MCCULLOUGH: Redemption still not likely for baseball

Nate McCullough

Nate McCullough

Kick 'em all out.

I'm talking about the latest group of sinners in baseball. If it turns out that A-Rod, et al., were using performance enhancing drugs then strip them of their records, kick them out of the sport, and if they committed crimes, put them in jail.

Oh wait. This is Major League Baseball, run by Bud Selig. So they won't do anything to redeem my former favorite sport.

Man, did I love baseball. I started playing when I was 8 years old and I didn't quit until I had my varsity letter, and only then because I got hurt. My heroes were mostly Braves, of course, but my idol was Johnny Bench. I wanted nothing more when I was a kid than to play behind the plate.

I soon got my chance. I put on the helmet, the mask, the chest protector and the shin guards. Other players ran out on the field with nothing but a glove. I marched onto it in my suit of armor. It was a near-religious experience

As I got older, I tried to get better. Coaches taught me the basics, but my dad was my best teacher. He bought my first mitt. He made eyeblack for me by burning an old cork. He told me to watch pros like Carlton Fisk and Bruce Benedict, to see how they sacrificed their bodies to block the low throws and the wild pitches. He taught me to play tough. At some point I began to feel like a real catcher.

The banes of my existence -- other than the terrible Georgia heat -- were base runners, the ones who'd try to steal, the dirty thieves. I figured you might get lucky and get to first, but second belonged to me. Bench said he could "throw out any man alive." I wasn't quite so talented, but I certainly tried. Ultimately, unfortunately, I ruined my arm.

But I loved it while it lasted. And when I couldn't play the game anymore, I worshipped at its altar. My Bible was the USA Today baseball preview, my church bulletin the schedule. I honored Saints Ripken, Rodriguez, Pendleton and Maddux. The Braves got World Series good -- thank you, Jesus -- and when I was 28, I made my pilgrimage to the Vatican -- in Cooperstown.

I saw Babe Ruth's bat, Shoeless Joe Jackson's shoes and the Holy Grail: Johnny Bench's plaque and catcher's gear.

It was the year after Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa dueled to out-do Roger Maris, and the Hall of Fame had an entire exhibit on what it called the Great American Home Run Chase. The induction class was incredible: George Brett, Nolan Ryan and Robin Yount. But my buddies and I opted to skip the speeches to drive to the Bronx. We put the price of a ticket in New York's offering plate, sat in the center-field pews, ate Italian ices and watched Roger Clemens deliver a sermon on strikeouts to the Indians.

And then a few years later came Balco and Bonds and all the other BS. The records were tainted, the Home Run Chase a lie. Even my trip to Yankee Stadium was ruined. I used to brag about being able to hear Clemens pop the mitt from the centerfield bleachers. Now? Who cares.

They robbed me of that. All the dirty, drugged-up millionaires and their look-the-other-way owners took some of my best memories and ruined them. I haven't been able to care much about the professional sport since, and it hurts my soul.

So I wish they'd excommunicate them. I wish anti-pope Selig would do the right thing and restore some honor to baseball. But honor gets in the way of making a buck, so I may not get to love baseball again in this life.

But to take my baseball-religion metaphor one last step, in my mind, heaven is a diamond, just like in "Field of Dreams." Instead of old pros or current egomaniacs playing there, it's us kids. When we get there we're all 12 again, and we run onto the field in blue jeans and old sweats, with borrowed gloves, worn-out spikes and too-heavy bats, and we play for nothing other than pure joy. For the love of the game. With honor. And nothing has been stolen from us.

Except maybe the occasional base.

But not on me, of course.

Email Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays. For archived columns, go to www.gwinnettdailypost.com/natemccullough.