“The First one through the wall always gets their nose bloody” – Moneyball
Of course I had to pull a quote from the movie of which this blog is named, but it is appropriate, I think, in this case. It was June 3rd, 2017, on a clear night in Anaheim, California, when the first step in the healing process of modern baseball began, and no one noticed.
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“No one” might have been a bit hyperbolic, but for those who remember, compare this to the coverage that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa got as they chased down just a single season record. The chase for Roger Maris’s single season home run record captivated a nation, and united everyone behind the past time we created over 120 years ago, only to buckle under the scrutiny of hindsight, and almost make us feel foolish for creating such hysteria over two men that seemed to have sold their souls for a piece of immortality, only to be wiped away in just a few years by a man who seemed ready to sink even lower to distort the record books we hold so dear. We, as a country, felt betrayed. Then came another man, almost as arrogant and defiant as the last, who decided he too, would sell his integrity for a slice of history. Baseball had watched as the “steroid era” allowed villains to enter the halls of our heroes, and leave impacts that even those who put their heads in the sand, could not deny their legacies. The game was torn, presented with an impossible situation. Accept the flaws of a few, and give the game of our nation the context it needed, or invalidate the accomplishments of those who were truly great, without the advances of the science we came to embrace.
The nation needed a hero, but not the kind we would think. There is no shining stallion, there is no triumphant music playing as they save the game from almost certain peril. There is just a man who put his head down, and went to work. Someone who wanted nothing more than the best for his team and his game, and to be the very best player he could. If one needs a reference to this, one could look to the summer of 1995, when a small framed, but tough minded short stop in Baltimore seemed to stage a one man crusade to renew the fans love of the game after the infamous strike of 1994. The fans of America’s game needed healing, after listening to the players and owners argue incessantly over obscene amounts of money, their money. The thing that’s easy to forget though, is that his work started well before those arguments began. One could say that Ripken’s work began years before (the strike), and just so happen to cultivate just at the time when the nation needed it most. Years of unyielding groundwork, laid for a moment that he never knew was coming, for a game that didn’t yet know it would need it so desperately.
This should sound familiar in a way, as a game attempts to move on from an era so tarred by scandal, yearning for someone to show themselves as a true standout without the baggage that has accompanied so many over the past generation. Here comes Albert. Three MVP awards, two World Series rings, 600 home runs, and a parade of milestones ahead. Until 2002, there were only three members of this elite club, now there are 9 (with the addition of Albert Pujols). The Angels are a second division team, and have been for some time now. The nation has moved on to stars like Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, and his own team mate Mike Trout. It seems we are ready to move on from anyone we deemed to be associated with the era that saw players break down walls that seemed steadfast, thanks to drugs that allowed them to run faster, and hit harder.
With caution though, we observe the first validation of Albert Pujols. Years of laying the foundation for not just a hall-of-fame career, but one of the greatest of all time begins to take shape. 3,000 hits looms just ahead. Then 2,000 RBI. Soon after that, maybe 700 home runs, and we truly give the man who will be our first true “post-steroid era” superhero his due.
While the fanfare around this milestone may seem muted, it is just the tempered reaction of a nation hesitant to embrace what seems too good to be true. A superstar that will bring new life to a game that seems a bit lost. A player that will rise above the chatter, and transcend the game in a way that ushers in a new era, and reminds a nation of fans, that sometimes, if it’s too good to be true….