Confronting my worst nightmare
Dateline: May 7, 2014
My son and I have flown from California to spend the week in Boston. He is a little more than 6½ at this point. He has never set foot in Fenway Park. The time is right. He likes baseball. He likes the Red Sox. He's a little sports encyclopedia. I have brainwashed him. He is just old enough to understand the significance of his first Fenway game and, more importantly, old enough that he'll be able to remember the experience decades later.
We find our $1,500 seats in the lower boxes near third base. We are sitting in Best Buy's Section 61, which is right between Bob's Discount Furniture's Section 60 and Costco's Section 62. Every section has a sponsor now. The Green Monster is now called "The Pepsi Green Monster" and has a big Pepsi can painted on it. Ted Williams' special seat in right field is now sponsored by Muscle Milk. Even home plate is sponsored by Dunkin' Donuts. Has the logo on it and everything. That's just the way sports work now.
We settle into our seats. I point toward the championship banners over the first-base side. They go in order: 1903, 1904, 1912, 1915, 1916, 1918, 2004, 2007. Ever since Boston won the World Series 10 years ago, I always imagined pointing to that 2004 banner and telling my little boy, "That's the team that changed everything."
So that's what I do. I point at the banner and tell him, "That's the team that changed everything."
"Isn't that the team that cheated?" he asks.
My father and I glance at each other. A few beats pass.
"Well, technically, no," I stammer. "I mean ..."
"I thought they had a whole bunch of steroids guys on that team," he says.
"Well, there have been some accusations, and yeah, some of the power numbers were a little suspicious, but ..."
"I'd do it again!" my dad yells happily.
I shake my head at him. He shrugs. The thing is, he WOULD do it again. He wanted to see the Red Sox win the World Series in his lifetime. He worried about it constantly. So did I. So did every Red Sox fan. We worried about living a full life, then dying, without ever seeing them win. All of us knew people who fit in that category. None of us wanted to end up in there.
All of us would have made a deal with the devil at the time. And maybe we did. We just didn't know it.
"Nothing was ever really proved," I tell my son, trying to keep up the good fight.
He ignores me and starts rattling through our 2004 lineup with creepy precision. He points out Nomar Garciaparra's remarkable 1999 and 2000 seasons, his subsequent tendon injuries and how his career played out so blandly afterward for reasons that remain unclear. My dad points out the Sox traded Nomar midway through the 2004 season. Technically, that debate shouldn't even matter. Score one for Dad.
"But what about Trot Nixon and Bill Mueller?" my son says. "They missed a bunch of games every year with injuries, put on weight when they were skinny guys, peaked quickly and were never seen again. Same for Mark Bellhorn, right? That's suspicious."
"Well," I say, "their names never came up in anything, so that's not really fair ..."
"And Kevin Millar, he had a few big homer years, then his power numbers went way down once the testing started."
"That's true, but it doesn't prove anything ..."
"And Johnny Damon, he got bigger and started hitting for more power even though he was a singles hitter, right?"
Silence. Nobody says anything.
Finally, my dad steps in: "He had an inside-outside swing at Minnesota, when he came to Boston, we encouraged him to pull the ball, so ..."
"Come on, Gramps!" my son says. "That's dumb, and you know it."
We glance out to the field. Big Papi is one of Boston's coaches now. After he hit 54 homers in 2006, his career was over within four years. Now he's just a fat guy in his early 40s coaching first base. You would never guess this is the same guy who carried us in 2004, the guy who fueled the Greatest Comeback Ever, the guy who helped convince an entire fan base that, yes, we could believe.
"And what about Manny?" my son asks. "He tested positive for performance enhancers in 2009 with the Dodgers. How do you know he wasn't using that whole time?"
"Well, we don't," I say. "But that was kind of a fluke -- he had a doctor in Florida who prescribed him a banned substance, and ..."
"Come on, Dad, I read your Red Sox book. You said that at least you knew Manny couldn't have ever used steroids because he was too dumb to figure out how to stick to a cycle. Then he tested positive. You were, like, his biggest fan. You wrote a big piece after he got traded that was so long, it took me a week to read it."
"I told him not to write that column," my dad says. "Manny needed to go. He was a selfish jerk. Your father had blinders on ..."
"Come on, that's not fair," I say. "I loved the guy. He was on the team for more than eight years. He helped us end the curse. He made our lives as Red Sox fans more fun. He was like family. I wasn't gonna dump the guy from my life after everything he did just because his agent poisoned him against the team."
"But you defended him and said he was a good guy at heart," my son says. "And then he cheated, right? So how does that make him a good guy?"
I take a deep breath.
"It doesn't make him a good guy," I say. "You don't understand what it was like to follow baseball before you were born. There was a strike in 1994, and the World Series was canceled. Everyone hated baseball. Then Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa started hitting homers, and the balls started flying out of the park, and it was so much fun that everyone looked the other way. We didn't care that these guys were practically busting out of their skin or growing second foreheads. We really didn't. All the cheating made baseball more fun to watch. We were in denial. It was weird.
