While cleaning out a closet that had become nothing more than a container for junk that I had refused to throw away for "sentimental" reasons, I came across some old baseball cards I’d saved from the 1980s. Rather than pitch them into the trash pile, or placing them up for sale on eBay (I’m saving them for my son because they’ll be valuable one day, right?), I decided to sit down and look at them.
You know, a little stroll down amnesia lane.
As I thumbed through all of the old names – George Hendrick, Frank Tanana, Tippy Martinez, Chet Lemon, Ron Cey, etc., etc. – it felt like it was 1985 again and there was nothing to worry about.
But there were two things that were particularly revealing about those dusty old cards. Firstly, let’s hope that there is never a '80s retro trend. For anyone who survived the style trends of this particular era of our culture, you know exactly what I’m talking about. For those of you still hanging on with the hope that parachute pants make a stylish comeback, God bless you.
Secondly, and more importantly, the most fascinating part about looking at those baseball cards was how skinny the players looked. It wasn’t an unhealthy skinny where it appeared as if the ballplayers needed to chow down on a few more carbohydrate-heavy dinners, but it was a fit skinny. Though dressed in those crazy uniforms for the bright colors zooming at you from all angles, the players looked athletic – like a college miler or someone who spends three-quarters of their time at the gym on cardio instead of the weights.
It’s a look that is nearly non-existent amongst the current crop of ballplayers, and, certainly, no explanation is needed. With the curious case of one-time Phillie Jason Grimsley suddenly dominating all the seedy chatter about baseball these days, as the Steroid Era finally enters into the darker, uglier Human-Growth Hormone Era, it was striking to see the 20-year old images of sluggers Dave Kingman and Jack Clark.
Kingman and Clark, as followers of baseball remember, were two of the most-feared home run hitters of their era. At 6-foot-6 and a wispy 200 pounds, Kingman was known as "King Kong" for routinely bashing 30-plus homers per season and for smacking the ball a long way. In 1985, Clark was slugger and catalyst for the St. Louis Cardinals and such a power threat that he often walked more times during a season than he reached base on a hit.
But during that ’85 season in which Clark struck a menacing fear into all pitchers, he hit just 22 home runs, and during his 18-year career Clark hit more than 30 homers just once. In 24 combined big league seasons, Clark and Kingman reached the 40-homer plateau just once.
These were your sluggers, folks. And yes, both players were blade thin.
In fact, Clark and Kingman had the same type of physique as second baseman Chase Utley, a strong hitter who smacked 28 homers a season ago and is on the way to duplicating that total this season. Those are definitely strong statistics, but how many people would consider Chase Utley a home run hitter? Right. Not many.
So what exactly then is the point? That strength training, nutrition, performance-enhancing drug abuse, and fashion sense has come a long way in 20 years? That baseball’s statistics are about as valuable as the paper they’re printed on? Yes, we already knew that.
But what about this: baseball, like those old cards buried in the back of a closet, is a fun diversion. A night at the ballpark or in front of the tube watching a game and talking about the strategy, the players and those forgotten heroes is a pretty good way to spend an evening. And based on attendance figures and TV ratings, a lot of other people think so, too. Even with Congressional hearings where nothing meaningful was learned about steroid abuse other than a few ballplayers were less than honest, or an investigation and the chance that one of the game’s most prolific sluggers might have perjured himself in front of a federal grand jury, interest in the game has not waned.
Perhaps Phillies catcher Sal Fasano is correct when he says the only thing he remembers turning off the fans from the game was the strike in 1994.
"We know the substances are being used, and we know baseball is doing what it can to clean it up," said Fasano before last Thursday’s game at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., just two miles away from where the Congress vowed to "clean up" baseball. "But do fans want to hear about it all the time? I don't know."
A night out, some good and affordable food and maybe even a few homers from the home team… what’s better than that?
Who cares if King Kong is the same size as the second baseman?