The baseball ethicist…a replyby John Brattain
December 31, 2008
If I gotta, I gotta.
I’ve had numerous requests to answer Jack Marshall’s article The Baseball Ethicist Why Nobody Signed Barry Bonds. It’s pretty obvious that he feels that the MLBPA has zero hard evidence that collusion occurred; otherwise there is no real point to his column. I’ve read a lot of the feedback he received both on Ball Hype and Brandon Heikoop’s excellent blog The OLIB (The Outsider’s Look at the Insides of Baseball) and I can empathize—Barry Bonds is a polarizing figure. It doesn’t matter what side of the issue you’re on, you’re going to catch some heat.
Judging by the tone of some of Jack’s replies I’m guessing he’s received a lot of flak.
It’s funny, despite being at opposite ends of the divide I almost feel a kinship with the man, a shared experience—we’ve both been torched for daring to take a hard stand on issues involving Mr. Bonds.
I guess we all know where this is going—I have some concerns with what he wrote and will address them here. I hope he’ll counter this because I feel certain that some of the conclusions I’ve drawn based on what he wrote don’t line up with what he feels or meant to express (communication being the tricky art form that it is). If you’re expecting snark, you’ll be disappointed because I know what the flames feel like and have no desire to inflict on someone something that I have found less than pleasant. I've read his points and found them to be thoughtful and a good faith effort to come to grips with a controversial subject (although not fully cognizant of the history of the game) and not the ill-informed reflexive vitriol that characterizes articles on the subject. That being the case, I will reply to them respectfully and will be willing (and eager) to hear what clarifications and counterpoints he has to offer.
I do not view this as a urination derby between Jack and me. We do have a common dislike of Bonds, although I think it's safe to say that his runs a lot deeper than mine. My lack of affection is based on the fact that he treats people poorly, and if everyone on ol’ Terra emulated his approach the planet would be even more screwed up than it already is. The other issues are common to the sport (save his home run totals) and not something over which I lose a lot of sleep.
This is going to be long so be forewarned—I won’t just be dealing with his article but some of the things he said on Ball Hype defending it.
Standard disclaimer: It’s not about Bonds for me; it’s about collusion and [MLB] hypocrisy.
I think my biggest difficulty with what he wrote was the implication that as a symbol, Bonds warranted different treatment than that received by the multitude of steroid abusers. Lady Justice is pictured as blindfolded for a reason—everyone receives the same standard and weighs the same in the scales in her hand. When you turn people into symbols you run the risk of dehumanizing them; some of history’s greatest injustices occurred when people became symbols of society’s ills and treated accordingly. In recent history we’ve seen what occurred within the United States regarding African Americans (see: Birth of a Nation) and Germany with Jews (Hitler's wording: "The Final Solution" is pretty indicative that he viewed certain people as the "the initial dilemma"—did I just invoke Godwin’s Law?) when people became symbols of a given problem rather than, well…people.
The easiest way to inflict terrible injustices on a person or group is to turn them into a symbol of a given scourge (of society). People have rights, symbols do not, and one can act against a symbol if the feeling is that it serves a greater good.
For true justice, the blindfold cannot be lifted for a moment to see who is involved. If Osama bin Laden—both a man and a symbol—deserves to be treated in a just manner then so does a man working in the entertainment industry.
Obviously Bonds' unemployment will not result in nationwide atrocities, but if one wishes to have a strong divide between right and wrong then it does not matter whether it's two dollars or two million—to steal money is wrong. Whether it's one person or a race of people, having inequitable standards of treatment is also wrong.
Another implication is that the sport needs to move on from the steroid era.
Let’s face it, the genie is out of the bottle, and to think that the game is now steroid-free (or close to it) is naïve—its use of detectable steroids is down and minor league use is down also, but only in the U.S. and Canada. It’s still a major problem in Latin America. What Marshall is suggesting is that the game be allowed to mislead the public into thinking that the steroid era is over, to pretend that the game is now clean and pure when it is clearly not. What Marshall is saying is that Bonds is keeping MLB from creating an illusion it can sell to the public and only after the symbol is removed can the game of make-believe begin.
I cannot see how treating someone as a symbol so a different standard of “justice” can be applied to him in order to create a false front is somehow of benefit to anyone or anything. Is he advocating that MLB be allowed to move on from a problem it hasn’t truly solved? BALCO is gone, Signature Pharmacy is gone, Kirk Radomski and Brian MacNamee are out of business; therefore MLB is now drug free?
