Misery & Clemency

Or, 1,200 highway miles, ten days, nine baseball teams, six stadiums, five games, steroids, and a funeral

"I'm not here to talk about the past. I'm here to be positive about this subject. "

-- Superhuman baseball-obliterating home run machine Mark McGwire, in a March 17 congressional hearing on the use of illegal steroids in baseball

On this sunburnt Friday in March, as the Orioles of Baltimore collide with the visiting Twins of Minnesota inside the cozy confines of Fort Lauderdale Stadium, renewal is itself reborn in two words: Spring! Training! Here, childhood daydreams are animated in grass and paint and clay and groin adjustment. Never hath the outfield appeared so verdant, the sky so limpid, the kosher dogs so corpulent, the surrounding sidewalk so cracked and blotchy. To note that this is a day redolent of innocence and happiness and revival would be a hyperbole of understatement.

“If you think steroids can help you become a superstar, wouldn’t you do it despite the health risks?”
Colby Katz
“If you think steroids can help you become a superstar, wouldn’t you do it despite the health risks?”
Some of the sights of Florida spring training: Orioles superstar Sammy Sosa
Deirdra Funcheon
Some of the sights of Florida spring training: Orioles superstar Sammy Sosa

Here, in spring training, fans young and old can get as near to sluggers Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa as a bipartisan congressional committee was just 24 hours earlier. "It's Steroidgate," says Fort Lauderdale saxophonist Dave Prince, who formerly played with such local bands as Boloney Sandwich. "I'm glad they came back today. I would have been bummed if Sammy and Rafi had been hanging." That's to say, detained in Washington, D.C., where Palmeiro (551 career home runs) adamantly denied using illegal steroids and Sosa (573 career homers) seemingly forgot how to speak English in mumbling his denials.

Prince, a lifelong Orioles fan, leans against the low chainlink fence by the O's bullpen and recalls the halcyon days when the New York Yankees trained in this very stadium. Don Mattingly (222 career home runs) and Rickey Henderson (297 career home runs) would go for beers nearby after the game, and Prince says he once had the honor of racing Henderson, the sport's all-time stolen bases leader, in a bar parking lot.

As Prince finishes his tale, he sees an O's right fielder munching seeds on the field and wisecracks: "Oral steroids."

Sosa grounds out to end the sixth inning, and some choirboy stands up in the bleachers. "Get back in the dugout now!" he yells. "You're nothing! You're a hack! You suck!"

A young, paunchy Chicago Cubs fan, Ilija Matoski, tires of the game and packs his 6-month-old daughter, Bronwyn, into her stroller. "Might go hit up the strip club," he says, maybe kidding. "You get in free with child."

Down the fence, the pitchers sit with their backs to the crowd, talking in low tones that suggest they feel the presence of the autograph seekers a foot behind them. One tells a story just loud enough that the wind doesn't blow it toward home plate. Some players had been discussing where in Fort Lauderdale to seek female company -- "which girls hung out where, that sort of thing" -- when one of them (and the wind edited exactly who) cut to the chase by declaring, "I just want some straight cunt."

Ah, spring!

Baseball is, if nothing else, endlessly durable. The game recovered from the Black Sox scandal of 1919, from two world wars, from the Giants' and Dodgers' diasporas, from the invention of the designated hitter, from eight work stoppages since 1972, from the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, and this year, it must recover from accusations by Jose Canseco (462 career jonrónes) and others that its biggest stars and most prodigious feats, including those by Palmeiro, McGwire, and others, were aided by hypodermic needles jabbed into pimply asses.

In the subtropical subparadise that is Florida, 18 big-league teams make their March homes and play 285 games around the state -- 130 of which fell after the steroid hearings. For me, a rural Arkansas kid who grew up watching ballgames on an old TV with crummy reception, the chance to rove the sport's Garden of Eden while a sordid scandal unfolded was too enticing to ignore. So late this past March, I began plotting a journey across the Sunshine State's breadth of America's pastime. The game famously reincarnates every year at this time, but, I wondered, can it cleanse itself when the players seem bent on polluting the very reasons anyone cares about baseball in the first place?


Then, Saturday night, I place a call on the way home from a bar.

"Hello?" the voice answers. It sounds rough.

"Hey, Dad, what's going on?"

"Oh," he replies, "Dad just died."

My granddaddy, James Edward Eifling, had suffered from heart and liver problems. Father to three, granddad to nine, he made it to 75. The memorial service would be Thursday, at the First Baptist Church in Grady, a town of 500 souls and one stoplight planted in the south Arkansas delta.

Knew this was coming. Should have told him. Something, anything. Earlier. One ten-minute phone call would have done it. My first close relative to die.

To his grandkids, he was a lovely man, if distant. A child of the Depression who grew up shooting birds and squirrels for food and, for fun, pitching softball. He'd practice in the rare down hours that a young man raised on a rice farm could steal, perfecting his delivery with his brother catching in front of a barn-wall backstop. In his teens, he pitched for the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. team in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. It was the late '40s, and 5,000 people showing up in the stands for a town game was a monumental civic event.

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