Sports

Where’s the Justice for MLB fans in this?

By AARON MANAGHAN

Sports editor

Around the country, baseball fans listened tentatively with fingers crossed, hoping that for once a list filled with Major League Baseball MVPs, Cy Young Award-winners and all-stars didn’t include their favorite ballplayers: The Mitchell Report.

Well, Justice was served on Thursday, and no one is more disappointed about it than me.

Thursday, the findings of former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell’s report regarding the use of performance-enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball were released, implicating dozens and dozens of some of the game’s most prolific players. Seven-time Cy Young Award-winner Roger Clemens headlined the group.

But one name jumped out to me right away: David Justice.

Justice was among the top outfielders in Atlanta Braves history and certainly a key figure in helping start the team’s run of 14-consecutive division titles, earning himself an election into the team’s Hall of Fame in August. He spent parts of 14 seasons with the Braves, Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees and Oakland Athletics.

You see, I was one of those fans with fingers crossed, hoping that Justice, my favorite player, would not be on that list.

But like thousands of other fans worldwide, that hope disintegrated, leaving behind an empty void where so many fond baseball memories resided.

Now David Justice, a career .279 hitter with 305 homers and 1,017 RBI, isn’t your household fave. For every person that claimed a favorite like Justice, a thousand others favored Cal Ripken, Babe Ruth, Ken Griffey Jr. or any number of the game’s superstars.

So how does one develop such an affinity for a player who was very good at best?

Well, it starts with my grandparents, who lived in Arkansas for most of my upbringing. Both were huge Atlanta Braves fans, getting me hooked in the late ’80s, when Dale Murphy and Co. were just trying to get the Braves out of the cellar. As the Braves started winning, and as Justice emerged as the cornerstone of their outfield and lineup for their historic run, I started to learn more about him.

We share April 14 birthdays (as do ex-Brave greats Greg Maddux and Steve Avery). I was a corner outfielder in my playing days. And once the team started winning, it simply cemented that foundation with every Justice homer, fueled by one of the game’s sweetest swings, and every sliding catch, something he made look routine throughout the ’90s.

One downside to having Justice as my favorite in the pre-interleague play days was never getting to see him play as a member of the Braves.

That changed when he left for Cleveland.

On July 30, 1998, my dad took me to the Kingdome for one of many M’s games we would see together during the years. But with Justice playing before my very eyes, this one was special.

Before the game, we were walking around the outside of the Kingdome to the entrance nearest our seats. As we were walking outside, I bumped into an enormously tall individual (at 5 feet, 8 inches, or so, at the time, anything over 6 feet seemed huge). As I looked up to apologize, my eyes grew wide. I just bumped into David Justice. He was in a hurry, so it was only a moment in passing, but that would be more than enough for me, I was convinced.

Well, I would get much more.

During the pregame warm-ups, Justice was running along the visiting baseline. As he neared earshot of me, I began yelling as loud as I could for his autograph, claiming to be the biggest Justice fan ever. He did come over, and to prove my faithfulness, he asked me a trivia question about his career.

“What was my rookie year?” he asked.

Puhhhleeeease.

As big a fan as I was, I could practically have told him what he had for breakfast that morning.

“1989,” I said nervously, even though I knew I was right.

A smile crept over my face as he offered a handshake which I graciously accepted. We shot the breeze for about 10 minutes. He signed a card for me, even allowed me to check out his 1995 World Series ring. I was beside myself.

The game was great too, although at 17 innings, we caught nine and had to go. But in that time, I got to see Justice hit a solo homer in the sixth inning (he would hit two that day), while at the time it seemed like the Mariners also would win (they lost 9-8). Still, I was more than satisfied.

It’s already been a whirlwind year for Justice. First, he was a victim of the California wildfires in October, which burnt down his multi-million dollar San Diego home. Then earlier this month, Justice was a first-year Hall of Fame candidate.

So what am I to think now?

This is a ballplayer who, for a short 10-15 minutes of interaction, made a profound impact on my life as one of my favorite athletes; the first player I checked every box score to see how he’d done; the first player who made me excited to watch every time he stepped in the box.

Undoubtedly, fans of Chuck Knoblauch, Lenny Dykstra and Hal Morris are feeling the same.

Then there’s the real head-scratchers; the guys like Mike Lansing, Kent Mercker and Phil Hiatt no one would have ever suspected.

Mixed in with these feelings of disenchantment are feelings of anger, of sadness and, mostly, of lament as one of the saddest days in baseball came and went.

There were always things about David Justice that I was able to look the other way about, like his time with the New York Yankees.

I hate the Yankees.

So even more specifically, I try to ignore his 2-5, 2-run, 2-RBI, two-homer game six in the 2000 ALCS that eliminated the Mariners, the only team I love more than the Braves.

While there are no easy answers, there’s no denying his legacy, and now many others, will be tainted, even for the most diehard of fans like myself.

As baseball fans, all we can do now is wait and see who else gets named and what becomes of the outings; all we can do is hope that other favorites aren’t included. For me, that means guys like Jason Bay, currently, or past greats like Tony Gwynn.

If the Mitchell Report was any indication, it shows us that it’s not just big names dabbling in the steroids game.

At this rate, I’ll be on the market for a new favorite soon.

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