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This coming Friday night July 3 Branch Rickey will be inducted into the National College Baseball Hall of Fame in Lubbock, Texas. He is this year’s selection in the Vintage Pre-1947 category. Last year Jackie Robinson was enshrined in the pre-1947 class for his standout performances at UCLA. I was honored when the Rickey family asked me to represent them at the ceremonies.

On Thursday night July 2 the College Awards ceremony will honor outstanding performers in the recently concluded 2009 college baseball season. San Diego State righthander Stephen Strasburg will receive the Golden Spikes award as the best college player of the year. His undoubtedly lucrative contract with the Washington Nationals as the nation’s number one draft pick is currently being negotiated by superagent Scott Boras and the Nationals’ front office.

Rickey coached baseball and football at his alma mater Ohio Wesleyan (initially while still an undergraduate) and also at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. As coach at the University of Michigan from 1910-1913 he compiled a 68-32-4 record. In 1913 the future Hall of Fame first baseman George Sisler shone both at the plate and on the mound for the Wolverines. Within two years Sisler would be playing for Rickey’s St. Louis Browns and had become a fulltime first baseman, making him with Stan Musial the greatest of Branch Rickey’s baseball conversions. (As a truly religious Christian Rickey was instrumental in other conversions, too.)

The Ferocious Gentleman loved teaching and coaching in the college atmosphere but he could not support on academic pay the large family he was planning. Still, it is good that nearly a century after his collegiate coaching career ended his campus work is being honored.

Among the ten players to be inducted this week are outfielder/first baseman Joe Carter who starred for the Wichita State Shockers in Kansas from 1979-1981 before his solid major league career that was highlighted by his 1993 World Series-winning home run for the Toronto Blue Jays. Also being enshrined is the former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin another Michigan star who hit .361 in his college career and set a single-season RBI record for the Wolverines in 1985. Another honoree is Rafael Palmeiro who in 1984 won the Southeastern Conference Triple Crown for the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Palmeiro’s teammate first baseman Will Clark was inducted with the first College Hall of Fame class of 2006.

Ron Polk, Palmeiro and Clark’s coach who also had great success at Georgia and Georgia Southern, will also enter the Hall of Fame as will 82-year-old Gordie Gillespie, who has won 1797 games as a small college coach, most recently at St. Francis College in Indiana. All the inductees are expected to attend except Gillespie who cannot because of an illness in the family.

Last October Palmeiro was inducted into the Mississippi State athletic Hall of Fame for his collegiate achievements. He was a likely contender for Cooperstown with career major league marks of 3020 hits, 569 home runs, a .288 batting average and several Gold Glove fielding awards though one year he won it though he served primarily as a dh playing less than 40 games at first base. Elections in baseball as in real life can be very deceiving!

Then came the disclosure on August 1, 2005 that he had tested positive for stanozolol, one of the most powerful of the performance-enhancing drugs. The bombshell came just weeks after Palmeiro entered the exclusive 3000-hit club (only 27 members as of this year). Earlier in 2005 he testified before Congress that he “never, ever” took steroids, pointing his finger to emphasize his innocence. That gesture has more than anything placed his career achievements under a cloud.

On the day his suspension was announced he issued a statement continuing to protest his innocence: “I never intentionally used steroids. Never. Ever. Period. Ultimately, though I never intentionally put a banned substance into my body, the independent arbitrator ruled that I had to be suspended under the terms of the program.” Except for Palmeiro’s continued defiant stand, Manny Ramirez’s statement on his suspension earlier this year was almost identical. I basically am innocent, I didn’t know what I was putting into my world-class thoroughbred’s body, but the program rules said that I must be suspended so I am suspended.

Under the original terms of the drug testing agreement in major league baseball Palmeiro drew only a ten-game suspension for his failed test but the howls of protest from Congress and many in the sportswriting community assured that Palmeiro never played another game. Under the harsher terms of the revised drug program in major league baseball, Manny Ramirez received a 50-game suspension that will end coincidentally on the day that Branch Rickey and Palmeiro and the others are inducted in Lubbock.

What would Rickey think of the coincidence and the so-called steroid era? And what do I? There is no doubt that Rickey would have disapproved of performance-enhancing drugs as very unsportsmanlike, allowing an unfair advantage creep into the peerless competition of baseball. Yet he was not into making scapegoats. He thought long and hard about whether Shoeless Joe Jackson should be eligible for baseball’s pantheon and leaned towards reinstatement of the great outfielder permanently banned for his participating in the fixing of the 1919 World Series.

I am also not into creating scapegoats. I am not a zealot on the steroid issue and don’t believe that the record book has been permanently tainted. Every era has been highlighted by its quirks and oddities and once the expansion of the majors began in 1961 the pristine quality of the years from 1903-1960 with two leagues of eight teams each, every one playing every other team 22 times a season, was gone forever.

I am concerned with the public health questions raised by the PED scandal, both for the longevity of the players and for the message it gives to the impressionable youngsters trying to emulate their heroes. Yet I agree with the amnesty proposal in former Senate majority leader George Mitchell’s 2007 Report commissioned by the management of major league baseball. IF there is some kind of admission of accountability and show of remorse by the violators.

Of course, I don’t expect that outcome. Manny Ramirez is drawing record-setting crowds in the minor leagues as he works his way back into the Dodger lineup this weekend. Most of the fans in this age of celebrity don’t seem to care. Anyway, it will be quite interesting to see how and if Rafael Palmeiro responds to any of the questions about the steroid era when his years of untainted college achievements are being honored this weekend.

Will report on the occasion when I file again early next week. Ciao for now!
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