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Ghostman on Second

Friday, December 14th, 2007

Before there was Wii, kids played neighborhood baseball, the kind of ball that was played in sandlots, cow pastures, and municipal parks. Nobody wore uniforms. Across the field you could see every color of the rainbow, as kids dressed in the playclothes their mothers laid out for them at home. The teams were not furnished with equipment. They depended on birthdays and Santa Claus for bats, balls, and gloves. The organization was loose–captains picked teams.

It was a rare day to have enough players for nine per team. Sometimes they played with seven, maybe five. They rarely had a catcher, so the batter usually swung at the first pitch, and in the neighborhood two players could easily cover an outfield.

When the numbers were low like that it wasn’t uncommon for a batter to be on one of the bases when his turn at the plate came up again. In the neighborhood they had a system for that: the ghostman. “Ghostman on second!” the batter would cry and then hussle to the plate. This way, he might occupy two bases at the same time. The ghostman was a part of an honor system in neighborhood ball. When the runs were tallied up at the end of an inning, if a kid said three ghostman came across the plate, nobody questioned him. His word was enough.

This was the baseball I played when I was growing up. Later I played in high school, but neighborhood ball is what created my love for the game. With fewer than nine players per team, no coaches, no rulebook, and no umpires, it was a game that was possible only if it was played with integrity.

Where’s the integrity in baseball today? The Mitchell report that was released yesterday identified 86 names of Major League baseball players who were caught using illegal performance-enhancing drugs. The list included seven MVPs and 31 All-Stars–cheaters, every one of them. In my opinion, their records ought to be expunged. No Hall of Fame, not even an asterisk. Make them disappear. The integrity of baseball has to be brought back.

I watched Bud Selig’s press conference yesterday, along with the comments that were made afterwards on a few of the news and sports networks. The commentators were angry at Selig. Granted, he bears some of the responsibility, but what about the players? Is there a public outcry against these men who thought they deserved an unfair advantage? If there is, I’m not hearing it.

I learned a lot of lessons from baseball, lessons on telling the truth, being loyal to your team, winning with class, and losing with grace. Those lessons are not being taught by professional players, and baseball is suffering for it.

There remains, of course, a large number of heroes in baseball who didn’t cheat to succeed: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Ted Williams, Micky Mantle, Stan Musial, Hank Aaron, Cal Ripken, Jr., and Nolan Ryan, to name a few.

But I’m afraid it’s going to take some time for baseball to recover. Integrity cannot be restored to baseball overnight. Maybe it never will.

Say it ain’t so.


Wednesday, August 8th, 2007