Saturday, September 08, 2007

The Un-Natural (Where have you gone Ricky Ankiel, an online drugstore turns its lonely eyes to you?)

There were two baseball stories that caught the public’s attention this year. Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s major league career home run record and Ricky Ankiel, once a promising pitcher, returned to the majors as a home run hitting outfielder. Both events evoked Babe Ruth who remains the sport’s patron saint. Bonds now holds the two records that people associated with Ruth for more than a generation, the single season home run record (73) and the career home run record. Ankiel’s reinvention echoed Ruth’s own fabled transformation from Hall of Fame level Red Sox pitcher to New York Yankees slugger, a shift so iconic that Bernard Malamud made it the center of his novel The Natural.

For a couple weeks, it appeared that the Bonds and Ankiel stories were supposed to contrast with one another. Despite his numbers, Bonds had sullied the game through his likely use of both steroids and HGH from 1999 to 2004. As he approached Hank Aaron’s 755, the baseball gods were punishing him by having a cloud of flying accusations follow him from stadium to stadium. Even more painful, Bonds’s team was stuck in last place. They had been collectively dragged down by their flawed star’s pursuit of the record. Ankiel’s story was all about how hard work and belief in self had let Ricky Ankiel keep his dream alive. After their world series win last year, the Cardinals had appeared to be cursed. First, manager Tony La Russa had been arrested for drunk driving then pitcher Phil Hancock had died while driving drunk. The team had no performed on the field. Ankiel got called up from the minors, hit nine home runs, and suddenly the team had gotten back into the playoff race. Ankiel’s inspiring story had saved their season. He was the anti-Bonds.

Yesterday, it turns out that Ankiel was linked to eight shipments of HGH in 2004 not long after he had undergone Tommy John surgery. Ankiel and the Cardinals quickly explained that he had a Doctor’s prescription and that HGH was not a banned substance in 2004. As to the facts that he was getting the drug from a shady non-bricks and mortar pharmacy and that HGH doesn’t seem to be the norm for elbow reconstruction surgery, Ankiel and the Cardinals have a whole lot less to say. When asked what other drugs his doctor might have been prescribed, Ankiel’s response was that the information was protected by physician-patient privilege. Nonetheless, every article I saw on the story took pains to mention both the doctor and the fact that baseball had not banned HGH in 2004. The shipments to Ankiel apparently stopped just before MLB started testing for it.

Not a single Ankiel article mentioned the fact that Barry Bonds’s likely use of HGH occurred before 2005.

Will the public turn on Ricky Ankiel as this story unfolds? I don’t know. The game needs heroes and that heroism usually has to take the form of hitting lots of home runs in the middle of a pennant race. Ironically, the Cardinals have the game’s best young home run hitter in Albert Puljos. It’s just that Ankiel’s comeback has been a more riveting story than the fact that no player in history has done more in his first few years in baseball than Puljos

Is the disparate treatment of the Ankiel and Bonds story just a matter of black and white?
It’s possible. Roger Clemens is likely as surly as Barry Bonds yet when Clemens announced his comeback this year at Yankee Stadium it got a standing ovation. The fact that Ankiel is white has likely played some role in his getting sympathetic press both for his return to the majors and with the HGH revelation. Still, I have trouble thinking of Barry Bonds as a civil rights icon. He has Aaron’s record, but Aaron’s own chase had more honor. It’s not the drugs. Aaron was forced to deal with the racism that came with being a black player chasing Ruth’s record less than ten years after the shooting of Martin Luther King. That’s just not part of Bonds’s story arc.

Going way back, Ruth’s home runs rescued baseball from the taint of the Black Sox scandal. The Ricky Ankiel story had promised to help pull the game out of the steroids-HGH scandal. Instead, it was like pulling the game’s head out of the water then dunking it back in. It's that moment in an action movie when someone comes to the rescue forty minutes into the movie only to turn out to be yet another bad guy in disguise.

A couple days ago, I got in a conversation with a couple guys who were doing fantasy baseball leagues. Even though most of my friends would have predicted that I was exactly the sort of person who would have gone for fantasy baseball in a big way, I never have. Anyway, they began talking about a number of their roster coups and it struck me that I didn’t know many of the names anymore. It’s not a shock. Players move from team to team quickly now and there are a lot more teams than there were when I was a kid memorizing the stats pages in the Sporting News for every team in the majors. Knowing every twenty five man roster in baseball is just a much more difficult feat today. The shock about my not recognizing so many baseball names is that I didn’t feel any sadness about it.

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At 9/09/2007 12:29:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

None of the other druggies has come close to Barry's performance. I remain agog at his performance.

At 9/09/2007 08:00:00 AM, Blogger benny06 said...

The Sporting News is certainly earning its money these days. I'm not certain what to make of free wheeling players that often though. Sometimes it improves the game, most of the time it is about PR.

At 9/09/2007 05:10:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Yes, it's all very strange, but if the standard of comparison is the others who used steroids, hgh, etc. Bonds still stands out.

The Ankiel story is also quite amazing in its own way.

I haven't actually read the Sporting News in a few years. I had a subscription when I was a kid. It was the only source of complete statistics for all the major league teams and had minor league statistics as well.
The articles were pretty terrible.

I think the Internet has mostly done in the Sporting News.

At 9/09/2007 06:12:00 PM, Blogger RC said...

man, this bonds stuff is just kind of sad to me.

At 9/09/2007 10:51:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

Well this started out as a Ricky Ankiel post, but it was hard to separate the two stories.
I agree though that it's taken a lot of the fun out of the game.
Thanks for dropping by.

At 9/10/2007 04:00:00 PM, Blogger Cup said...

I'm pretending the Bonds record never happened.

At 9/10/2007 04:42:00 PM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

It'll be interesting to see what happens when and if Alex Rodriguez goes over 61 home runs this year.

Oddly the American League record is still Roger Maris's 61, but it's possible that people would treat ARod hitting 62 as the real major league single season record. Of course, that assumes that ARod is clean himself.

At 9/11/2007 09:51:00 AM, Blogger None said...

A little less than 5 years ago I found myself standing in line at the ticket booth in Oakland. All to see the Royals play. But, 19 (going on 20) consecutive wins will do that to a person. I still have fond.. albeit fading memories of that night. It is a bit more difficult to recall Hattenberg being called off the bench. I guess time does that.

A moment like this saves baseball for me. I'm not able to recall stats anymore. A-Rod hardly registers as a power hitter. And, forget about younger players. But, we still attend games. We might do more socializing than actual game watching these days. The sport just serves a slightly different purpose now.

At 9/11/2007 11:57:00 AM, Blogger Chancelucky said...

My first live major league game was a Giants-Braves game in 1963 the day after Marichal and Spahn had their 16 inning 1-0 duel.

The game had about 6 hall of famers on the field iirc. Aaron, Matthews, Mays, McCovey, Cepeda, Gaylord Perry
and I remember almost nothing about the game itself. I really have much better memories of being in the car with my parents listening to the Spahn-Marichal game the night before. I think Mays won it with a home run.

My dad liked to stop at the midnight newspaper stand on the street corner near his restaurant to get the next day's Chronicle. I was listening to the game on the radio and he wanted to look at tomorrow's headlines the night before (thats how we used to do it)
He'd also buy cigars and gum from the guy who I guess spent the entire evening in that little stall on the street corner.

I remember we got home that night and the game was still on. I insisted on staying in the car just to see how the game would turn out.

I have no idea how I woke up early enough to drive to San Francisco the next day to see my first live major league game.


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