Saturday, August 01, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Size matters now in MLB

Most of us are not shocked anymore.

We're not sad. But for those of us who love baseball, those of us who played it or enjoy watching our kids play it, there is a reason we should still be frustrated, despite our desensitization to drug news.

The sport itself is not what we thought it was. Yes, the players who cheated deceived us, but they also taught us something. The game of baseball, from sandlots in the country to stadiums in the city, is less about coordination and practice and drill-drill-drill repetition than we realized. Size matters more than we knew.

And because of that, baseball has lost a piece of what made it special, drifting ever closer to basketball and football and powerlifting and every other sport where height-weight specs are gospel.

For a moment, forget Hall of Fame debates and other ESPN fodder that will arise from this week's news. On a national scale, Thursday's report that David Ortiz tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003 made it a dark day for one person, and one person only -- David Ortiz.

Baseball statistics lost their credibility long ago. We all know that. His are now tainted as well. Stinks for him.

But here's what we can glean from this: As another big name comes out, it's becoming clearer and clearer that you almost had to cheat to be any good in Major League Baseball. You had to be bigger than the rest. Stronger. More muscular.

In other sports, this is a given. Spud Webb might have been able to dunk, but he was never going to block Manute Bol's shot. A 200-pound lineman is not going to win a trench battle against a defensive tackle packing three bills.

But one of the great things about baseball is that size always seemed to be just another number. A 5-foot-9 Dustin Pedroia can stand in against 6-foot-10 Randy Johnson and have a chance. A 5-foot-11, 160-pound wraith named Tim Lincecum can win the National League Cy Young Award. Alexei Ramirez can look as skinny as an Abercrombie model and still slug 21 homers as a rookie.

But now we -- and surely they -- have to wonder: Just how much better could they be with a little juice?

A lot, probably. And that's why anyone who outworked his peers but got released during this era, anyone who went the clean route and found himself selling insurance while Manny and Papi thrived, has a right to be furious.

Some are. Long-time Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt has spoken out against the cheaters, calling for two separate baseball record books. Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki has advocated blood tests for current players. More and more old timers are chiming in with their disgust for what's happened.

That's good. The more the better. The problem is, nobody had the guts to speak up when this stuff was rampant. Nobody had the gumption to stand up to the players union and say, "I don't want to use steroids. How about protecting my interests?"

As a result, we can save everyone the trouble of wondering who the other players are on that list from 2003. Let's just go ahead and assume everybody's on it. And if the accused don't like it, they can talk to former union chief Donald Fehr -- about a decade after they should have.

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Does anybody else look at Redskins coach Jim Zorn and wonder just how long he can last? Washington wanted another Joe Gibbs when they hired him -- nice guy, players coach, all that. One problem, though. Zorn doesn't have the rings. And you have to wonder if he has the spine for today's NFL.

My prediction: Gone by 2010.

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I like the fact that Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer isn't running from the lofty preseason expectations. Every word he speaks seems to indicate he understands that national-title windows only crack once in a while for a program like Tech's, and that's true. For once, I'm going to agree with the majority of Hokies fans (vocal minority, perhaps?) that an ACC title alone this season would be a disappointment.

Thankfully, though, I'm not the one who has to open against Alabama.

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