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Original Issue

The Wrongs of Spring

For this fan, the 1992 Grapefruit League season has been a particularly sour one

Flushing, New York, is the home of the mets and, IF you say it fast enough, an idea whose time has come. In fact, I would like nothing more than to begin this baseball season by flushing New York and its biggest springtime sports stories as far from my memory as possible:

Flush...and spiraling away goes Darryl, the autobiography of drug-rumormonger and former Met Darryl Strawberry, which was released as spring training was starting. In the book he points an accusatory finger at his alleged best friend, Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden.

Flush...and East River-bound is the incriminating urine sample of Yankee pitcher Pascual Perez, who was suspended early in spring training after testing positive for drug use. Perez accused the team of somehow setting him up.

Flush...and into 1) the legal system or 2) oblivion is ushered this spring's most malodorous affair, in which Mets Vince Coleman, Daryl Boston and Gooden stand accused of—but, as of Monday, not charged with—raping a woman during spring training of 1991.

And, at last.... Flush...there goes the absurd, yet somehow logical topper to this befouled spring: the $8.1 million lawsuit brought by three women charging Mets pitcher David Cone with committing lewd acts in their presence, including one that allegedly occurred in the Shea Stadium bullpen before a game three summers ago.

Were it only this easy. Flush...and the Tidy-Bowl man takes it all away on a garbage barge to god knows where. Instead, you can wrap the assorted sordid episodes of this spring in all the back pages of New York City's tabloids, then bind them in all of the related videotape aired by the tabloid TV shows and then plow the whole stinking package into a toxic landfill somewhere down the Jersey Shore, and I'll still be smelling this spring come October.

Forget, for the moment, whether the allegations against the Mets have merit: True or false, rape accusations are usually ruinous to someone—the accused, the accuser or both. And forget, New Yorkers, about ponying up postage for your Letter Bombs to the SI Editor: I know that all of this can't necessarily be blamed on the City That Never Sweeps.

And besides, I write this not in my day-job guise as a sanctimonious sportswriter. I write this as a fan—a fan who is struggling daily to continue caring about baseball. Long before this spring I had the feeling occasionally that baseball, with its preoccupation with money, had run through my stop sign, rounded third and was sliding headfirst into hell.

But spring training had always been like spring cleaning. After four months of winter you could shake out the unseemly dust of $5 million salaries, steam clean the stains left by departed free agents and Rug Doctor the remains of all those other off-season repugnancies. Don't forget to sweep Boggs and Garvey from under the bed. Then a spring-fresh phenomenon such as Cecil Fielder would hit a ball through a hole in the ozone layer in someplace named Clearwater or Baseball City, and suddenly the game wasn't so bleak after all.

The straws, to say nothing of the Straw, never broke my back. How can you ignore the Game if you can't ignore the games? Even this spring it was impossible to turn away knowing that Frank Thomas of the Chicago White Sox might hit a ball to the alley—Alligator Alley. When, after a month, the Baltimore Orioles' 23-year-old Mike Mussina had three zeroes in his ERA, it didn't matter anymore that half the players in baseball have six zeroes in their salaries. Nolan Ryan was still throwing. Carlton Fisk was still squatting. Sparky Anderson was still talking about the Detroit Tigers' chances in the American League East the way Cal Ripken still plays shortstop—all day, every day, without pause.

And if you needed hip boots to cover the Mets at their complex in Port St. Lucie, Fla., you could still enjoy their games. Wearing number 68, Rodney McCray ran amok in the outfield, and you knew he would run through a wall for you as he did last summer in Triple A ball. Gooden had his curve breaking like a tawdry news story. Every day, spring games provided three hours of respite.

Trouble is, the games were not meant to be a respite from the Game. The Game should provide relief from real life. But it is difficult to conjure images of fathers playing catch with sons when fathers are playing censor instead, taking a scalpel to the newspaper before their sons are besmirched by baseball stories at breakfast. Like the one about the suit against Cone that ran last week in the New York Post beneath the headline WEIRD SEX ACT IN BULLPEN. Apparently, allegations of a conventional sex act in the bullpen would not be newsworthy.

Presumably, the players find these daily dips in the cesspool as repulsive as the rest of us. It is difficult to tell for certain. It is difficult to tell anything about increasingly gun-shy major league players. If the eyes are the windows of the soul, then wraparound Oakleys are the Levolor blinds. Given the gulf that gapes between ballplayers on one side and fans and media on the other, it was inevitable that sooner or later an entire team would stop talking to the press, a policy the Mets adopted last week.

Which means questions will go unanswered. That's fine with me, since the questions I have, I don't want answered. What's next? What could possibly surprise me anymore? Could I really just cease being a baseball fan? As I've said, I really don't want to know the answers.