Barry Bonds

Don’t Leave Now, It’s Just Getting Good!

Saw my buddy Neal for the first time since we watched a Sharks playoff game in a Dublin sports bar last year. This time it was at a hip hop club off Van Ness, where we were celebrating a mutual friend’s birthday.

Neal not only loves the Sharks, but he knows as much about baseball as any guidance counselor in the country. While I can boast a pretty good working knowledge of most Major League rosters, ever since we met in college I could always count on a nugget from Neal about the top three prospects for nearly every team.

So it saddened me when I asked him if he wanted to join Mac’s fantasy baseball league, which so far contains only four teams, and he grimaced.

“I don’t know. I’m kinda down on baseball, you know, with the whole steroids thing.”

Even though I could barely hear anything with Lil’ Jon and Chamillionaire playing at 120 decibels-plus all night, Neal’s point of view definitely caught my attention.

Chicks Dig the Long Ball, Fans Dig the Double-Steal

On one hand, I understand. It’s almost impossible to have a long baseball discussion these days without mentioning Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens or a host of other naivete-destroying subjects. In a way, it was more fun when we all sort of knew these guys were probably on something, but ignored it.

But not all baseball fans need 450-foot home runs to enjoy watching the game. Plus, haven’t we all seen the longest homers we’ll ever see? Aren’t forearms the size of bridge pillars a little passe? And it’s obvious the Home Run Derby has lost some juice (no pun intended, wink-wink) in the past few years, similar to the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest.

Even though there are probably several players currently taking HGH, steroid testing HAS changed things. Last year, while Alex Rodriguez (54) and Prince Fielder (50) led their respective leagues in home runs, their huge totals were much more of an anomaly than in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.

Especially if Congress pressures baseball into testing for HGH (a probability, given MLB’s antiquated and highly valuable antitrust exemption and their interest in keeping it), all the game will lose are huge home runs and 100-MPH hurling pitchers.

But what will replace it is even better, pure speed. True, track athletes have used performance-enhancing drugs, for different reasons. Some baseball players have undoubtedly gotten faster from drugs, but most steroid-heads were bloated, huge-swinging behemoths, not sprinters laying down bunts.

Stolen bases are already going up. Only five players hit over 40 homers last season, but there were eight players with over 40 steals. A return to a time where players are constantly moving, not just waiting to be knocked in with a homer, will actually lead to a faster-paced game.

I hated the 1980’s St. Louis Cardinals because they beat up on the Giants when I was a kid, but they were anything but boring – even though Jack Clark was the only Cardinal who could even dream of hitting more than 18 homers in a season. In modern terms, put it this way: who would you rather watch for 162 games: Jose Reyes or Jim Thome?

Does This Make Jose Canseco an Honorary Deputy? Nah…

While it has been a clumsy, messy process (to put it mildly), these last few years of horrible post-BALCO p.r., complete with congressional sessions and tell-all books, were inevitable for baseball.

Professional sports leagues like MLB are like big cities. No matter how much work you do, there’s no way either one can ever been 100% clean. But baseball was like San Francisco or Oakland would be without police when it came to steroids during the 1990’s and early 2000’s. There’s still a lot of cleaning up to do, but even with the limited testing that finally exists, the game is looking better. Here’s hoping Neal will keep watching.

Plus, we could really use him for Mac’s fantasy league.

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