One sport still paying for past sins
There used to be this sport.
It was huge and much bigger around here, too.
It was before we breathlessly waited to learn if some 16-year-old far-away athlete might proclaim his collegiate football intentions almost two years before he could do anything about them and sign.
It was before the Sonics arrived on these plains and became a weather-referencing singular, not just bringing the NBA to Oklahoma, but NBA free agency, summer league, training camp and a few annual press conferences from Sam Presti, who’s offered tea leaves we’ve tried reading going on 16 seasons.
It was before ESPN had a reporter in every NFL city, before talk shows specialized in not-mattering, non-issues about sports still months away from returning to the calendar.
You may have heard of it.
It was called baseball.
Still is, actually.
Would you believe Bedlam baseball used to fill stadiums in Tulsa and Oklahoma City and dominate sports radio the week it occurred, too.
People knew who Casey Bookout, Geoff Geary, Greg Dobbs and Daniel McCutchen were.
They cared deeply about who would succeed Larry Cochell as the next non-interim Sooner coach, be it Sunny Golloway or anybody else Joe Castiglione might find, presuming he could find anybody else for more than a couple days, which he couldn’t.
Now, considering what happened this past June, perhaps Sooner baseball has a chance to be cared about in February, March and April.
Maybe it can develop its own fans the way Sooner softball and women’s gymnastics have, because Norman ain’t Lincoln, Nebraska, where they’ll fill the place just as long as it says “Huskers” on the threads.
This, though, is about the big leagues, which used to be a bigger thing in these pages*, too.
* Note: This column also appeared in today’s Norman Transcript
We had more space and time then, trying to keep a real eye on the Cardinals, Rangers, Astros and Royals, believing box scores absolutely, positively had to fill most of a page in a daily sports section.
Nothing was better than a real home run chase, preferably between at least two players and Roger Maris’ ghost, Maris having set the single-season standard of 61 in ’61.
We thought it could get no better than ’98, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa left Maris in their dust, McGwire finishing with ridiculous 70 and Sosa with 66.
We wanted to believe it had been an honest chase, so we did until Barry Bonds, a diamond geezer at 37, broke the game in ’01 — 73 home runs in 476 at bats, which can happen when 177 of 664 plate appearances become walks — and we knew it wasn’t.
It’s why Bonds, McGwire, Sosa and Roger Clemens, too, have been left out of Cooperstown, not only for what they did then, but for the damage what they did then continues to inflict, even right now.
Do you realize, right now, the Yankees Aaron Judge is sitting on 46 home runs with 41 games remaining, having played in 117 of 121 to date? Or that it puts him on a 61.3 home run pace were he to play in 39 of New York’s 41 remaining games (or a 62.1 pace were he to play in all 41).
If the record still belonged to Maris, and it should, the nation might be enthralled by it, fans would have a reason to care about it beyond their hometown team, would have reason to root for Judge even as they continue to hate the Yankees.
Instead, via past sins, Bonds, McGwire and Sosa stole the possibility.
There is also this:
Though the great Albert Pujols announced in spring training his return to St. Louis would last exactly one season, after which he would retire, how about the demand that he return had Bonds never broken the game on the way to 762 career home runs, seven more than the real king, Henry Aaron?
Because after two home runs Saturday night at Arizona, Pujols now sits on 692 for his career. He’s played in 70 games this season, come to the plate 226 times and hit 13 beyond the fence. Were he to club, say, another six before regular season’s end, he’d be at 698, just 16 short of Babe Ruth’s 714.
Had Bonds not made a mockery of it, who wouldn’t want Pujols to return in a quest to join Aaron as only the second player to catch, and perhaps surpass, the Sultan of Swat?
All of us would.
Well, all of us who still care about baseball, and if we did, and Pujols came back, maybe others would choose to care along with us.
Yes, the game’s in the middle of taking a look at itself.
Soon, with a pitch clock, games won’t last forever, ever-so-slightly larger bases will give us more stolen bases and infield alignment limits should filter into higher batting averages and perhaps fewer strikeouts, as there’d be less reason to swing for the fences.
Still, what baseball has more of than all the rest is history and records, the former meaning so much more when the latter remains attainable.
This could have been an historic summer.
Alas, the previous selfishness of others, though it's kept them from hall of fame, continues to punish a great game.
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