Misery & Clemency
"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.
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."
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.
He didn't go to college. Instead, he worked his way up to conductor in 36 years with Cotton Belt Railroad. He sang in church, cared for the elderly. He was game for fishing trips at the reservoir near his house, for watching the hummingbirds swarm the feeders outside his back porch, for telling tales of drivers trying -- and sometimes failing -- to beat trains across railroad crossings.
He was such a crack shot with a .22 rifle that he and his brother, Vernon, used to shoot matchboxes out of each others' hands at distances of 10, 20 yards. He astounded his two young sons once by shooting a crow from the top branch of a 100-foot cypress tree at 100 yards. They told him they wanted him to hit it in the head. He merely hit the neck.
He was a rapscallion sweetheart.
The front seat of a car, it turns out, is as fine a place as any for weeping.
The next day, my instinct is to curl up in a ball on the couch and put a pillow over my head. I don't know how I'm going to get home, how my dad is going to hold up, nothing. But the stadium is ten minutes away, a friend has bleacher tickets, and I have a drug scandal to kick around. So before death has had a chance to sink in, I'm watching the New York Mets play the Orioles in Fort Lauderdale, close enough to the field to see the spit spray from Mets centerfielder Kerry Robinson when he sneezes.
As Mets pitcher Pedro Martinez once said, there's no crying in baseball, and this is a lousy place to mope. The salty sentiment that permeated the stadium two days earlier is gone. What remains is a sense that the deadline poets who every spring spout encomiums to baseball aren't total gasbags. Families are everywhere; at $8 a head, parents tote oodles of kids. High winds have chased away all but the wispiest clouds. Above, a skywriter puts touches on a giant j; the rest of his design is illegible white puff. The outfield grass really is an otherworldly shade of green.
A macabre thought forms before I can abort it: Would ash make good fertilizer?
"You know who announced his retirement yesterday?" someone in the bleachers says. "Roberto Alomar. He made two errors in one inning and retired after the game." He made it to 37.
When the Mets bat, Sosa (1,530 career RBI) prowls right field, his midday shadow an ink stain on the green canvas. Someone calls out, "Hey, Sammy! I've got some wine I need a cork for!" You get caught corking one lousy bat, you never live it down. He'll be enshrined in the Hall of Fame one day, Sosa will, not as the lithe, base-swiping dervish he was in the early '90s but as the prodigious slugger he became, with those satchel cheeks, those ludicrous forearms that he partly credited to, of all things, Flintstones Vitamins. He's the superstar with a bounce in his home-run trot and a chewy center to his bat.
"Bud! Bud Light!" calls a burly man making his way to the stands with a tub of ice on his shoulder. "Don't be afraid to tip the bartender!" Duke Johnson of Miami has sold beer for the Marlins since that team began play in 1993 and begins his season every year here at Orioles games. When he smiles, his eyes narrow to feline slits and the partial gold cap on his front tooth gleams. Everyone knows Johnson as Elephant Man, because of his bulbous green hat with orange floppy ears and an orange trunk. It doubles the size of his noggin.
"Sosa gives more balls [to fans] than any other player," he says later, the right shoulder of his white T-shirt stained with sweat and dirt. "I read in the Bible that it's better to give than to receive. Sammy's a guy who has received a lot, but he still takes time to give."
Maybe, but we know about the cork and those, ahem, chewable vitamins. The guy clearly is not above cheating. What about the juice?
"False allegations," the Elephant Man says, probably listening to his gut as much as his sizable head.
Turns out that "bereavement" or "emergency" airfares mean, in some cases, a 3 percent discount. The only feasible way to avoid paying two weeks' take-home pay for a ticket home is to fly in and out of Orlando, 200 miles from Fort Lauderdale. Florida being Florida, there's plenty of baseball between.
Solo road trips are lonely affairs, but they offer time to think. My grief is at a dull hum. What do I know of my granddaddy? I wonder whether he grew up enjoying baseball. All I know about Arkansas baseball is that St. Louis Cardinals greats Dizzy Dean and Lou Brock were born there; it turns out Dean's first start in the majors came the year Granddaddy was born. Brock was born in 1939, not long before Granddaddy was to learn the piano and, at age 13, begin playing funerals.