"Then, Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in a season, and that was like the turning point. We realized that things had gone too far. We blamed him for cheating and looked the other way with dozens of other guys who might have been doing the same thing. Brady Anderson hit 50 homers in 1996; we didn't care. Bret Boone had 141 RBIs in a season; we didn't care. Big Papi went from 10 homers to 41 in four seasons; we didn't care. Roger Clemens was washed up, but suddenly he could throw 98 miles per hour and win Cy Youngs again; we didn't care. Eric Gagne saved 84 straight games and threw 120 miles an hour; we didn't care. Good players started blowing out tendons nobody had ever heard of; we didn't care. Pitchers blew out elbow tendons and shoulder ligaments routinely; we didn't care. This was the deal. They cheated; we pretended they didn't. It's really hard to explain unless you were there."
My son tries to soak everything in. That's lot to process for a 6-year-old.
"So when the Red Sox won in 2004, did you know some of the guys might have been cheating?" he asks.
"At the time?" I answer. "No. Either we were in total denial, or we just didn't care."
"I'd do it again!" my dad yells happily, getting another withering glare from me.
"You have to understand," I say. "EVERYONE cheated back then. You know how I drive 80 on the highway even though all the signs say to go 55? That's how everyone thought back then -- the signs said one thing, but everyone did the other. There were so many people cheating that, competitively, you almost had to cheat to keep up with everyone else."
"So why didn't the people in charge get everyone to stop cheating?" my son asks.
"I wish I knew. The players' union didn't care, the commissioner's office didn't care, nobody cared. Until it was too late."
"So you won the World Series twice because of Manny and Papi," my son says, "but they might have been cheating the whole time, and so were some of their teammates? Dad, your whole book was about how you could die in peace because they won in 2004. If they cheated to win, does that make what happened OK?"
The question hangs in the air. And hangs. And hangs.
"I don't know," I finally answer. "I still haven't figured that part out. Again, you don't understand what it was like. Everyone was cheating, so the playing field was kind of even, as weird as that sounds. You can't imagine how depressing it was to be a Red Sox fan at the time. Things always went wrong. We hadn't won in 86 years. We were the whipping boy of the Yankees. We always expected the worst to happen, mainly because the worst always did happen. That 2004 title made life easier for everyone. We could just follow the team without all the other negative crap. Does that make sense?"
"I guess," he says, nodding. "But Manny was your favorite hitter on that team. And he tested positive later. Is he still your favorite hitter?"
"Yes and no," I say. "No, because he cheated. Yes, because whether he was cheating or not, I can't forget watching him hit baseballs on a daily basis. I just can't. You should have seen him. Perfect swing, perfect balance, perfect everything. He was a hitting savant. That's the funny thing -- he didn't NEED to cheat. The guy was put on the earth to hit.
"But he did cheat," my son says.
"He did. Yes. He did."
"So he's not your favorite player from that team now?"
"He never was; Pedro Martinez was. Manny was my favorite hitter. I loved Pedro the most."
I am dreading the next question. I am dreading it. I do not want him to ask it. I know it's coming.
"Did Pedro cheat?"
I take a deep breath. So does my father. You can't describe in a few tidy sentences, off the cuff, what it was like to watch Pedro Martinez pitch in 1999 and 2000. To paraphrase Joe Mantegna in "Searching for Bobby Fischer," Pedro was better at pitching than you or I will ever be at anything. He had swagger. He had four A-plus pitches. He had everything. He spurred me to buy tickets from scalpers when I was broke. I would do it again. I watched Pedro Martinez pitch at his apex at Fenway Park. I get to brag about this when I'm old. He's the one guy who didn't cheat. He definitely didn't cheat. I bet anything, the man did not cheat.
Do I say this to my son? No. He wouldn't believe me.
"I looked at Pedro's numbers," my son says. "He peaked for like three years right as the steroids era was going, then he battled injuries and never did as well. Fits the profile, right?"
"Nah, I don't see it," my father says. "He was skinnier than you are. Steroids make you bulk up. Pedro was like a buck-sixty soaking wet."
"I don't see it, either," I say. "I don't think he did."
"But you don't know?" my son asks me.
"Honestly? I don't know anything anymore."
We look at the 2004 banner again. I always thought that, for the rest of my life, I would look at that banner and think only good thoughts. Now, there's a mental asterisk that won't go away. I wish I could take a pill to shake it from my brain. I see 2004 and 2007, and think of Manny and Papi first and foremost. The modern-day Ruth and Gehrig. One of the great one-two punches in sports history. Were they cheating the whole time? Was Pedro cheating, too? That 2004 banner makes me think of these things now. I wish it didn't, but it does. This makes me sad. This makes me profoundly sad.
My son can read it in my face. I am sad. He can see it.
"That's OK, Dad," he says, rubbing my shoulder. "Everyone cheated back then."
Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy's World.