What does that teach the public about values if that's the big issue here? That image is everything and that the appearance of solving a problem is good enough so long as people believe? Isn’t that a form of propaganda?
“Yes, lots of players have cheated, but the vast majority of players have not, and a cheating player who rises to the pinnacle of the sport like Bonds threatens to make cheating the norm rather than the exception.”
I’m not sure what to make of this statement. Bonds didn’t invent cheating or steroids; to take this point to its logical conclusion, it appears Bonds should be made an example of because of his natural talent and work ethic. He should be penalized for being born with natural gifts and the willingness to fully develop (or over-develop) them. Maybe I’m misinformed, but cheating is the norm—it’s just that the bulk of it occurs unnoticed and unremarked upon because steroids (coupled with Bonds' personality) and not cheating is the hot button issue. At the same time, he has little difficulty with the barons of the sport cheating whether it’s defrauding municipalities of obscene amounts of public dollars (the Yankees are doing precisely this by putting them in a position where they can unfairly dominate the free agent market despite a global economic meltdown&mdashis that not a form of cheating?), the pre-1947 collusion against African Americans, the collusion under Peter Ueberroth, their complicity in the steroid scandal etc. These do not deserve sanction—only the appointed symbol of the game’s PED ills does in order for all to be made right.
Why no penalty for these crimes—not even the flagship franchise's participation in them? Is it O.K. for teams that reach the pinnacle of their sport to cheat but not players? Isn’t that a bit of a double standard—the best of management can cheat and participate in the steroid problem but not the player? No sanction for the Yankees for removing every mention of steroids from Jason Giambi’s contract so they could sign the best hitter on the market in order to try and win the World Series and increase revenues, but at the same time Bonds deserves to be punished with extreme prejudice and deprived of working in his chosen profession?
What do the Yankees symbolize? They are the team version of Barry Lamar Bonds. Born with the most natural gifts and inflating them through unethical and illegal means to further distance them from their peers. What do we do about this particular symbol deemed "The Evil Empire," the Darth Vader of franchises?
Marshall seems to be concerned about protecting a sanctity that the sport never had—he’s protecting a myth that doesn’t hold up to critical examination and taking the blindfold off of Lady Justice in order to accomplish that. Marshall writes:
Cynics may scoff ... but baseball is the one professional sport that carries with it a duty to the American culture. Character counts in America, and baseball is bound by history, tradition and its role in legend and myth to make certain that character counts on its playing fields as well. ... What it does have that no other professional sport even values very much is integrity, or at least an appreciation that integrity is important.
The sport’s history contradicts this: this is a game that excluded non-Caucasian players, had an owner that tried to aid the cover-up of the Black Sox scandal until it became impossible whereupon he threw his players under the bus to save his own hide, tolerated gambling until it turned on them financially, exploited players at every turn, broke rules that they themselves agreed to abide by (collusion) on repeated occasions, extorted and continues to extort tens of billions of dollars for stadium scams through lies and fraudulent claims and misrepresentations of finances (check the sleaze in the new Yankee Stadium project), provided illegal drugs for players (amphetamines), were major enablers of the steroid scandal (something Marshall acknowledges), lied to the federal government as respects their financial state and effectiveness of their drug program etc. I cannot see how anyone can make the claim that the sport has “an appreciation that integrity is important.”
It is corruption that has defined the game, not integrity; integrity is an illusion that the sport has consistently tried to sell to the public the same way it does hot dogs, beer and souvenir caps. It sells it the same way Disney tries to sell the ideals of “magic” and “enchantment” but nobody actually believes that profit isn't the primary motivational directive that approach.
Players who have serious criminal charges, who are accused of rape and spousal abuse, drunk driving and drug arrests just fade out of the game.
Only when their skills fade and not before then. They didn’t come up with the phrase “If you can hit a curveball you can get away with murder” for the heck of it; his statement would have more credibility if he had cited examples of players whose careers ended long before their productivity waned but the facts state otherwise. How many chances did Steve Howe, Daryl Strawberry and Sidney Ponson receive, to name three? Let's see how Brian Giles' career plays out and whether he fades while his skills retain their value.
Baseball made a serious mistake in the ‘90s by looking the other way while steroid abuse mutated its players, distorted game results and warped its record book.
It’s amazing that baseball is said to have made “a mistake” while Bonds is vilified and needs to be removed from the game. To me, this is no different than banning the Black Sox for life and putting Charles Comiskey into the Hall of Fame. Have we learned nothing from history? As we mentioned earlier, Barry Bonds used steroids to make money and hopefully win a World Series from his improved performance. The New York Yankees struck every reference of steroids from the contract given to Jason Giambi to make money and hopefully win a World Series from the team's improved performance. The owner skates and the player banished. Plus ca change.