Rather than head straight to the land of Mickey, I first go west to Bradenton, home of the Pittsburgh Pirates and their stadium, McKechnie Field, which sits a few blocks west of a juvenile detention center, as if anything could be more disheartening for a young ruffian than to hear a baseball game from beyond whorls of razor wire. Today, the game is sold out to a capacity of 6,001, and the Detroit Tigers are thumping the miserable home team.
Inside the press box, where scribes massage Thinkpads, the dents of old foul balls in drywall peer from behind framed glass. When a batter clips a ball back over home plate, the statistician flinches. "Jesus," he says, "that sound always scares the shit out of me." In the late innings, when Tigers infielder Tony Giarratano (no major league home runs) slaps a homer onto the graveled roof of the Boys Club across the left-field fence, making the score 13-2, a newspaper writer named Jim Lane asks aloud, "When does the mercy rule kick in?"
With the game never in doubt (and the result meaningless anyway), John Gierl, age 35, supervises his 5-year-old son, Tyler, who's romping in an inflatable castle behind the right-field bleachers. Their trip from suburban Pittsburgh is an annual rite. The father was coached by his own father until age 13. "It was always something between my dad and me," he says. "We could play catch."
Gierl went on to play centerfield at La Roche College in Pennsylvania. He remembers tales of players juicing even back then. Given the millions of dollars dangling in front of major leaguers, he can't bring himself to blame them for making the decision. But he's glad he doesn't have to explain too much to his young son. "You almost just have to hope they grow up strong," he says of ballplayers.
Sometime in the ninth, the attendants clear the bouncy castle to deflate it, and Gierl's boy bounds over. "What's up, bud?" the father asks.
Tyler fumbles in putting on his tiny zippered shoes, then runs down the concourse to his mother without saying a word. "This year will be my first year coaching T-ball," the father says. "We'll see how it goes."
Fatherly love thrives in the tacit realms of example and deed -- for the Gierls, it's in baseball coaching; in the case of my granddaddy, it was dominoes while the living room clock ticked and chimed on the half-hour. But that sort of relationship challenges a pair to see each other regularly or make an effort to call. I left Arkansas to attend college in Chicago in 1997, then moved south to Florida. We hadn't talked much since then.
Repairing such a relationship can be toilsome when, for instance, a grandson fails to keep in touch with his forebears -- or when a father loses sight of his boy. At the congressional steroid hearings, Ray Garibaldi, a California father, described the life of his 24-year-old son, Rob, a college ballplayer who used steroids. The young man suffered from "mania, depression, short-term memory loss, uncontrollable rage, delusional and suicidal thinking, and paranoid psychosis" before he shot himself in the head, according to Ray. The father first learned of his son's drug use when the young man assaulted him.
As the game ends, the black-faced gulls descend upon the spilled peanuts and popcorn scraps in the bleachers. Fans line up a dozen deep for signatures from a Pirates outfielder named Chris Duffy. Another game awaits, just up the road aways.
Three hours later and 30 miles nearer the flight home, at Tampa's Legends Field, a scalper in a grass lot offers a ticket to the sold-out Yankees game for $30. I haven't the energy to haggle. "If anyone asks," he says, "say you paid face. If not, they take the ticket and the money, and we don't get either one back."
The classiest organization in sports, the Yanks. They play here at Legends, a 10,000-capacity scale version of the House that Ruth (714 career home runs) Built. The announcer asks the gathered throng to "please be a professional fan" for the 7 p.m. game against the Philadelphia Phillies. Attending Long Island fathers call their sons "pal." A woman in the front row of the second deck slouches and props her feet against a rail, freeing her lower torso muscles to expel a resounding Bronx cheer, presumably in support of the home team.
When Jason Giambi (281 career round-trippers) is announced in the starting lineup, the crowd roars with approval, this despite (or perhaps defying) offseason news that the 2000 American League MVP admitted to a grand jury that he used steroids. Giambi's response to the reports was a penitent news conference in which he apologized profusely without saying, "because of all the legal matters," exactly what he was sorry for. Just call him "The Unnatural."
