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I have had some interesting experiences in my life of 67 years and one week. However, I don’t think I will ever quite have one that matches the Fourth of July parade in Lubbock, Texas. There I was, the ultimate New York City urban kid riding atop the back seat of a 1968 Mustang convertible waving to the crowd in the west Texas city’s annual celebration of our nation’s birth. It was the highlight of three days of activities that saw me representing the family of Branch Rickey at the National College Baseball Hall of Fame (NCBHOF) induction ceremonies.

In the car in front of me at the parade was another inductee Keith Moreland, the former Texas Longhorn star who had a good major league career as a catcher-utilityman mainly with the Phillies and the Cubs. Moreland good-naturedly gave the “Hook ‘Em Horns” sign to the crowd of local Texas Tech supporters lining the street who responded to Moreland with the Tech “Guns Up Y’All!” motion of their own.

On a partly cloudy, not too hot and humid day I was pleased to see a diverse turnout from the town’s Hispanic, African-American and white Christian communities. It was a good thing, however, that my Wisconsin roots are not that deep because the sign on the side of my Mustang honored Branch Rickey for his coaching success at the University of Michigan.

This was the fourth year of inductions into a college baseball Hall of Fame and the first time that the ceremonies were incorporated into an overall celebration of the college game past and present. This year a 2009 College Awards dinner was introduced and held in Lubbock’s impressive new basketball facility the United Spirit Arena. Many schools and players were honored for achievements this past season including Oklahoma catcher T.J. Wise winning the Johnny Bench trophy and UC-Irvine shortstop Ben Orloff winning the Brooks Wallace award as the best college shortstop..

At the end of the evening San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburg was given the Dick Howser Trophy as College Player of the year. The award was presented by Jana Howser, one of the twin daughters of the former American League rookie of the year who died of leukemia at the age of 51 in 1986. Howser managed the World Series-winning 1985 Kansas City Royals, the 1980 AL East-winning New York Yankees and also starred as a Florida State shortstop. Jana noted that the award is based not only on the performance but on the character of the athlete.

One of the news items during the busy few days was that city of Lubbock and leaders in the local business community have selected the site for a proposed museum and baseball field to honor college baseball as Cooperstown has ennobled pro baseball. Why Lubbock? Well, this west Texas town of nearly a quarter-million people - located closer to the New Mexico border than the big metropolises of Dallas and Houston - has a strong baseball tradition. Local teams have won or placed highly in many championship amateur, semi-pro, college, high school and little league competitions. Lubbock Christian College won the 2009 NAIA small college title and the town’s 2007 Little League champions finished second to a team from Warner Robins, Ga. at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Penna.

During my visit I got to chat with a local legend, the former Texas Tech coach Kal Segrist whose name I thought rang a bell. He told me he briefly played for the Yankees in the 1950s before he was included in the mammoth 21-player deal with the Orioles that brought Bob Turley and Don Larsen to New York. Segrist also told me that Branch Rickey scouted him in the Ferocious Gentleman’s last year in Brooklyn in 1950 but he did not run fast enough to be signed by the Dodgers.

I was also interviewed for an oral history project at Texas Tech and was quite impressed by the beauty and the resources of the school’s library that houses the largest collection of Vietnam War material of any in the country. It also recently obtained the voluminous papers of the Southwest Athletic Conference that are to sure provide many insights into the early years of racial integration and other important issues about the southwest collegiate athletic scene.

Rafael Palmeiro was one of the ten people inducted into this year’s NCBHOF class. He didn’t ride in the Saturday parade but received the only standing ovation at the Friday night ceremonies in Lubbock’s Civic Center, another impressive building that was constructed after a 1970 tornado. Just before we went out on stage, Palmeiro told me that he would rather face the ace of an opposing team before 50,000 fans on the road than speak to a few hundred people. Yet he was moved to tears by the response of the ardent fans of college baseball, many of whom came from Mississippi to honor his success with the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the early 1980s.

Ron Polk, Palmeiro’s college coach at Mississippi State, was also inducted this weekend. It was Polk who convinced Palmeiro to attend the event and who served as a great mentor to the quiet, basically shy Cuban exile who grew up in the Miami, Florida housing projects. This fall Rafael’s oldest son Patrick Palmeiro, a third baseman, will enroll at Howard Junior College in Big Springs, Texas whose baseball team was also honored in Lubbock for winning a national JC title with an astounding record of 63-1.

I didn’t get to see Palmeiro’s interview with Pedro Gomez of ESPN but was saddened to read that he simply rehashed his prior statements as far as his testing positive for the powerful steroid stanozolol in 2005. He repeated what he has said many times: he thought he was taking Vitamin B-12 injections given him by Oriole teammate Miguel Tejada and they turned out to be tainted. Palmeiro also said that the names of all the 104 people who tested positive in 2003 should be made public because he insisted that his name won’t be on it. The group includes Alex Rodriguez, who claimed before the start of this season that he was “stupid” to take the illegal substances, and Sammy Sosa whose name was leaked less than two weeks ago as another player who tested positive in 2003.

I am not a zealot on the performance-enhancing controversy. I agree with the Mitchell Report calling for amnesty for past abusers. Yet I believe that Palmeiro, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa need to make some honest public statement about at least their lack of good judgment. Palmeiro's mentioning that he was clean in 2003 does not address the question that he failed a test in 2005. Until that happens, it is hard to believe that any world-class athlete would not know what is being put into his body. To be sure, the owners clearly looked the other way in the years after the nearly catastrophic baseball strike of 1994-5. If the home run record chase of McGwire and Sosa and later Barry Bonds were bringing fans back to the ballparks in droves, who cared what players were doing to themselves in the privacy of clubhouses or their personal gyms?

A recent example of most of ownership’s lip service to the issue was the Angels’ offering outfielder Gary Matthews Jr. a four-year $48 million contract just days after he was mentioned in the Mitchell Report in late 2007 as someone who received in an unmarked package in the mail a shipment of human growth hormone.Like most people who love the glory and history of baseball, I’d much rather discuss the events on the field and the hard work of preparation that goes into these triumphs, not the sordid happenings done in the secrecy of the clubhouses and the weight-training gyms.

Yet the issue will not die and I hope some kind of reasonable solution to the problem can be discovered sooner rather than later. More on this sobering subject and happier thoughts about the wonderfully competitive if artistically sloppy year we’re seeing on the eve of the All-Star break later this week. Ciao for now!
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