But the Mitchell Report, released a year ago, was a crystal-clear announcement that the sport was banishing its ethical ambiguity on the matter of performance-enhancing drugs. For this purpose, it was irrelevant that the report was incomplete and limited in scope. The Mitchell Report announced that Major League Baseball believed that steroid and HGH use was wrong, unacceptable, and sullied the game. It would condemn and embarrass any player found to violate this standard. Cheating was not cool, and cheaters were not welcome. The conduct was officially inconsistent with the values and best interests of the game (as it had, in fact, always been), and the owners, players, teams and fans were hereby expected to heed that fact.
No, this happened because Congress was breathing down its neck. The reason steroids gained such a foothold is that the government hadn’t gotten involved yet. As Craig Calcaterra outlined in his chapter in the THT Annual (that I hope Marshall reads at some point), the Mitchell Report was designed to “officially” end “the steroid era.” Steroids and HGH are still used by many because the tests are not comprehensive enough to catch all the cheats. The Mitchell Report is to baseball what the blanket is to Linus—something they can cling to for a measure of security that keeps problems at bay. As with Linus, the blanket does nothing regarding the difficulties of life but merely allows the person holding it to feel that it does; in the same way, the Mitchell Report allows MLB to think the steroid problem has been dealt with when reality states otherwise.
Congress did NOT go after baseball for the reasons you cite. Congress went after baseball because it's baseball, and baseball is different. Baseball is a cultural leader in ways the other sports are not. People screaming on this site don't accept that, but it is true. And I'm pretty sure the Congressmen involved would agree with me. Congress held a special hearing about the alleged PED use of ONE PLAYER! Doesn't that suggest something to you? --Ballhype
Again, he ignores history—this isn’t the first time the game’s poobahs were called before the government because of drugs; Bowie Kuhn had to make a similar journey when cocaine was the problem. MLB has always been lax on drugs absent outside pressure—did George W. Bush’s comments about steroids in sport pertain to Bonds? Was BALCO just about Bonds or high profile sports in general? If the government is having a special hearing about one man then it speaks ill of the government’s priorities and not Bonds.
In both cases, it is obvious that the government was trying to score political points with a hot button issue. In the 1980s Nancy Reagan (wife of then-president Ronald Reagan) was the progenitor of the "Just Say No" campaign regarding narcotics; two decades or so later president George W. Bush was doing likewise (encouraging professional sports to "just say no") with the steroid issue. In both cases, MLB was brought into the mix because of scandals involving illegal chemicals within the sport.
It’s laughable that one man in the entertainment industry—one that few actually like—is some kind of threat to national morality that the federal government needs to address.
Further, never forget this one point: MLB never found its conscience about employing Barry Lamar Bonds until all the checks from the home run chase were cashed and Bonds had given services rendered for the money his contract dictated that he be paid. Only when all the revenue had been wrung out of Bonds’ talents and no member of the ownership cartel would have to swallow a nickel in losses did he become too obnoxious to employ. It’s funny that he was a major draw at home and on the road in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007, yet in 2008 his presence would trigger a major fan revolt because he’s too gosh darn evil to tolerate. Where was the concern for the sensibilities of the fans before 2008—waiting until all the money was made off Bonds before being given any consideration?
Stop and think about it: MLB allowed Bonds to break the record because of the money it made for the sport, but now he has to be removed from the game because now that Bonds is a record holder he has become a symbol of why steroid use is wrong and needs to be exorcised from the sport for the sake of its integrity.
But no one could deny that Bonds was the face of baseball’s steroid disgrace. That gave him special status, or perhaps a better word is infamy.
I would say that he was the successor to Mark McGwire, and the only reason for that was the fact that McGwire disappeared after his showing before the government oversight committee while Bonds continued to play and was the subject of nonstop media scrutiny—a small point but one worth noting. Also, it’s good to remember that at the outset of Jose Canseco’s allegations, MLB went out of its way to protect and defend “Big Mac.”
Now that’s special status!
A team could employ one of the many mediocre, borderline or journeyman players whose names appeared in the Mitchell Report without making the implied statement that it was endorsing and rewarding a cheat. Signing Brendan Donnelly, Paul Lo Duca or Paul Byrd would not be seen as an enlistment in the Dark Side.
