarnished as were their individual records. The incidents placed a dark cloud over major league baseball and became known as the Steroid Era.

Barrack Obama was sworn in as President in 2009. He inherited the challenge of fixing the broken economy along with the ongoing search for Al Queda leader Osama Bin Laden. In 2012 Bin Laden was killed when a group of US Navy Seals invaded the farmhouse in which he was hiding in Pakistan. The same year saw the tragic murder of 29 people including 22 students, ages 5-7, by a crazed shooter at Sandy Hook elementary school in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. Terrorism hit America again in 2013 when two brothers under the influence of ISIS set off two bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Three people died, 16 lost limbs and over 100 others were injured. One of the brothers died and the other was captured and sentenced to life in prison. Once again, baseball played a part in the healing process as Boston Red Sox star first baseman David “Big Papi” Ortiz presented at Fenway Park and on national TV an emotional challenge for Boston to stand strong.

On the field the game went on. In 2004 on the 100th anniversary of World Series championships, the Boston Red Sox broke the “Curse of Bambino” when they won the World Series in a four game sweep of the St Louis Cardinals.  It was the first Red Sox championship since 1923 – the year they traded Ruth to the Yankees. The series was highlighted by a display of courage by Red Sox pitcher Curt Shilling who pitched with an injured ankle that was bleeding through his sock. 2005 saw the end of the Braves 14 consecutive division championships.  In 2007, Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s home run record and retired with 762 home runs. Baseball established an annual tribute game day to the civil rights movement and Jackie Robinson in 2008. From then during each season teams play one game, often in retro uniforms, with all players wearing Number 45 – Robinson’s number.  In 2011 The Cardinals and Rangers squared off in the World Series. The Rangers won in seven but only after a slugfest Game Six that saw the lead change six times until the Cardinals won in the 11th inning, 10 to nine. The Houston Astros moved from the National League to the American League in 2013 in order to balance out each league with 15 teams and three divisions each with five teams. 2016 brought the long suffering Chicago fans their reward, when the Cubbies outlasted the Cleveland Indians to win the Series, four games to three. It was a sleepy country the morning following Game Seven. After a rain delay, the game lasted into the morning hours before outfielder Ben Zobrist delivered a game winning double in the tenth inning for a 8-7 victory! The turnout for the jubilant Chicago celebration parade two days later was estimated at five million people. The excitement rippled throughout the country.

To conclude this series of articles a quote from the movie Field of Dreams is appropriate. The scene is towards the end of the movie when Terrance Mann, played by James Earl Jones, encourages Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner, not to give up on his dream. It is a very meaningful sentiment that shares the objective of this review of bringing baseball and history together. It also carries a lesson that our divided country should listen to today.

As They Played the Game:

“Ray, people will come Ray. They’ll come to Iowa for reasons they can’t even fathom. They’ll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they’re doing it. They’ll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past. Of course, we won’t mind if you look around, you’ll say. It’s only $20 per person. They’ll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it is money they have and peace they lack. And they’ll walk out to the bleachers; sit in shirtsleeves on a perfect afternoon. They’ll find they have reserved seats somewhere along one of the baselines, where they sat when they were children and cheered their heroes. And they’ll watch the game and it’ll be as if they dipped themselves in magic waters. The memories will be so thick they’ll have to brush them away from their faces. People will come Ray. The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. Oh… people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.”

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