An acquaintance asked me what I thought about George Mitchell's announcement Thursday, Dec. 13. The long-awaited Mitchell remarks, of course, were about the former Maine senator's exhaustive study of performance-enhancing substances used the past decade by major-league baseball players.
I didn't say so, but what I thought about was Mickey Sinnerud.
For certain kids growing up in and around Portland during the late 1950s and early '60s, Sinnerud was in the athletic pantheon. As far as I know, he won no major plaudits, though he was a three-sport star. Sinnerud labored in relative obscurity during his pro-baseball career, consigned to minor-league teams, his accomplishments chronicled not in headlines but in occasional agate-type recognition.
He played pro baseball during an era when a back-to-back major-league batting champ, Tommy Davis (Dodgers, 1962-63), was paid $14K a year. Professional athletes routinely held off-season jobs. Mickey worked at his dad's clothing store a few blocks from the high school in Beaverton, Ore. My folks bought my first blazer for me, for my Pop Warner-league football banquet, and it was either Mickey or his younger brother Brian who sold it to us. I told everybody it for sure was Mickey because it got me some contact-admiration. He was a big star, if only in the imaginations of my contemporaries.
Not long after I last heard anything about Mickey Sinnerud, Joe Namath signed a football contract that paid him $400,000. A decade later, Jim "Catfish" Hunter got a five-year baseball contract for $3.75 million. Marvin Miller, then the head of the Major League Players Association, said: "That was certainly the wakeup call about how underpaid players were."
Well, not really. Nor did the wakeup call come when Kirby Puckett signed with the Twins in 1989 for $3 million a year, or even in 2000, when Alex Rodriguez got his $252 million deal with the Texas Rangers. The pay is so routinely inflated that it takes a thorough Google search even to learn that a mere journeyman NBA starter, former Sonic Rashard Lewis, commanded $118 mill a few months ago to play six years for Orlando.
Chat with today's pro athletes long enough and some will concede that they know guys who will go to extremes to secure that one outsized contract that might set them up for life. A lot of them don't jeopardize their health and well being with risky physical exertion during the off-seasons. For many, proper nutrition has replaced the excesses of yesteryear - the Babe Ruth beer-and-bacon diet, e.g. A lot of modern jocks stay away from booze.
But a lot of them, as Mitchell and his people now have concluded, haven't stayed away from drugs. Not because they're bad people but because they want the money that can come to a successful pro athlete. You and I can say with self-satisfaction - and impunity - that we'd never use performance-enhancers if we were pro athletes. I can even delude myself into believing that, had steroids been widely available to all when I was a boy, there's no chance that the heroes of my youth would have been tempted.
In a perverse sense, I can try to imagine what a sensational player Mickey Sinnerud might have been had he instead played with an artificially inflated physique during the steroids era. I'd rather believe that, despite the evidence of all that time in the obscurity of the minors, he nonetheless was way too great for that.