"At least Giambi's honest," someone says in the stands behind home plate. "Better than Bonds." That would be Barry Bonds, the dominant San Francisco Giants right fielder, one of the only other players in the majors known to have used steroids. Bonds (703 career taters) of course did explain, less than convincingly, that he didn't realize the topical cream he rubbed on his legs was a steroid.
In the early innings, when superstar third baseman Alex Rodriguez (381 career homers) is caught stealing, a baseball tour guide named Jay Buckley asks, "You don't think he's on steroids, do you?" Who the hell knows, these days. Buckley, a baseball guide for 23 years, says interest in his tour is definitely down in 2005. Some players also appear to be shrinking, notably Ivan Rodriguez (250 career moonshots), the Marlins-cum-Tigers catcher who must have lost 20 to 30 pounds last winter.
"Most of these athletes have no depth perception anyway," Buckley says. "They don't think anything is gonna happen to them.
"If you're a young player and you think steroids might help you make $500,000, $1 million a year for five years, won't you be damn tempted to take them? And if you're a good player and you think steroids can help you become a superstar making $8 million to $10 million a year, wouldn't you do it despite the health risks?"
After the game, an easy 5-1 Yankees win, a mid-20s couple prowls in the grass parking lot waving T-shirts. The fronts read "Steroids All-Stars." The one in San Francisco Giants colors has Bonds' number 25 with an asterisk on the back with CHEATER across the top; the one in Yankees colors has Giambi's number 25 with SORRY across the back.
Paul Giza and Andrea Delisi took a month off from waiting tables in Belmar, New Jersey, to tool around spring training peddling the shirts. Giza had the brainstorm in February, registered a website, printed 200 shirts, and beelined for Florida.
A gangly redheaded teenager approaches and weighs the options. "I hate Bonds more," he says, echoing the prevailing consensus, and buys a shirt.
"I just can't believe that Bonds wasn't called" before Congress, Delisi says. "How do they pick these people? And I felt so bad for McGwire."
People sluice past. They laugh. Mostly.
"Funny shirts," Paul Giza calls to fleeing fans. "Unique souvenirs."
"You should be ashamed of yourself," a fan says softly.
"That's ridiculous," Delisi says a second later.
"You're rooting for him," Giza says to the fan. "You're paying his salary."
For the record, that salary was $12,428,571 last season. In 1936, a year after my fellow Arkansan Dean won 28 games, the Cardinals paid him $28,000.
Wednesday morning, the flight leaves Orlando in the dim early morning, and I connect in Chicago. A small plane descends through the cotton-ball clouds a few miles from the airport and skirts above the chicken houses, rusted truck graveyards, and horse pastures of northern Arkansas, where my childhood transmuted into something like adulthood.
In the county just south lies the yard where that first pop fly slipped out of my glove and loosed blood from my 8-year-old nose like a spigot. (Didn't cry, though. Instead, Dad took me in front of the bathroom mirror to laugh at the painless scarlet mess.) This is where I grew up watching games on TV with my two brothers and Pops, cheering for no logical reason the hirsute Michelin man John Kruk in the 1993 Series that the Phillies lost to the Blue Jays. The sport became real for me miles away and years later, in college, at my first major-league game, the Cubs' second of the 1998 season. Against the Montreal Expos, in an ass-cold Wrigley Field, Sosa homered, then did so 65 more times by that season's end.
Back in Fayetteville, Arkansas, that summer, I earned my first writing paycheck covering a Babe Ruth baseball game for the local paper. I specified that the $25 check be cashed as a twenty and five singles. Still have that first dollar bill the teller handed over.
The drive south is 250 miles, through dark, through mountains, through forest, through Little Rock accident traffic and, finally, across delta, flat as a shaken soda. Years peel back as the odometer clicks forward -- not to a simpler past but to a simpler present.
The next afternoon, cars edge the stripeless black road beside the little church in Grady. Inside, the pews runneth over. With my parents and brothers, among some others, I sit in the slightly raised choir loft, behind the pulpit, looking out on the people, overwhelmingly strangers to me, gathered to pay their respects. The preacher stands at the pulpit, beneath the wooden ceiling that arches like an overturned boat hull. He leads a prayer and reads the 51st Psalm, which begins:
Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are proved right when you speak
and justified when you judge.