Why? Suppose players were involved in a kiddie-porn ring; would the same logic be applied? Only the most notorious offender need be culled from the game while teams could sign those that weren't as involved without enlisting in the Dark Side?
Bad example? Kiddie-porn doesn't affect the record book?
O.K. let's try amphetamines: For fun, let's rewind to the end of 1998: new home run milestones have been set. Barry Bonds is 33 years old and coming off a season when he hit .303/.438/.609. He is sitting at 411 career home runs. You're having a beer with a buddy discussing Bonds and the new home run levels. One of you pipes up: "Suppose Bonds plays another 10 seasons and ends up getting close to as many plate appearances as saaaaaay—Hank Aaron in this environment. How many home runs do you think he hits?" Chances are good that you'd peg him somewhere between Willie Mays and Babe Ruth.
A little thought (and a Blackberry accessing Baseball Reference) tells you that from age 33 through retirement Aaron hit 313 home runs. So Bonds could have (drum roll) whoa, 724 home runs! Then you remark: "But Aaron hit some of those in a period when a pitch at the letters was a strike; where pitchers stood atop a 15-inch mound...where guys weren't mashing 60-70 home runs..." (pause) "Geez, do ya think Bonds could reach 'The Hammer' in the greatest home run environment in the sport’s history?"
Had Bonds been signed for 2008 at his normal pre-steroid home run pace he may well have been pushing Aaron regardless. Bonds was busted for amphetamines, ergo he needed them to get into games that he might not otherwise have been able to get into. He hits home runs in those games and 755 falls.
Are we having this discussion that Bonds is now a symbol for what amphetamines does to the record book? Did Aaron ever use? Would he have gotten into enough games to best Ruth without them?
Of course it's not about cheating, or non-anabolic (though illegal) drugs that might impact the record book. It's about steroids and the fact that the home run record holder used them and isn't a nice person.
What if it wasn't steroids but another drug, perhaps a second cocaine scandal. Does the same rule of thumb apply? Getting back to Marshall...
Bonds was a different matter entirely, if for no other reason than he had ridden performance enhancement drugs to the pinnacle of baseball’s records. He was the Big Enchilada, the Numero Uno: his career stood for the proposition that steroid use could turn a great player into a super-human juggernaut, shattering all previous limits; that they could allow players to improve dramatically when historically athletes began to decline; that the drugs could lengthen their careers, make the players become more valuable to their teams, and earn them millions more dollars than they would have earned otherwise—and they could get away with it.
But, but … he became numero uno with MLB's help and complicity. He became the Big Enchilada because MLB wished to employ him until Hank Aaron's record fell because there was money to be made. Earlier, Marshall stated "The evidence that Bonds was a long-time, intentional, unapologetic and incredibly successful chemical cheat had been mounting for years." But it was only at the end—after all the checks had been cashed—that MLB was right to act despite long standing knowledge that Bonds was juicing. Had the sport acted earlier he would not have become “the Big Enchilada” is that not so? Doesn’t that make Bonds’ becoming such a joint venture between MLB and BLB?
Bonds was regarded differently because he was different. His success made him different. His arrogant public stance that there was nothing wrong with his conduct made him different. How a team regarded Barry Bonds was unavoidably going to be a statement about steroids, rules, lawbreaking, character and baseball’s values.
Let's see, MLB arrogantly denied there was a drug problem for years and Bud Selig went so far as slapping a gag order on the sport’s employees regarding the subject. He then deliberately presented misleading information before the government reform committee regarding the effectiveness of its drug test program and gleefully cashed the checks from the home run boom knowing that the achievements were tainted and illegal. (It must be so if Bonds' usage was known “for years” and didn’t they have the statements from David Wells, Curt Schilling, Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco as well or were they too busy trying to get them to recant?) And they didn’t act until government pressure made it impossible to avoid or ignore any longer.
These are “baseball’s values?” I’m sorry; all I see are two sides of the same coin.
Regarding Bonds’ effect, Marshall states to sum up his point of cognitive dissonance:
I would not continue to follow or support the team if it embraced the warped ethics of Barry Bonds and the steroid apologists by signing him. I would, I am quite sure, actively dislike the team until a new regime took over, and it would probably never regain my previous level of loyalty or good will. Cognitive dissonance dictates that the team’s unavoidable decline on the value scale would also pull down others associated closely with it, such as its players, management, and major league baseball itself.
