I suppose I should have known that when Jason Giambi showed up at Yankees camp in Tampa he'd be greeted like a returning hero by the fans, as though he'd fought back bravely from a terrible injury suffered in a game.
The faithful cheered him lustily and lined up for autographs Monday, and Giambi, who at the moment is that rare thing, a humble baseball player, signed and signed and signed.
Have you had a sneaking suspicion all along that the whole steroid mess is a much bigger deal for the media than it is for fans? I've thought that on and off for a long time, but I get caught up in the hysteria too. Last spring I wrote that baseball had to finally get serious about testing because the issue had become bigger than the game, made it impossible to market the sport and its oversize sluggers with a straight face.
But has it? We typists and chatterers love to type and chatter about steroids, and you folks love to read and hear about them, though you sometimes claim to be sick of the whole thing. But none of it seems to turn any of us off of the game. Last year, with the BALCO scandal in full flower all season, major league attendance was up 8 percent. More than 5 million tickets that had gone unsold in 2003 were snapped up in '04.
That was the biggest jump since 1998, when attendance spiked by 11.8 percent, almost all of that in the National League, where a pair of hulking sluggers were engaged in a home run record chase. Remember the bottle of andro a reporter found in Mark McGwire's locker? National League attendance was up 20.5 percent that year.
Think about that for a second. There was a lot of excitement to that homer-crazy season, and McGwire and Sammy Sosa's public displays of affection, brotherhood and sportsmanship made everybody feel good, but there's a bit of revisionist history going on when you hear about how everybody ignored steroids, pretended not to see them, until BALCO. Nobody acted, it's true, but there was plenty of talk in '98 about juiced players, not to mention juiced balls, smaller ballparks and diluted pitching talent.
And yet, every sixth person in the stands hadn't been there the year before. Every sixth person. Last year, with Victor Conte, Greg Anderson and the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative all having become household words and Barry Bonds closing in on 700 home runs, every 11th person in the stands in Bonds' league hadn't been there a year earlier.
Not only has the evident result of steroid use -- a decade-long offensive surge -- been good for business, but increasing circumstantial and even hard evidence of steroid use has been good, maybe even better. 1998 was a one-year spike. If this steroid thing keeps playing out, baseball could be in for sustained boom times.
We love it when our heroes fall down, then get back up. It doesn't matter if their fall was self-inflicted, as long as they apologize. And it doesn't even matter if their apology isn't particularly sincere or, in Giambi's case, intelligible. We're just dying to forgive. We love that redemption story, the resurrection.
From Jesus on the cross to George Washington at Valley Forge, from Babe Ruth in the orphanage to Henry Aaron getting death threats, it's a story we tell each other over and over and over again: Suffering and redemption, one two three. Pete Rose's lasting failure wasn't betting on baseball, it was never understanding this basic fact of American life and just bowing his fool head.
So of course Giambi felt the love from the home folks. The media warned soberly that the lovefest was only half the story, that Giambi will be savaged as soon as the Yankees start playing road games. Here's a news flash for the nattering nabobs: Ballplayers love getting booed on the road. It means they're good enough to bother hating. Rey Sanchez could mainline crank in the on-deck circle and nobody'd boo him on the road.
Writing on ESPN.com, Buster Olney suggests that baseball should grant a general steroid amnesty and conduct a sort of truth-telling commission. He imagines what various real and fictional baseball figures might say.
I think Olney wrote with his tongue in his cheek, but I think it's a hell of an idea -- I knew there was a reason I named my son after him -- and I suggested something like it myself last year.
It'll never happen for a couple of reasons. First, it would be painful in the short term and profitable in the long term, the exact opposite of baseball's standard approach. Second, steroids aren't just against baseball's rules, they're against the law, and a general truth-telling would implicate all sorts of friends, hangers-on and family members.
The government would have to buy in and agree not to prosecute those implicated, and the last elected official who agreed to something that would make him vulnerable to a "soft on drugs" charge was last seen waiting tables in Topeka.
But just picture it: Players on every team coming clean, apologizing, crying, vowing to make it up to their teammates, opponents, family and fans. And then the next spring, the scene that played out in Tampa Monday would be repeated over and over and over again, in 30 camps. It would be an orgy of forgiveness and redemption.
Last year, attendance nudged over 73 million for the first time. Let a thousand Jason Giambis bloom and the turnstiles will spin to the tune of 80 million, easy. All because of the truth. How about that. Jesus said it shall make you free. Who'd have guessed it could make you rich?
- - - - - - - - - - - -