Sunday, July 29, 2007

In Cooperstown, Baseball Never Looked Better

Sports of The Times
July 30, 2007


Commissioner Bud Selig was bursting with pride and much-needed good news yesterday. Far from San Francisco, where he had waited like a patient awaiting a root canal for Barry Bonds to become baseball’s career home run leader, Selig seemed considerably happier.

This was a holy day in the game’s spiritual center.

Selig was in his element. A record Hall of Fame crowd estimated at 75,000, and a record number of Hall of Fame players, attended the ceremony for two of the game’s most popular players: Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn.

Who could say anything bad about these two (though I found it a bit troubling that Gwynn did not receive 100 percent of the vote)?

There was other good news over the weekend as well: Major League Baseball set a single-day attendance record Saturday. “This was a great day for baseball,” Selig said. “What an irony. One day we set a single-day attendance record and today the Hall of Fame sets an all-time attendance record.”

I was actually thinking about yet another piece of fascinating symmetry. Baseball enjoyed its holiest day — the Hall of Fame induction ceremony — the same day that Bonds, Public Enemy No. 1 (or No. 2, or No. 3, depending on where you rank Michael Vick and the former N.B.A. official Tim Donaghy), was attempting to tie baseball’s most hallowed mark: Hank Aaron’s career home run record.

Bonds didn’t upstage baseball’s great day. He went homerless in four at-bats and still needs a home run to tie the record.

Selig wasn’t about to be pulled back into that quagmire. He saw Bonds in Milwaukee and was on hand in San Francisco for what is being portrayed, at least nationally, as a joyless pursuit of history.

But how did he feel about the dramatic change in atmosphere from San Francisco to Cooperstown? He described how the commissioner’s role carries him hither and yon. “I was in San Francisco, this weekend I’ve been in Cooperstown and, depending how things go,” he said, referring to Bonds, “I may go to Los Angeles.” The home run chase continues tomorrow when the Giants face the Dodgers in Los Angeles.

“I’m not sure there’s much more I can say, or that I want to say,” Selig said. “It is what it is.”

I was drawn to Cooperstown out of respect for Gwynn and Ripken, but also out of curiosity. I wondered if either inductee would use his day in the sun to rail against steroid use as Ryne Sandberg had in his induction speech.

Neither did, though Ripken hammered home the point that through his youth baseball league, he planned to use baseball as a platform, as a vehicle to reach young people.

Ripken described baseball as a developmental tool. “We are the ambassadors for the future,” he said. “Just as a baseball player wants to leave his mark on the game and leave it a little better than he found it, we should all try to make this world a better place for the next generation.”

Yesterday was a sorely needed lovefest, a respite from Tour de France suspicions, a star quarterback and dogfighting allegations, and the N.B.A. and its referees. A day when a large number of Orioles fans made the pilgrimage to support Ripken and a healthy contingent of fans came from San Diego to support Gwynn, who listened to his daughter sing the American and Canadian national anthems.

The afternoon in Cooperstown illuminated all that is right about our games.

Baseball, Ripken said, was “alive and well.”

At the same time, as I’ve listened over the last six months to the platitudes heaped on Ripken and Gwynn, I wonder if we’ve learned our lesson, in the wake of the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa era, about the perils of singing praises and naming buildings after heroes.

We still have the Mitchell steroid investigation looming and potentially the other shoe to drop in the case of a former Mets clubhouse employee who may have an extensive list of names of players he furnished with illegal drugs. What will an exhaustive list of names reveal? How wide is the net and who is in it? Will any more of our sports bubbles burst?

These are issues for another day, not today.

This was baseball’s day of good news.

The game is bigger than ever, more popular and more profitable than ever. Just think, in a few years — longer if voters have their way — Barry Bonds will be here, looking out over the masses, listening to another baseball commissioner read the inscription on his Hall of Fame plaque. We’ll learn about the forgiving side of baseball.



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