Friday, December 14, 2007

Naming Names and Playing Games

One afternoon when I was 13, a crowd gathered at an old movie studio near where I lived in the Bronx. Policemen stretched their arms to open an alley for people getting out of limos. A tall man in fitted yellow sports shirt and slacks, striding ahead with no expression on his tanned face, Joe DiMaggio got out of a car, crossed the sidewalk and disappeared into the building.

I had never been to Yankee Stadium a mile away so I knew him only from grainy newspaper pictures and jumpy newsreel clips. The sudden texture and color of his face and clothes shocked my senses into a sweet awareness that he actually lived in the same world I did. For weeks, I kept replaying those vivid few seconds in my mind. Beyond the baseball cards and box scores, Joe DiMaggio was suddenly real. I had seen him six feet away.

Today's baseball players are familiar figures in our living rooms, but their mythic quality remains, and the news about their use of illegal performance-enhancing drugs is even harder to take than it might have been back then when they lived on a distant planet.

Roger Clemens and Andy Pettite have been part of my grandkids' lives since they were old enough to sit in front of a TV set or eat a hot dog at Yankee Stadium. How are they to understand what is being said about the men they try to emulate in their Little League games?

As troubled as all of us are about the use of steroids by the role models for millions of kids, there is something reckless about publicly indicting so many men on the kind of evidence, much of it from informants trying to save their own skins, that is the basis of the Mitchell Report. There is a flashback to the times when Congressional committees named names and ruined careers that way.

Those who control and profit from the game should protect their investments by setting new rules and enforcing them by all means. But they have had years to do that. Are 400 pages of hearsay about 89 Major League players the best or the only way to move ahead now?

My nostalgia for Joe DiMaggio and other idols of his time may be clouding my mature judgment but, in those days, we still believed in the presumption of innocence before we plastered people's names all over headlines that would ruin their reputations.

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