Craig Calcaterra writes for Hardballtalk at NBC Sports.com. His non-baseball writing can be read at craigcalcaterra.tumblr.com.
Presidents, while famous for throwing out the first pitch at baseball games, have been far more closely associated with other sports in recent history. George W. Bush owned the Texas Rangers and his father was a ballplayer himself, but for the past 50 plus years they’re the exceptions, not the rule. JFK was famous for games of touch football at the Kennedy compound. Nixon’s love of the NFL is well documented. Gerald Ford was an actual football player.
There are many men who have been honored by Major League Baseball—many of whom were even inducted into the Hall of Fame—whose moral and ethical worth was ultimately revealed to be lacking. In their day, these figures were considered “men of their time,” but by today’s standards, they are less than role models, to say the least.
In January, rumblings arose from the quarterly owners meetings that the National League may, quite possibly, be moving toward adopting the designated hitter. There was nothing certain about it, and Commissioner Rob Manfred quickly issued statements saying that it was not likely. But the chatter constituted more talk about the DH in the senior circuit than had been heard for some time. Predictably, it created something of a furor as only arguments about the designated hitter can.
Last December baseball celebrated the 40th anniversary of player free agency. The legal case that cast asunder the reserve clause and marked the advent of free agency was a watershed moment in the history of the game, forever changing the relationship between baseball’s employees and employers. It likewise changed the relationship between the fans and the players for whom they root for a few years—before the players join another team in another city in multimillion dollar deals.
Beginning in 2015, something new came to every Major League ballpark: metal detectors. A handful of parks had them the year before, but in one of his last acts as commissioner, Bud Selig ordered every team to either install walk-through metal detectors or place security staff with wands at every gate. Most teams purchased and installed airport-style, walk-through gates, which required each fan to empty his or her pockets into plastic bins, walk through, recollect, and then, finally, head in to see the old ball game.
For the past several years, Hall of Fame voters have had to make some difficult judgments with respect to candidates who are accused of or have been established to have taken performance-enhancing drugs during their careers. The judgments are made all the more difficult by virtue of baseball’s Wild West environment when it came to drugs prior to 2005, when the league and the union adopted formalized drug testing. Some players whose primes occurred before 2005 have admitted to doping. Some have denied it vehemently.
It’s hard to have heroes these days. Especially ballplayers. Ballplayers are human, and all humans have faults. But heroes aren’t supposed to. Today, in the information age, we know everything about ballplayers, and the more information we have about someone, the less heroic he’s likely to seem.
I’ve had baseball heroes, however. Two of them, in fact. And what made them heroes in my eyes was different in each case.
On December 31, 1972, the plane in which Roberto Clemente rode with relief supplies for Nicaragua earthquake victims crashed into the waters just off the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico, shortly after takeoff, killing the baseball legend. A still-active baseball legend, it should be noted. Clemente had, three months before, notched his 3,000th and final hit as a Major Leaguer, but he had planned to play in 1973. His loss, then, was immediate, greatly felt, and was all the more wrenching.