It's the first week of March and a boy's thoughts turn to warm breezes, gray flannels and a green diamond set in Florida sun. Time for the annual nostalgic spring training homage to baseball. Only this year it is hard to keep your eye on the ball. The talk is about a smooth white powder. This year the spring training story is drugs.
It's a change. For a decade, stories about the game had been overtaken by stories about salaries. The game was so dollarized that a player's contract was more likely to make headlines than his batting average. Now the headline is his snorting habits.
It started last year with the conviction, on charges of trafficking cocaine to baseball players, of Curtis Strong, a Philadelphia caterer who has given entirely new meaning to the word. At the trial, the players were granted immunity, and one by one they testified to a lot of drug use.
Not that drug use in baseball is totally new. Dock Ellis, for example, claims that he pitched his no-hitter in 1970 while on LSD. (I would find it easier to believe that Einstein invented relativity on schnapps. On the other hand, Coleridge did compose "Kubla Khan," a delicate array of curves and offspeed stuff, on opium.) But the Strong trial was too big a scandal to ignore.
So last week Commissioner Peter Ueberroth imposed the sternest disciplinary action in baseball since the Black Sox scandal of 1919. He suspended for one year seven of the players involved in the baseball cocaine trade. He did offer the players an out: 200 hours of community service, 10 percent of their salaries given to drug programs, and a lifetime of random drug tests.
The players, and 14 others punished on lesser offenses, seem to have taken Ueberroth's ruling fairly well. Except, that is, for Keith Hernandez, first baseman of the New York Mets, and possessor, it seems, of both a golden glove and a silver spoon. Hernandez wants the Players Association to file a grievance against the commissioner on his behalf.
Hernandez has yet to speak, but I am trying to understand the logic of his grievance. I think it might go like this. Baseball service is a purely transactional affair, a job like any other, or more precisely, a job like any other in the entertainment industry. If sports is just a branch of entertainment, and if everyone knows that entertainers take drugs without penalty or stigma -- in fact, often with a sly, self-promotional wink -- why lower the boom on ballplayers?
There is a certain truth here. Packaged and promoted by television, sports has become a branch of entertainment. The game, like the news, is no longer the thing, but merely the setting for the thing: the patter and personalities of the anchor people, the Howards and Dandy Dons in the booth.
In fact, for some athletes, sports is really the minor leagues of the entertainment industry, the place to make your name, so that when you start up a band, you can draw a crowd. Carl Lewis, the great Olympic gold medalist, has used that celebrity to launch a, shall we say, awkward singing career. Bucky Dent, a fine Yankee shortstop who won the 1978 pennant with one swing, once told an interviewer, to my eternal dismay, that his real ambition was to be an actor. Here's a guy who hit the most wildly improbable, most glorious home run since Bobby Thompson, and his real ambition is to be on "The Young and the Restless."
If sport and entertainment have become indistinguishable, it stands to reason that Hernandez should be displeased. Why should we demand of him -- and punish him if he fails to meet the demand -- a measure of virtue that one would never think of asking of, say, Joan Collins?
It's not an easy question to answer. One would like to think that there is a difference between being a Met and being a Carrington. That there is something transcendent about hitting .400 or vaulting a bar at 20 feet that makes it different from acting, which, after all, is but an imitative art. That the objective standards of sport produce and demand a kind of excellence and virtue not found in simple entertainment.
But you wouldn't particularly want to make that case in a court of law, if, say, Hernandez decides to challenge the commissioner's right to suspend him for an offense for which he has legal immunity.
What most people forget, however, is that the Black Soxers who tried to fix the 1919 World Series were acquitted in court, too. The commissioner banned them from baseball for life anyway. It takes a taint, not a juridical offense, to injure gravely the integrity of sport.
This commissioner, too, did the right thing. But you'd hate to be his lawyer trying to sell the theory to a jury. It would all be so much easier if Hernandez would just go along with the commissioner and act a bit contrite.
Say it ain't so, Keith. "But it is so, kid," you almost can hear him saying, "and what's more, it's none of your business."
There is no joy in Mudville. Mighty Keith has copped out.