That psalm is known as the "Miserere," which is Latin for "be merciful." The prayer suggests that God forgives those who suffer and then confess. Religion skipped a couple of generations in my family, and most days, I don't miss it, but at this moment, a prayer on redemption comes as a welcome salve, an antidote to my stammering sadness.
My dad cries. I can't imagine he's ever felt more mortal, because I haven't.
Outside, the sun shines upon brown tilled fields.
The flight back to Orlando on Saturday is a Godawful mess, with storms that thwack the airport, delay the landing, and crop the final innings of the Cardinals-Astros game in Kissimmee. Water is life, life is hope, hope is the stuff these flimsy spring games subsist upon, yes. But the drink quashes the 7 p.m. Dodgers-Nationals nightcap, leaving fans to queue and haggle at the ticket booths outside Space Coast Stadium in the soggy dark.
These are the diehards. No problem getting them to vent about 'roids.
"It's not like it used to be," says Robert Blake, a native Bostonian who has attended baseball games since 1947 and who tonight, with his wife, Ginnie, is exchanging his rained-out tickets. "I saw Ted Williams [521 career home runs]; I saw Joe DiMaggio [361 career home runs]. I saw them all.
"Everybody still loves baseball," he continues. "They just don't like some of the people that are playing it. McGwire, Bonds -- you know all the names. They destroyed baseball."
That may be overstating matters a tad, but steroids do allow players to trade their longevity for quick physical recovery, a patently antibaseball arrangement. The game is played, and records accrued, over years, decades, thousands of games. The hell with "Sorry."
There should be no clemency without misery when grown men entice -- and, ostensibly, in competitive terms, compel -- young players to poison themselves, risking jaundiced skin, withered testicles, stunted growth, mood swings, rage, mania, depression, psychosis, suicide. SORRY and CHEATER bring death to baseball. They put crying in baseball.
Then, Sunday morning, Easter, I place a call on the way south to Jupiter for an afternoon game.
Dad again. He says it meant a lot to him to have his three sons fly in on no notice from California, D.C., and Florida. I tell him, no problem. He asks what I'm working on, and I tell him a baseball story, talking to fans about steroids.
"It's good you have a job that lets you do that kind of thing," he says. I have to agree on a day such as today.
He seems in a hurry to get off the phone somehow, as though he's about to choke up. "I love you," he says, and I reply in kind, and he hangs up, and I'm back in the car, a hundred questions unanswered.
One thing I do know. By the time I was born, Granddaddy, of course, had already married my grandmother, Lucille, whom I call to ask a few questions. She recalls him at their wedding in 1951 as a man athletic and musical. They had two sons and a daughter before he took a job on the railroad, which spirited him away from home. On both sides, there were difficulties; the prime one was his absence, physically and emotionally. They divorced after about two decades, and 21 years ago, he married Wanda, a long-time sweetheart. This biography I inherited mostly as history.
But faintly, I remember as a 5-year-old joining my grandfather on a visit to his mom, my great-grandmother, Beatrice Eifling, whom the family calls "Granny Girl." She was in her mid-80s and confined to a nursing home. When Granddaddy came calling, he was notorious for joking and chatting with the nurses and other patients. He brought joy to quarters bled of it and in so doing helped his mother let go of her life soon after our visit. Among those who knew him, that act became one of the redeeming qualities of his life.
Later on Sunday, Marlins infielder Mike Lowell (135 career home runs) sits in front of his locker at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, far north Palm Beach County, in a state of half-dress, talking spring, talking juice.
"I don't think [fans] are coming to the field because they forgive players who are on steroids," he says. "I think they're coming to the field because the game that they want to see is exciting.
"I think it's the vast minority of players that have done it," he continues, "and all the players who have played the game clean get upset. I'm a fan of the game. When we're not playing and the playoffs are on, I watch it, because I like watching baseball."
