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Baseball Preview: Pastime enjoys some peace

Do you hear that? It sounds like … silence. For the better part of 20 years, through whispers in clubhouses or accusations made by Jose Canseco or denials from Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens or defiance from Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun and numerous scandals in between, we finally get a reprieve from performance-enhancing drugs.

Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking they’re gone for good. They’re just gone for now and by now, that means this morning. The crooks are usually one step ahead of the law before the law catches up, and the crooks adjust. This seems more like a lull in the process than a solution to the problem.

For as long as players believe they can gain an advantage and either reach or remain at baseball’s highest level, there will be a market for PEDs. The rewards still outweigh the risks for many players. Who are they? Where are they? That’s a great unknown, for now, but rest assured they’re out there, somewhere.

This baseball season, years after fans became numb from acronyms like BALCO and seedy laboratories like Biogenesis, will begin in peace. It took a long time, way too long, but the system eventually worked. The suspensions have been handed out, the players have served their time and A-Rod has exited the grand stage.

Man, is it ever quiet.

The biggest controversies this year revolved around Opening Day. One was whether it should be a national holiday, a reminder just how misguided our priorities have become. And that came after the Dodgers and Diamondbacks played two games in Australia that count before resuming a spring training schedule that doesn’t count.

Budweiser and Ozzie Smith were behind the effort to make the first official day of baseball season a national holiday. Now, there is nothing wrong with baseball and beer. In fact, that’s an ideal double-play combination for a summer day. Smith made it especially palatable for fans in St. Louis.

But for baseball to share the same holiday calendar with Martin Luther King, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln should be a slap in the face for veterans who sacrificed their lives in the name of freedom and independence. It’s bad enough we give thanks one Thursday per year by gorging across three football games.

Then again, this is an age in which we’ve become preoccupied with the fictitious Mount Rushmores and obsessed with very real statues suggesting sports figures were, or are, larger than life. The following is a list of baseball players who have been immortalized through statues:

Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Enos Slaughter, Ted Williams, Johnny Pesky, Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, Stan Musial, Warren Spahn, Bob Feller, Jackie Robinson with Pee Wee Reese, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Harmon Killebrew, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Willie McCovey, Carl Yastrzemski, Ernie Lombardi, Frank Robinson, Willie Stargell, Nolan Ryan, Mike Schmidt, Rod Carew, Ozzie Smith, Kirby Puckett, Harold Baines, Tony Gwynn, Bill Mazeroski.

Oh, and Jeff Bagwell.

Tradition? Major League Baseball started the season with two teams on the other side of the planet under the guise of spreading baseball’s gospel. Of course, that meant holding a split doubleheader, thereby allowing MLB to collect gate receipts from two games and spreading wealth generated from the grand old game.

No problem here with sharing our national pastime, assuming baseball remains our national pastime ahead of football and Twitter. Perhaps it can create a new generation of players the way basketball did with the Dream Team.

Maybe it could even turn into a global game in which the World Series really would be a world championship rather than a national one, plus Canada, and Miami. MLB can barnstorm around the world with the idea that the game has been cleaned up, restored to its original form and is worth watching again.

Then again, if that’s our biggest issue, baseball is in great shape. Bonds, Clemens & Co. have mostly been pushed aside. A-Rod stopped suing people. Braun and the others suspended with him last season are putting their careers back together. Even Manny Ramirez has come around and admitted he made mistakes.

Thankfully, through it all, we had Derek Jeter. The Yankee shortstop did more for baseball than any player of his generation. He never stained the game. He was 20 years old in 1995 when he made his debut, one year before his first full season in which he made $130,000 and was named Rookie of the Year in the American League.

It was a year after the World Series was wiped out by labor strife and about the time steroids were taking hold of big-league clubhouses. Major League Baseball turned its head away from a growing problem and embraced players who put up monstrous numbers but ultimately were part of the problem.

Jeter is entering his 20th season. He navigated through baseball’s darkest days with ease. He maintained his integrity and upheld his reputation. You need not be a Yankee fan to appreciate all that he has done for baseball. And let’s not forget that he’s made more than $253 million in his career, plus endorsements.

But at least we can point toward him and celebrate someone for doing it right. All these years later, from his first season to his last, he humbly and respectably stood for baseball in its purest form. Finally, it’s quiet again. Finally, there’s peace.

Enjoy it … while you can.