Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Search for answers wears on father, son, readers

The steroids era has left an indelible stain on baseball, like a splotch of mustard on a silk tie. Generations from now, baseball fans will still look back on the 1990s and 2000s as a PED-fueled power bonanza that rewrote the record books and shrouded many of the game's stars in suspicion.

Major League Baseball would like to imagine the sport's drug problem is a thing of the past, with new testing measures in place to catch and punish players seeking an unfair edge. As proof, it can cite slugger Manny Ramirez, whose churlishness has given way in his critics' eyes to his drug use. Manny being Manny has taken on a new connotation, given his two highly visible suspensions, including one last spring that led to a temporary retirement.

But what of the young fans, who admired Ramirez for his hitting heroics? How ready are they to move on from the steroid era and ignore the blot it left on the national pastime? Youngsters are reminded regularly about right and wrong, fair and unfair. Cheating should never be rewarded, right?

When seven-year-old Manny fan Joe Gullo began asking his father some tough questions about performance-enhancing drugs and how they impacted baseball and its records, the freelance writer didn't have any easy answers. What are steroids? Why do players take them? Why aren't they punished if it's cheating? Joe began winnowing known and suspected users from his baseball cards, stacking them up in an ignominious pile of "cheaters." And his father, Jim Gullo, began looking for answers, a quest that turned into a book, Trading Manny: How a Father & Son Learned To Love Baseball Again.

Gullo had grown up playing baseball and hoped someday he could pass his love for the game down to his kids. His first boy preferred basketball, delaying the father-son bonding at the diamond until Joe, his second child, arrived. No dad, however knowledgeable about the game, relishes defending it from a boy's accusations of unfair play, as he was forced to do in 2007 when the Mitchell Report named names, clouding the legacies of players from the superstar ranks all the way down to the Four-A fringers.

The Gullos' journey became both physical and spiritual, as they travelled from their home in Oregon to Seattle; Weiser, Idaho (where Walter Johnson made a name for himself in the bush leagues); New York; and Boston, seeking the spark that would rekindle the boy's love of the game. Gullo wangled interviews with former Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus and pitcher Jeff Nelson, neither of whom were interested in talking about steroids. Only minor leaguer Dirk Hayhurst, by this time something of a pariah for his writing hobby, was willing to open up about what PEDs had done to the game.

When Ramirez took Hayhurst yard late in the 2008 season, the symbolism was so striking to Gullo that he, like his son, became willing to give the game up. They stopped watching games, buying tickets, even playing catch.

Baseball, however, proved to be more addictive than they thought. With MLB offering nothing in the way of an apology, the Gullos sought the counsel of high school and college coaches (including former big leaguer Scott Brosius), and found they were hardly the only fans disappointed by Baseball's response to its lingering problem. Despite never getting the closure they sought, father and son returned to the game in a grand way, visiting both Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park late in the 2009 season, and allowing themselves to be swept up by the crowd, even when alleged PED user David Ortiz played the role of hero.

But all was not truly forgiven, despite the advice imparted by Brosius. "Are we going to give them the same grace we would hope for if we screwed up?" Brosius asks young Joe, during the Gullos visit to the former third baseman's office at Linfield College. Gullo returns to this theme in the book's closing pages, but counters it with a comment about the Hall of Fame chances of tainted players such as Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, and Barry Bonds. "They had traded their 10,000 years of glory for something false and cheap. It had bought them a few good years of ball-playing and a lifetime of shame and public scorn."

And a bulls-eye in a book about PED use.

Trading Manny beats the drum so long and loud that the message eventually becomes a looping, window-rattling, bass beat that you wish would drive out of your neighborhood already. Gullo's open letter to Commissioner Bud Selig outlines a number of demands he asks of the game to help save it for his son "and for millions of other kids." None of them were met, not a single one. Yet Gullo and his son came back to the game anyway, not just willingly, but at significant expense, flying cross country to watch the Yankees and Red Sox.

Judging by attendance figures over the past decade, most fans were willing to overlook players' usage and the damage it did to the game's integrity. As Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated wrote last spring, the game is more popular now than it was during the steroids era. Weather and team performance have significantly greater impact on attendance than resentment over PED use ever did.

Gullo cultivates occasional chuckles with tales of an ill-fated afternoon playing ball with Al Franken and Paul Simon or memories of softball games with his late father. He clearly values his relationship with his son and his family above all else, which is always refreshing to see. But the repeated hammering home of the same points and questions wears thin at times, especially when in the end both Gullos were willing to return to baseball's flock demands unmet.

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