Thursday, April 10, 2008

Strike One—You’re Out!?

Baseball is my favorite sport and has been ever since I walked with my friend Edward Knight from his house to the baseball field of Gordon Military College and watched my first baseball game after which one of the players handed me a cracked bat that was almost as big as I was which I took home and my father nailed it and taped it and which became my first piece of baseball equipment.

I have been a fan of major league baseball ever since I watched my first Game of the Week on NBC back in the mid-1960s. I remember that the Baltimore Orioles were playing and that their big first baseman Boog Powell hit two home runs.

I have been a fan of the Atlanta Braves ever since 1966, their first year in Atlanta, when our neighbors, whom I was raised to call Aunt Mattie and Uncle James, and my parents and I went to Atlanta Stadium to see them play. That ballpark held ten times more people than lived in my hometown. Hank Aaron hit a home run. I have followed them faithfully—borderline religiously—ever since.

There are things that are wrong with baseball. For instance, the financial part of the game has gotten completely out of hand. I’m sorry, but no human being is worth $20 million per year, and that certainly holds true for human beings who play a game for a living. That’s too much even for someone who works in the world’s most important profession—which is of course serving as a Baptist preacher! For the record and as a matter of personal conviction, I would not accept more than half that amount.

But there is much that is right with baseball. For one thing, baseball is a true team sport. For another, baseball is a wonderful mixture of preparation, strategy, skill, practice, execution, and luck.

The main thing that is right with baseball, though, is that it is built around second chances. If a batter swings at a pitch and misses, there is always the next pitch. If he makes an out in this at-bat, there is always the next at-bat. If a fielder makes an error, there is always the next chance. If a pitcher makes a bad pitch, there is always the next pitch. If the team loses a game, there is always the next game.

If they don’t win the pennant this season, there is always next season.

Cubs fan know that better than anyone.

I’m wondering today if there should be a limit to second chances.

During this year’s Spring Training trip, I came away very impressed with a young center fielder named Jordan Schafer. The word going into Spring Training was that he would likely be the Braves’ starting center fielder in 2009 and that the team had acquired veteran Mark Kotsay from Oakland as a one-year bridge between the departed Andruw Jones and Schafer. Schafer’s performance this spring did nothing to quell such thinking. He hit .316 (12-for-38) with four doubles, six RBIs, and a .421 on-base percentage. He went into his minor league season last year ranked as the Braves’ #27 prospect and emerged from it ranked #1.

Now comes word that he’s been cheating. Major League Baseball has suspended Schafer for fifty games for using Human Growth Hormone. Speculation is rampant among Braves fans about what this will mean for Schafer’s future with the team.

One cannot help but wonder if last season’s outstanding performance and increased standing in the organization were the result of his use of HGH. I don’t know enough about it to know if that alone could improve his play that much.

To be fair, Schafer has been advised not to comment on the situation so we have not heard his side of the story. Obviously MLB believed that they had strong enough evidence to take action against him.

Assuming that the charges are true, the larger issues are these. First, he broke the rules. Second, he broke the rules in a way that could do harm to his body. Third, he broke the rules in a way that sends all the wrong signals to younger athletes.

So, should he be given a second chance? The Braves and MLB will have to determine the extent of his violation. If his use of HGH has not been long-standing, that might make a difference.

I don’t want to be hypocritical about this. I said in a previous post that if it was ever proven that Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa used steroids their names should be expunged from the record books. I wrote that post before the allegations against Roger Clemens came out, but I would add his name to that list. But in their cases we are talking about established major leaguers who may have sullied the game by posting tainted records. Schafer is young player who has never played in a major league game. Perhaps he can be rehabilitated and yet become a productive, HGH-free ball player.

Baseball is about second chances.

If this young man gets a second chance from the Braves (he has enough talent that he’ll get it from somebody), I hope that he takes full advantage of that grace.

If this is Schafer’s first strike, maybe we should remember that it’s not the baseball way to call somebody out on strike one.

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