The Say it Ain’t So Test

20 12 2007

For 14 years, a baseball has sat in a fractured plastic case in my room. It is, aside from a light shell of dirt, without adornment.

From its humble beginnings on a wooded Caribbean island to the States, it found its way to Philadelphia’s Veterans Stadium, finally cracking into The Show on Oct. 6, 1993. It came out from the dugout, bounded out to home plate with a ballboy and eventually into the hands of the Atlanta Braves’ Kent Mercker, who threw an outside fastball to the Phillies’ Lenny Dykstra, which Dykstra sprayed into the seats along the third-base-line, right into the waiting hands of Carl Scheitrum, who gave it to his eight-year-old son, Kevin, who still regards Dykstra as his all-time favorite player.

The Phillies won that game, Game 1 of that year’s NLCS, on a Kim Batiste walk-off single in the 10th after a Batiste error allowed the Braves to tie the game in the 9th. It almost didn’t matter. The Phils could have put on tutus and started dancing to the Nutcracker and I wouldn’t have noticed. Life and time and light were all sucked into that ball.

I didn’t register a noise on the ride home, not the engine or the peel of the road or the horns of riled-up Philadelphians. I remember just rolling the ball around, feeling each seam with my fingertips, mystified that Dykstra and my respective fates had crossed, that his corporeal electricity transferred to me. And although Dykstra had distributed balls into every park in the major leagues, I was sure that Nails had chosen to send one me-ward.

This is Dykstra, a man who was called both Dude and Nails during his time in the Bigs. He’s a man who played for the No. 1 and 2 scumbag shows in the history of baseball, the ’86 Mets and the ’93 Phillies, respectively. My parents’ task of parenting was abetted by Dykstra’s style of play — which made him resemble a left-handed mortar blast — and also complicated by his style of play off the field, which involved a steady stream of donations to Atlantic City, piles of blow into his sinuses with the rest of the 86 Mets and general, all-American depravity.

In 1993, when baseball took me in, Nails represented the game. That season, he led the league in walks, runs, hits and at-bats, finishing second in the MVP voting to Barry Bonds, who was yet to morph into a Sherman tank. And after showing up to spring training with an extra 20 pounds on him, Dykstra told reporters he had ‘real good vitamins.’

He was one of the 86 ballplayers mentioned as steroid users in last week’s Mitchell Report. In retrospect, you had to assume he was juicing. But with Dykstra, I’m finding it impossible to care.

I’ll call it the Say it Ain’t So Test.

There’s this anecdote that’s swimming in poignancy, although probably has the factual accuracy of Washington’s cherry tree, that a kid walked up to Shoeless Joe Jackson after the Black Sox scandal came out, stared up at him and said ‘say it ain’t so, Joe. Say it ain’t so.’ The Test is simple: if an allegation isn’t enough to ruin your childhood idol, it can’t be all that bad across the board.

The Test is held back by the facts that it’s entirely subjective and that it was conceived by a person who once drank jungle juice from a trash can. But try to follow me.

Our childhood idols often represent irreplaceable pillars in whose images we once tried to shape our own personalities. They give to us portions of our superegoes. Without them, we’d lack direction, to some degree. It would be like driving without road signs. (These people need not be athletes, of course. Parents, musicians, astronauts, cosmonauts, golden retrievers, they all qualify — your choice)

Fixing games, playing to lose — those marks are damning. But using steroids in a time when they were, after all, not illegal — no way. 

Dykstra thus remains the same in my eyes. Maybe it’s current me protecting the psyche of pre-pubescent me, trying to keep my developmental mythologies alive. But steroids don’t make you leave every game covered in more dirt than an Iowa farmhand. Steroids don’t make you fly into each base head-first and go horizontal on The Vet’s Astroturf, which was harder than parquet, harder than pain itself.

We need to realize, too, that ballplayers from yore would have gladly taken steroids. They weren’t angels, just men restricted by the scientific horizon. Ty Cobb was mean enough for a century of ballplayers. Legend had it that Cobb used to sharpen his spikes to make them better for impaling middle infielders, hated northerners and minorities — an aversion that led him to get in a fight with a black groundskeeper about field conditions, then choke the man’s wife when she jumped in — (it’s all here in this story).

Maybe I don’t think less of Dykstra because his alleged usage didn’t allow him to break any records. Yeah, he had a season in ’93 in which he almost doubled the amount of homers that he’d ever had in any season before. But that total was 19.

Steroids should be banned, in the efforts to keep the playing field level and keep kids from growing man-boobs at 14. But to villify people for using them as we have seems Salem-esque, reminiscent of a group of incensed farmers toting pitchforks and malicious superstition out for blood. The use of them was obviously not intended to cheapen the games. And we’re crazy to think that we were cheated when our entertainment got stronger and faster and the games got more explosive.

Instead, we witnessed a time when men went too far and the action on the field benefitted from it. Yeah, it was money-driven. Longer home runs mean an extra ‘0’ in the contract. Faster, stronger, richer. But nobody tried to cheat the game. The game remained intact. The bodies playing it just changed.




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