DALLAS — Hey Houston Kid,
The world is angry at your heroes. You don’t quite understand why, it makes you sad, and I get it.
When I was 6, I had every member of every team on the 1994 rosters memorized — thanks to the Topps complete set my parents bought me — and then some people in suits got mad at each other and they quit playing baseball for that summer. Suddenly being without the game I loved felt like my salty friends turning off the power right when I was about to get the last out in a game of Ken Griffey Jr. Baseball on the Super Nintendo.
Baseball came back and a few years later the Rangers finally got good when I was 8. Every hitter in my youth league who thought they could hit for power held their bat like Juan Gonzalez, but I was already all-in on baseball. The metroplex was just catching the excitement that I had and Pudge Fever — the chronic condition that causes every kid to do a crucifix twice as they step into the box — was a full blown Dallas junior baseball pandemic.
I was once a 10-year-old baseball fanatic, too. In the midst of the historic summer of 1998, while I was playing my first year of kid-pitch, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were racing to 61. The most hallowed record in all of sports was suddenly within reach – and we were getting to follow along with two of the game’s newest greats.
I will never forget that summer. The back and forth battle plays in my mind like the summer montage scene in Sandlot – minus the chaw and the vomit.
There were no girls to care about – school was over for practically forever, as it was as a kid, and we got to stay up late watching the Rangers’ broadcast cut to the McGwire and Sosa at-bats. I got ice cream on my white Mark McGwire replica jersey and the only person more disappointed than my mom was me. I thought if McGwire was the first to get 62 that jersey was sure to be priceless.
If you thought you got all of a pitch in tennis ball baseball, you skipped towards first base like Sammy. If you were confident that it was over the water hose you were using as the outfield wall, you clapped and stutter-stepped as you reached first. There were a lot of No. 21s and 25s on the teams I played, and in closets of kids across the country.
The baseball of my childhood was about as sublime as possible – like it should be for every kid. Then people started talking about steroids.
I entered my teen years only to start hearing about my heroes being cheaters. The Rangers were bad again – to top it all off – and my favorite Ranger and the best baseball player in the world was at the center of the cheating rumors. By the time I was a cynical teenager, it was out in the open. All those heroes of mine had been cheating.
They broke the records but it felt hollow. My youth obsession felt like it had been turned into a niche, weird hobby almost overnight. I had my own baseball career to worry about and, by then, girls and acquiring a driver’s license became the driving force rather than devoting everything to something that had let me down.
Baseball never fully went away, though. I endured through some bad years in Texas. Those bad seasons led to draft picks and front office turnover – kind of like in Houston.
Nevertheless, that baseball innocence that I once had has ended for you the way it ended for me. Everywhere you turn, people are screaming at your heroes from soundstage pedestals, as they did for me; or perhaps in your case, from social media pedestals.
Your dad’s friends, the anchor on the six o’clock news, and even the older kids you know, are discussing stuff you don’t quite grasp but know sounds really bad for baseball and your team.
And then, before you know it, suddenly Congress cares about baseball. Rafael Palmeiro looks weird in a suit talking into a mic, just like Alex Bregman looks weird with his tail tucked between his legs delivering a canned apology in Florida, his trademark swagger left somewhere in the dirt of Minute Maid.
You always admired the fact that Jose Altuve played the game like you – like a kid having fun. But maybe the youthful exuberance was just mischief cloaked in a smile and a quirky batters’ box routine where somewhere along the way, winning at all costs became more important than treating the game with dignity. Perhaps that’s even a concept that you’ve heard before but don’t yet fully understand. What you do know is that you’ve heard all your life that cheating is wrong.
You’re thinking, “Would it be weird to change my number from 27 to something else?” I know because I thought about changing my number, too. You had once embraced the fact that the other teams in the league hated your team – because they were good and they were yours, but now their hate may have been justified.
No one can take back the fun you had when your parents let you stay up late to see the end of the game. You may not realize it now, but that summer and fall will still mean the world to you in 20 years.
If you’ve been lucky, the 2017 Houston Astros may have been the first influential people in your life to disappoint you – but they probably won’t be the last. Baseball is not perfect, because it’s made up of people. But baseball is resilient, in spite of us, because of us and for us. No one can give you back your baseball innocence – but baseball is still baseball and there are lessons we can all learn from it.
Do you feel like the Houston Astros were punished harshly enough for their indiscretions? Share your thoughts with Chris Roland on Twitter @RealChrisRoland.