JOHN RIORDAN: Baseball: Oddly admirable in how it bounces back

No wonder baseball is held so close to American hearts.

Who wouldn’t want to think about spring and summer during the harshest winter in almost two decades?

The players have been reporting to spring training and fans and media have been following the teams to the sunnier climes of the country, Arizona and Florida, to feed their longing for the new season.

When we’re lulled into a stupor by sultry evenings with hot dogs and expensive beer, it’s always difficult to comprehend the ruthless streak which runs through baseball.

Unlike the NBA or the NFL, there is a relative genteel in baseball which glosses over any of the grimier finer points, those machiavellian deeds so vital to success.

Viewed from afar, it’s a civilised bastion of old America; a cosy alternative to the ludicrous fights that break out on the ice or the brutal helmet-to-helmet collisions on the gridiron.

Ok, there’s the odd 50-man brawl and occasionally a pitcher will try to funnel deep into a hitter’s brain with a wild throw but baseball is mostly a relaxed affair, unique in mainstream American society for its ability to keep the folks waiting around for something significant to occur. The sport is, as ever, oddly admirable in its constant rebirth from scandal. These past few days have proven once again that despite large swathes of deep conservatism, it is often able to forgive those elite transgressors who can still produce the goods.

Nelson Cruz, a Dominican who made his name at the Texas Rangers, hit an impressive 27 home runs last season before being halted by a 50-game suspension for his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal whose most high-profile protagonist/arch villain was the New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez (his penalty is the full 2014 season and a very steep hill back into the majors).

I’m all for forgiveness and serving your time. It’s just a little difficult to comprehend a convicted cheat can take so much solace in the knowledge that once the door opens back up, he can walk into a big contract.

Cruz is now a Baltimore Oriole for a year and he will be paid $8m to be a designated hitter; he doesn’t have to field or even run all that much — just swing wild and hit it far. That followed hot on the heels of Barry Bonds’ return to the sport in a coaching capacity. The former San Francisco Giant will turn 50 in the summer and is adored by his former team, both inside and outside the corridors of power.

He is still one of the greatest big hitters of all time and his controversial final tally of 762 home runs remains top of the pile. But he has spent many of his retirement days since 2007 in the wrong sort of spotlight: the performance-enhancing drug allegations have dogged him and a messy perjury trial along with a conviction for obstruction of justice, all of which has rendered him a sorry pin-up for the sport’s prolific juicing era.

He’s getting his second chance though, a temporary role as a special advisor to young hitters during Giants spring training with the potential for something more significant down the track. Who could really blame the San Francisco top brass? He may have given his body that extra edge (at a time when most other players were doing similar) but there’s no magic potion that delivers the sort of good technique he’ll be trying to pass onto the young ones. What makes this even more intriguing is the fact that Bonds is being blocked from entry into the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America, the voters with the final say. As the minority of baseball writers who oppose this would point out, if Bonds is deemed employable by Major League Baseball (unlike Cincinnati Reds legend Pete Rose who is banned from stepping foot in that club since a betting scandal) and he’s deemed eligible for the Hall of Fame (again, unlike Rose), then why should he be blocked from entry.

Compare that to the other end of the ladder where a young prospect decided against joining the Philadelphia Phillies (presumably unhappy with the pay offer he received) and instead returned to complete his studies at Oregon State. So miffed was this ancient organisation at young Ben Wetzler that they then decided to blow the whistle on his use of an agent during negotiations. Wetzler has been hit with a suspension at a crucial time in his collegiate career and the Phillies will focus on the next man up with dreams of the big time.

* john.w.riordan@gmail.com Twitter: JohnWRiordan


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