Saturday, June 22, 2013

The First Generation: Bryce Harper and the New Power Rising from the Wake of Deception

When the 1990's came to a close, the home run was king. Baseball was in a period of unprecedented power. I was preparing to enter the formative years of my mid-teens. As a child in the time of McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, and Griffey, I was awestruck by the ease to which these apparent superheroes could hit the ball. The otherworldly rate of home runs got me into the game, and I still look at the summer of 1998 as the one that saved baseball after the canceled season of 1994. So imagine my disappointment when the news came down that most of the players I worshiped back then had used steroids to increase their ability to heal and grow muscle. I was devastated. The Mitchell Report, the damning document that tore through the lineup of my childhood heroes, was released on December 13th, 2007- my 21st birthday.

The integrity of the game was in shambles. Each name was more painful to hear than the last. Despite baseball now having a drastically more strict steroid policy than the other major sports leagues in America, the positive tests had drawn a black mark on the aforementioned era. Many in my generation turned away from the game of baseball, and I couldn't blame them. American football and the NFL were assuming the title of new American pastime. The long, drawn out season was also a deterrent to a generation that was less and less interested in a sport that took months to get any considerably measurable outcome. I, too, had looked in the direction of football, basketball, hockey, and anything else that would offer me the solace of athletic innocence, or at least covered my eyes to the truth in blissful ignorance. I never stopped loving baseball. I was just hurt. The longing impact is the reason for my great interest in other sports, to which I guess I can say I'm quite grateful.

In the years following the Mitchell Report, the well of "superhero" ballplayers had nearly dried up. Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and a select few others still captivated audiences with every swing, but it just wasn't the same. The devastating pitching of the turn of the century seemed to have stayed there. The arms, those accused and those acquitted, had turned into serviceable, middle rotation guys with high salaries. A generation of young sports enthusiasts didn't have the quality of idols I had. Maybe that is the result of crotchety old man syndrome, but I know there was a sincere lack of true superstars in Major League Baseball for a few years.

It has been a little over a year since Bryce Harper's debut. The super prospect who had dropped jaws and peeled eyelids since high school was now a Major Leaguer. His first hit? A double. I'll remember it as long as I live. Why? Many hyped prospects come and go. Doubles are no less common than home runs. The difference was that I knew it was special. I knew Harper stepping into the box was the beginning of a new era. Not to assume he will be a surefire Hall of Famer, but that a young man who had been so intensely scrutinized since he was sixteen was now fulfilling the prophecies we all had written in ink. What was to come has to be considered one of the greatest onslaught of young talent since the days of Mantle and Mays. Harper was, and will always be tied to his American League counterpart Mike Trout. Trout, who was a few votes from being AL rookie of the year and most valuable player, had come up to lesser fanfare but was still an exciting prospect.

Names like Manny Machado, Shelby Miller, Matt Harvey and Yasiel Puig have become common references in baseball conversation. This crop of under-25 players have become a second chance for a generation so scorned by the deception of their youth. For those young fans just getting into baseball, they have their own icons. The ire of a hurt soul can't help but be jealous of them. The swelling asset pool of underage talent promises to deliver a constant flow of superstars, the likes of which hasn't been seen since I was young. The difference is that now they are tested. There are heavy penalties to policy violators. While there is no way to possibly be sure that the game is 'pure' in any way, the evidence is stacked in favor that these young players are in fact more the product of training and natural ability than synthetic substance.

Strikeouts and home runs- the things that caught my eye in adolescence -are back. There is a new positive attitude toward baseball's ethical standing. It's possible the youth of today will not respect that as much as those of us who were hurt years ago. I don't expect there to be any formal apology for what happened. It isn't necessary. I fell in love with baseball because of those players. America fell in love with baseball because of those players. Despite the fraudulent feats that were accomplished, I will always have a special bond with the 'steroid era' of baseball. So will all of us who grew up in that time, keeping a daily update of the McGwire and Sosa's pursuit of Roger Maris' home run record. We've been wronged, but in turn it was the thing that brought us so much joy. It's high-time we forgive and let this new generation of baseball superheroes leave us in awe just as we were half a life ago.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Carpe Noctem: The Geoff Blum Story

A baseball season can seem so long that a single plate appearance can seem largely insignificant. As summer's long days turn cold and th...