Curiosity and sentimentality are the mortal enemies of those who wish to live uncluttered lives. Despite my sincere effort to clean out the garage last week, I lost my battle with those enemies, thanks to an old Nike shoe box with “’98 Baseball” written in Sharpie across the top.
I found the shoebox in the first storage container I’d vowed to eliminate. Before I’d thrown away one single piece of junk, I found myself at the kitchen table, opening the box and shuffling through memories.
For baseball junkies, 1998 was the summer romance gone sour. Four years after a devastating labor strike that cancelled the World Series, baseball finally made a comeback, thanks to several incredible moments. The Yankees won 114 games. Kerry Wood struck out 20 batters in a game. Cal Ripken ended his consecutive game streak at 2,632.
But the story of the summer was the power. Mike Piazza hit is 200th career home run. Rafael Palmiero his 300th. Barry Bonds his 400th. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa embarked on an epic chase to eclipse Roger Maris’ single-season home run record of 61. Both did, Sosa at 66 and McGwire at 70.
And in record numbers, America watched it all.
Looking back, it all seems tainted—especially the power numbers. Of the top-ten overall home run leaders that year, seven have been linked to steroid use (Ken Griffey, Jr., being a notable exception).
Fans were crushed, and in some ways we never recovered. Most of the great players of the 1990s will never sniff the Hall of Fame. Even a decade after the Senate hearings that brought the problem to light, the outcry against players of the so-called Steroid Era sounds like the sobs of jilted lovers. I can’t believe we fell for that! You lied to me. It was all fake. Nothing about it was real!
Except that it was real—the experience, if not the authenticity of its creation. The game that year created intense drama, must-see TV. My shoebox was full of articles worthy of a Grantland Rice poem, gushing as they were over this new generation of heroes. Sports Illustrated wondered on its cover if this was the greatest year in baseball history.
And we baseball fans—both casual and devoted—loved it. Maybe we shouldn’t have. Maybe we don’t want to. Maybe—no, definitely—it was bad for us and for our kids. But we loved it.
Just like a lot of things that could kill us. Just like a lot of things that could cause us to be complicit in killing others. One way or another, we pay a price for willful blindness.
I wish we could undo all the steroids that were flushed into ballplayers’ bodies in 1998. We would have had a much less spectacular season. But I’d be able to let my son sift through this shoebox without having to explain why something so great turned so awful.
I can’t. But I will do what I can.
I can save the shoebox, and the memories inside. I can try to remember who I was then, and who my heroes were, and how we were all flawed and need forgiveness. But I can also remind myself to keep my eyes open, and to teach my sons to do the same, as much as they are able. If I can do that, maybe the next box they open will contain the memories without the guilt.