The St. John’s baseball team finished the 2007 season with 41 wins, 19 losses and zero steroid accusations.
Already in 2008, sophomore pitcher Ryan Cole picked up a win, 3-1, against Evansville in his first career start to secure a victory in the Johnny Gill Memorial Tournament in Rock Hill, S.C. He went seven innings, struck out eight, walked one and allowed only two hits. He was not seen on the back cover of the any New York newspaper the next day under a cleverly phrased headline questioning his athletic legitimacy.
Elsewhere, in the big leagues, where the big boys play-the mature men who should know the difference between right and wrong-this is not the case. We’ve flipped to a sad page in the story of Major League Baseball, where congressional hearings are needed to sort out the real heroes of American youth from the comic book variety, who can save the world only after an unfortunate slip into a vat of nuclear waste.
Unaffected fans may say, “Hey, remember the Black Sox, Pete Rose, the spitball, corked bats? Cheating and scandal has always been a part of our national pastime. It’s as much a part of it as the seventh-inning stretch.” But never has our national pastime been cast in such a shadowy light. Never before has an entire generation of fans been forced to question if they’d ever seen a completely clean game in their lifetimes.
But there is an escape. There is a place to see baseball in its purest strain, and it’s on the arm of Cole and off the bats of his teammates. The sport’s lasting beauty was never in its commercial success anyway; it was and remains in its simple grace, melodic pace and its seamless integration of bat, ball and glove.
Basically, what’s lasting about baseball isn’t the big business, big homerun, big muscle state of the MLB – it’s the shortstop turning to his centerfielder with his index and pinky finger raised and a smile after turning a perfect double play.
And that, along with everything else we can still respect, will be on display from now until the end of the summer at the little league parks, the high school fields and at the Jack Kaiser Stadiums.
Those same unaffected types may argue, “Hey, the NCAA drug testing policy is a joke. Only eight athletes at a Division I institution without a football program are guaranteed to be tested each academic year. We don’t know that these college guys aren’t on the juice too.”
And although they’d be right, they’d be wrong. The NCAA starts combing with a much finer tooth at the championship level. According to information available at NCAA.org, immediately after a team championship game, “an NCAA drug-testing crewmember will provide an institutional representative with a list of student-athletes who have been selected for drug testing.” The bottom line for college athletes is if they want to be winners, they had better be clean winners.
Here at St. John’s, we’re lucky. Not only do we get to watch a team that does it right, we get to watch a team that does it well. Last season, the Storm won its second Big East regular season title in three years after racking up a 20-7 conference record. Twelve Johnnies hit in the .300s and seven of them are back for 2008.
And the individual storylines are there as well.
Scott Barnes pitched to a 7-2 record last year with a sub-three ERA in 15 starts. He fell one shy of a hundred strikeouts last season and already has six notched up so far in 2008.
Brian Kemp, last year’s surprise freshman standout, proved there would be no sophomore slump in his first at-bat – a leadoff triple in the first game of the year against Gardner-Webb.
Gil Zayas, who led the team in average and was second in RBIs in his junior year, is going to be looked to for middle of the order run production again this season. Carlos Del Rosario, a junior outfielder, went 3-for-4 with 3 RBI in his Red Storm debut.
And Cole, who was so impressive in his first start, is getting a chance in the starting rotation after 20 relief appearances and a 4-0 record in his freshmen campaign: a year in which the young right-hander struck out 27 in just 33 innings of work.
That list of names doesn’t even crack the surface of the countless who are playing the real game, the real way, in every open space big enough to allow them to in every corner of this country.
So, the ball may sound different off the bat when a Johnny hits a game-winning homer this spring, but the sound will ring truer than any crack out there.