It doesn’t take much to make me feel old these days. Every day, there are reminders that the time is passing faster each year.

For example, my daughter, Ashley, will be 21 in August, and my son, Eric, turns 28 in January, and neither of those things seems possible. In my mind’s eye, they will always be much smaller, much younger and much more likely to listen to anything their father has to say.

During thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown this spring, I was reminded that it’s been 25 years since the historic 1982 running of the Travers (the only race to pit the winners of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes later that same year), 29 years since Affirmed beat Alydar three times in five weeks to become racing’s last Triple Crown winner and 33 years since the career and life of the brilliant filly Ruffian ended after she broke down on the backstretch at Belmont Park.

I’ve seen all 40 Super Bowls, I cut class to watch the World Series back in the days when games were played in the afternoon instead of prime time, and I saw Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan and LeBron James play basketball during their rookie seasons.

But through all the years and all the changes, the one constant in my life (at least as far back as I can remember) has been baseball. My grandfather — who died when I was only seven — was an Italian immigrant who lived in New Jersey and was one of the world’s most rabid New York Yankee fans, so I had no choice but to go along for the ride.

When I was small and visiting my grandparents for a week or two during the summer, “Grandpa Sal” and I would sit in his kitchen or out on the porch at his house just off Hudson Boulevard in Jersey City and listen to the Yankee games on the radio or watch them on his old black-and-white TV.

Those days (the late 1950’s) were among the best ever for the Yankees, who, led by Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and their supporting cast, won pennant after pennant, and my grandfather wouldn’t accept anything less than perfection from his darlings. If somebody made an error or a pitcher threw a home run ball, he would curse at the television screen as if the players were in same room with him and his impressionable young grandson (who was getting an education in more than baseball listening to the tirades).

Growing up in East Texas, I got to see only one baseball a week on television — the Game of the Week on Saturday afternoon — but listened on the radio to Gene Elston calling the Houston Astros games or, on a good night, Jack Buck or Harry Caray describing the exploits of some of the most successful St. Louis Cardinal teams ever in the late 1960’s. In most cases, I tuned to those games just to get the score of that evening’s Yankees contest (which, at that time, was usually a loss).

My dad took the family to Houston in 1965 for the opening of the Astrodome, and I can still remember looking up, my mouth and eyes wide open, at the roof of what was then billed as “The Eighth Wonder of the World”, and in the summer of 1973, I spent three months in New Jersey and went to the old Yankee Stadium (which was remodeled the next year while the Yanks played at Shea Stadium) as often as possible.

I was part of the capacity crowd for the Oldtimers Game (another longtime tradition that is no longer part of the major league scene) in ‘73, which featured representatives off every Yankee team since the stadium was opened in 1923 — a list that, in addition to Mantle, Ford and Dimaggio, included Whitey Witt, who led off the first

That Ruth Built and did the same 50 years later. (He hit a ground ball and almost had a heart attack running to first base).

Mickey hit a home run off Whitey that day and laughed all the way around the bases, and Reggie Jackson — then playing for Oakland — also homered as the A’s beat the Yanks to continue a disappointing summer for the New Yorkers — a summer that, coincidentally, was their first under owner George Steinbrenner and the year that New York’s Ron Blomberg became baseball’s first designated hitter. That was also the year the World Trade Center was finished and the summer that Secretariat won the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths to complete racing’s first Triple Crown sweep in 25 years.

So, having paid my baseball dues — as a fan at least — for the better part of a half-century and having seen some of the greats in the game over the years, I find myself a little bit confused about the recent debate over whether or not Sammy Sosa is a first-ballot candidate for the Hall of Fame — a debate that is just another reminder of how quickly time passes in America’s Pastime.

Nine years ago (can it be that long?), Sosa and Mark McGuire were the toast of baseball as, in tandem, they chased Roger Maris’s single-season home run record of 61 set in 1961 after a similar duel between Yankee teammates Maris and Mantle (who hit 54 that season). McGuire’s chase for the home run mark didn’t have quite the down-to-the-wire drama of Maris’s quest 37 years earlier (McGuire hit his 62nd home run — coincidentally, against Sosa’s Cubs — with 14 games to play while Maris hit his 61st on the final day of the season), but the battle between McGuire and Sosa dominated sports headlines all over the country that summer.

McGuire eventually hit 70 dingers (a record later broken by Barry Bonds) in 1998, compared to 66 for Sosa, and the following year they both broke the old record again, with McGuire edging Sosa, 65-63, in the home run race. Sports pundits at the time gushed about how easy it would be to vote both sluggers into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot five years after their careers ended.

But just a few years later, baseball’s steroids controversy erupted, diminishing the reputations and accomplishments of McGuire and Bonds and also putting Sosa’s home run spurt under the microscope. As a result, McGuire now seems unlikely to make the Hall of Fame any time soon, despite a career that saw him hit 583 homers (sixth best all time), and Sosa — who hit his 600th career home run last week playing for the Texas Rangers (his first major league team) and against the Chicago Cubs (the team for which he hit 545 homers) — also appears to be on the outside looking in.

As recently as a decade ago, 500 home runs or 3,000 hits earned a major league player an automatic ticket to Cooperstown. In these days of steroid suspicion, though, the bar appears to have suddenly been raised much higher.

Although a recent ESPN poll showed almost 70 percent of the more than 200,000 fans who responded believe Sosa should be in the Hall of Fame, a number of baseball columnists and analysts — many of whom will have a vote when Sosa’s name finally appears on the ballot — say he doesn’t have the credentials to join Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle and other greats in baseball’s biggest shrine. The experts argue that, the steroid controversy notwithstanding, Sosa was a one-tool player — a power hitter with an average arm and average speed who was a defensive liability and who never played in a World Series.

A similar case could be made against, among others, Hall of Fame slugger Ralph Kiner and — in reverse — former Cardinal shortstop and current Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith (one of my favorite all-time players, by the way) .

Kiner was one of baseball’s most feared home run hitters in the 1940s and 1950s and, until McGuire and Sosa came along, he was the only National League player to hit 50-plus home runs more than once. Like Sosa, though, he was never considered a great defensive player.

Smith, meanwhile, was one of the baseball’s greatest defensive shortstops ever, but he was a liability at the plate for most of his career and, like Sosa, had some of his greatest at-bats in his later years on the diamond.

Most importantly in this Hall of Fame debate, no one has connected Sosa to the steroid allegations that have directly touched both McGuire (who refused to deny his steroid use when questioned during congressional hearings a few years back) and Bonds. Sure, he wasn’t an all-around player in the mold of Mantle, Clemente or Mays, but in reaching the 600-homer plateau, he has done something only FOUR other players in baseball history — Aaron, Ruth, Bonds and Mays — accomplished before him. And, even if Sosa DID use steroids, they weren’t illegal in baseball during his and McGuire’s late-’90s home run binge .

When the Hall of Fame was established more than 70 years ago, its purpose was to recognize remarkable achievements in a game that, at the time, dominated the sports landscape. Baseball — which now ranks second to football in the hearts of most U. S. sports fans — has, like all professional sports, become big business, with huge television contracts, million-dollar contracts for players and soaring ticket prices. Despite subtle changes over the past 125 years, however, it is still the same game kids played in cow pastures in the late 19th century.

Sure, Sosa isn’t now — nor has he ever been — the perfect baseball player. But his accomplishments on the field shouldn’t be overshadowed by any allegations of steroid use. In a perfect world, only five-tool players would be in the Hall of Fame; in the real world, though, players who did at least one thing better than almost anybody else — players like Sammy Sosa — deserve that same chance.

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