The stands are flooded with red for the reigning National League champs, the Cardinals. The grassy berm in right field, where families spread blankets, features a squirmy mash of red-clad kids who pile like newborn pups at the top of a stubby wall that the Cardinals reserve pitchers lean against, signing the occasional baseball. Kids wielding Sharpie pens wait here for entire games, a recipe for graffiti. "Bassball is the Best Sport in the World," one shaky hand declares. "Marlins are big Retards" writes another.
Most of the replica jerseys present are for the following players: Albert Pujols (160 career homers); Jim Edmonds (302 career homers); Scott Rolen (226 career home runs), and Mark Mc-freakin'-Gwire (1 billion career home runs), who gets an early mention in Canseco's new book, Juiced: "Mark and I would duck into a stall in the men's room, load up our syringe, and inject ourselves... [S]teroids made Mark much bigger and much stronger..." And that becomes the image that Hall of Fame voters will weigh when Big Mac's name appears on the ballot, alongside him lifting his young son in a giant's hug after home runs.
"Life is decisions," says a McGwire dress-alike named Dann Huffman, a mustachioed 53-year-old fan smoking near the batting cages. "Everybody makes mistakes. And I have no problem with somebody making mistakes. You've just got to pay the price, put it behind you, and go on."
Huffman ought to know; after playing catcher in high school and college because he's "a control freak," he began working for the federal prison system at a halfway house for white-collar criminals. As for major leaguers, "it's their body, their money, their lives they're dealing with," he says. "The players are the ones who are going to be paying the price for it later... when they're 45, 50 years old and their joints are wore out and they start having heart problems. If you want to shorten your life by five, ten, 15 years in order to play the game at a higher level, knock yourself out."
In that sense, McGwire isn't like Paul Bunyan, Thor, the Terminator, or whatever other mythologized nonsense was applied to him in the late '90s, when he hit 245 home runs in four years. He and his juiced ilk are more like Achilles, the hero of Greek lore whose mother, Peleus, had the choice of granting him a long, quotidian existence or a short, glorious life. She picked for him the latter. Through The Iliad, he romps as a nigh-invincible destroyer. Yet today, his name is synonymous with his sole weakness.
Huffman is wrong. McGwire's body isn't the issue. Baseball is America's pastime and a game of grandfathers, fathers, and sons. And when McGwire got the chance to ask mercy for his transgressions before Congress, God, Bud Selig, and the hoi polloi who cheered him, he instead retreated. We can't just ignore him, and possibly Sosa, and maybe Palmeiro, and probably Pudge, and definitely Canseco, and definitely Giambi, and definitely Bonds, as we all ignored the problem for all those years. We need to raise bloody hell about the sham unfolding before us.
McGwire, though, has probably suffered enough. As he sat, incongruously bespectacled, enormous, tap-dancing past perjury last month in Washington, it was evident that he has shouldered enough guilt, enough misery, for his sins. He's entitled to mercy if only he'll ask.
At the end of my baseball sojourn, I place another call to the family. Still trying to figure out who Granddaddy was, maybe for this story, maybe out of curiosity, maybe searching for some form of atonement. My uncle David sympathizes.
"I didn't know him well either," he says of his dad. "He wasn't easy to get to know.
"There's a lot of people of that generation like that, emotionally detached," he says. In large farm families with high mortality rates, "there was a tradition of not getting so attached to your family that if something happened it would devastate you. I think we're still suffering the consequences of that."
Yet another call, my first ever to great uncle Don, my granddaddy's older brother. I tell him I'm working on a baseball story, and he tells me about Granddaddy's pitching softball for the Coca-Cola team in Pine Bluff. He wasn't gifted with a natural fireball pitch but instead mastered tricky finesse pitches. "Your granddad had a way of caressing that ball," Don says, and I can imagine the sturdy, strong version of Granddaddy that I never knew.
To those boys, play was a luxury, Don says. He recalls a time when he worked so long on the rice farm that he stumbled into the kitchen and passed out on the floor. The smell of cooking roused him. He sat up in his filthy work clothes, broke fast, and headed back out. "Farming," he says, weighing a topic on which I know naught. "I could talk all night about farming."
He tells great stories, Uncle Don does. We talk for an hour, easy, on a Friday night. In my search for a grandfather, it seems, I found an uncle, if years too late, yet perhaps in time.
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