By Dan McGrath — For the Sun-Times
More than the political polls, ESPN is your worldwide leader in instigating summertime debate with its annual ranking of baseball’s top 100 players. PED use is not a consideration, and utility isn’t supposed to be; i.e., is an every-day center fielder more valuable than an every-five-days starting pitcher? All that matters is performance.
Hard to argue against Babe Ruth as No. 1, though some do, maintaining the era in which he dominated wasn’t all it could have been because of the complete absence of black players and the limiting of Latin American players. The Babe’s advocates counter that he was one of that era’s top pitchers before leaving the mound for right field and more opportunities to slug the home runs that transformed baseball and may well have saved it from a gambling-and-corruption morass that the Black Sox scandal exposed.
We have been fascinated by power ever since, ascribing similarly restorative properties to the “Great Home Run Race” of 1998, wherein Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa brought fun and excitement back to a game battered by years of rancorous labor disputes. The Barry Bonds freak show that followed lent further credence to the belief that better hitting was attainable through chemistry.
Sosa played on mostly bad teams during his time with the Cubs, but the seats were always filled, and no one ever left until Sammy had taken his last shot at planting one on Waveland Avenue. Would Ernie Banks be “Mr. Cub” if he didn’t have 512 home runs to augment his genial nature and let’s-play-two enthusiasm? Would malevolent Dave Kingman have been offered a newspaper column — fine idea there — if he hadn’t been delivering moon shots during his stormy tenure as a Cub?
Nike was on to something with its “Chicks Dig the Longball” ad campaign of 1998. ESPN, your worldwide leader in overkill, taps into the fascination with its ceaseless promotion and breathless coverage of the Home Run Derby that’s a prelim to the All-Star Game.
And for a knucklehead, Jose Canseco could be a perceptive guy. “Nobody,” he told me once, “goes to the beer stand when I’m due to hit.”
Power. We can’t get enough of it.
The style that’s currently in vogue at Wrigley comes via the sinewy left arm of pitcher Aroldis Chapman. His vapor-trail fastball produces a distinctive thwack that’s audible throughout the ballpark as it pounds the catcher’s glove and prompts awed patrons to gasp as they gaze at the speed readings in wonderment.
We thought Kerry Wood was amazing when he’d nudge 98 mph on occasion.
The handwringing over the ethics of acquiring a suspected domestic-violence perp seemed to vanish the first time Chapman hit 100 on the gun in his Wrigley debut July 27 against the White Sox. Now the crowd starts buzzing when he gets to his feet to loosen up in the bullpen. Entering Friday, he is 2-for-3 in save chances, he has struck out seven of the 15 batters he has faced and he may well be the last piece the Cubs need to put an end to that . . . you know.
The domestic-violence thing? Probably a misunderstanding. Leave the guy be.
The Cubs can emphasize the warm-and-fuzzy aspects of “The Plan” all they like, but the Chapman acquisition shows they’ll be as ruthless as they need to be in pursuit of their goals. In pro sports, winning championships trumps all other goals, and it’s naive to believe the hired help can consist exclusively of choirboys.
Not here. Dennis Rodman, Albert Belle, Tank Johnson and Theo Fleury all called Chicago home in the not-too-distant past. Four years ago, the White Sox traded for a pitcher with a domestic-violence beef more incredible than Chapman’s: Brett Myers socked his wife on a downtown Boston street corner — twice.
I grew up with five sisters and a father who adored my mother, so I can’t imagine raising my voice to a woman, much less a hand. Only recently, though, have we come to view domestic violence as the truly heinous crime it is. Before O.J. Simpson, before Ray Rice, before Greg Hardy, before Chapman, the Philadelphia Daily News did an exhaustive series on the frequency of sexual assaults and domestic batteries involving athletes on college campuses. Other than our awareness, not much has changed in the 32 years since those stories ran.
If an athlete brings the power to win games and earn championships, all is forgiven.
Leave it to historians to decide whether power corrupts. What’s clear is that it seduces.