Rick Ankiel was developing into on of the nicest stories. Ankiel's return as a slugging right fielder after his demise as a pitcher rivaled Roy Hobbs for drama. He capped a brilliant month with a 3-for-4 with 2 home runs, 4 runs, and 7 RBI in a16-4 Cardinals win yesterday.
He now has ungodly numbers through 23 games: 9 HR, 29 RBI, .358 BA, .409 OBP, .765 SLUG, and a 1.174 OPS. That translates into 63 RBI and 204 RBI in a 162-game season. No man has hit as many home runs in fewer games than Ankiel:
Great story, right?
Not so fast. Before you can say, World's Greatest Fans Ankiel is embroiled in a performance-enhancing drug scandal. Maybe he is trying to emulate Hobbs and end his season as ignominiously as the fictional player did (in the book, at least). The New York Daily News reports that Ankiel received a year's supply of HGH, along with a year's supply of Rice-A-Roni, in 2004 from a pharmacy "that was part of a national illegal prescription drug-distribution operation".
Baseball gets a good story and it instantly transforms into another black eye.
It seems that of all the scandals that have occurred in other sports, only the morass that surrounds Michael Vick outstrips baseball's dirty little secret steroids (or to be more exact, performance-enhancing drugs).
I am the last person to chicken-little over steroidsI prefer to blame rapid expansion and bandbox ballparks for the current slugging glutbut this sport cannot sustain so much poor PR. The game is no longer the revered national pastime it once was. Baseball is more like a Jay Leno punchline among the sports world, the Britney Spears of sport.
Football just sustained a very large scandal, i.e., Michael Vick, and yet the hype for the new season is as big as ever. ESPN may as well be remained the Football Channel given their obsequious devotion to the gridiron.
Basketball had a referee involved in a gambling scandal. The outcry has been minimal.
Hockey just went through scandal in which an active assistant coach and the wife of its biggest star were allegedly running a gambling ring. They were acquitted, but no one batted an eye when the stories being published seem to point to their guilt. Then again, no one seems to notice hockey one way or the other.
Is it fair? No. Do I think that performance enhancers are more prevalent in baseball than other sports, especially football? Not really. But that doesn't really matter. Baseball has a bad image and every one of these stories tarnishes it even further.
I was against the players union given into any further intrusions into its members' lives, but the union has to realize that what's is devastating to the game is devastating to the union as well. This one is particularly aggravating given that it negates the game's feel-good summer story.
Baseball is left with a collection of aging stars that are known for various peccadilloes: Bonds for steroids, Sosa for corking his bat and the hint of steroids, A-Rod for making too much money and for supposedly choking, etc. Young stars seem unable to make a cultural impact because of the prevalent sentiments regarding the sport. Really since the 1994 strike, fans have had a rather adversarial approach to baseball. The only description for their derisive approach to the game and their reveling in the minutest of its scandals is schadenfreude.
Baseball looks great financially, attendance is higher than ever, just about every team will have a relatively new, state-of-the-art stadium within a few years, and yet it is at a crossroads. The lords of the game have run it like a idiosyncratic gentlemen's club instead of a multi-billion dollar, international entertainment business. They seem to think that if they wait out any scandal they will just go away.
Steroids is not going away. But the fans may be, as younger fans turn to other activities and the older ones age and expire.