Two things jump out regarding this—one, he fails to cite a single other example in the history of the sport where such a thing might have taken place ignoring that statutory rapists, racists, spouse abusers, drug users and dealers (both PED and narcotic), tax evaders, those that issue legitimate death threats toward their children and so many other phallucranial, testiculacking acts have yet to trigger such a reaction in the baseball marketplace. Even some of the Black Sox were re-signed for 1920. Two, Marshall projects his own very strong feelings on Bonds and assumes the population at large feel the same way without taking the aforementioned history of such things into account. Yes, he could take a poll and probably get enough people to agree with him but talk is cheap—what have the actions of fans since the institution of the National League demonstrated to be the case regarding such things? We may be witnessing a first—a talented player that would hurt business (even though before 2008 he was a cash cow of aurochian proportions); a business predicated on success and winning at any costs including yes…cheating.
The team that hired Barry Bonds would be making a devastating statement of its own values and priorities, which would be this: "Cheating and using performance enhancing drugs is not as big a negative on our scale as winning is a positive. So if you help us win enough games, cheating is OK. In fact, it will be rewarded: observe how we hire Barry Bonds despite overwhelming evidence of steroid use and multiple federal indictments." Hiring Barry Bonds would specifically contradict the Mitchell Report and what it stood for, which was essentially setting the cognitive dissonance value for using performance-enhancing drugs as prohibitively negative.
One would have to ask that were the above true, what does it say about a team’s values (and MLB as a whole) about hiring and retaining in recent years: Darryl Strawberry, Doc Gooden, Steve Howe, Willie Wilson, Sidney Ponson, Luis Polonia, Albert Belle, Brett Myers, Julio Lugo, John Rocker, the Mitchell Report players, Dave Parker, Keith Hernandez, Elijah Dukes, Jose Mesa and so many others but to avoid Bonds suddenly sanctifies the sport while the employment of many others does not sully it to the extent Bonds would?
How many people turned away from their teams or the game because of these miscreants presence in the game yet we're to believe that Barry Lamar Bonds could accomplish what the aforementioned could not as a combined unit? How many fans did the Giants and MLB lose from Bonds' employment from 1999-2007—should that not give us an idea of the costs of having him on a roster?
Remember, as we discussed earlier, that the Mitchell Report got its names from (1) the BALCO investigation (2) Kirk Radomski and Brian MacNamee (3) The Signature Pharmacy and that’s it. Does anyone think that those were the only sources for PED used by players? However, that turned up almost 90 names—tip of the iceberg indeed, yet banishing Bonds suddenly gives the sport an air of sanctity and integrity and undoes over a decade of damage (from this particular issue and this one alone) and allows baseball to expiate its sins?
Sure: some factors could raise a player’s score: cooperating with Mitchell (Giambi), apologizing (Pettite), minimal use (Paul Byrd), not being good or healthy enough to matter (lots of guys). But Bonds had many factors that deepened his negative score: greed, warping the records, encouraging other players to use by his success, arrogance, embarrassing the sport through his prominence, and more.
Again, Marshall forgets that records were warped because MLB wanted the money from Bonds “warping” them and didn’t act until after they were “warped” yet assigns no harm, no foul to the sport’s complicity in the “warping.” As to the other issues…
Greed? See MLB—BLB’s accomplice. Encouraging other players to use by his success? Who encouraged Bonds to use? What about "chicks dig the long ball?" What encouraged usage more? What about the massive contracts teams handed to the steroid-fueled big boppers—did that encourage players to use? I think were you to make a list of reasons why a given player juiced you would find Bonds way down on the list. He was a unique talent before steroids and most players recognized that PED wouldn't give them what they gave BLB. Arrogance? Like asserting that the sport didn’t have a drug problem and threatening fines for anyone discussing it and later trying to rewrite history in their favor? Oops—that was Bud Selig, not Barry Bonds. Embarrassing the sport through his prominence? MLB profited handsomely from his prominence. It failed to act until that prominence paid off, is that not so? Could some embarrassment have been spared had MLB found its conscience when money was still on the table?
Again, all I see are two sides of the same coin: BLB / MLB—a big head and a horse's tail (end).
Thus it should not have come as a surprise to anyone that no team took that course, nor should any team have been accused of negligence or collusion for reaching the only responsible and logical conclusion available. But a lot of sportswriters and sports commentators think values, standards and ethics are irrelevant to baseball.
They are so wrong.
But what if the evidence the MLBPA has in its possession is damning—then what?
I think Marshall misses the point—this particular commentator and writer feels quite strongly that “values, standards and ethics” aren’t irrelevant in baseball; I just feel that they simply do not exist there (and history bears this out) and the unofficial expulsion of Barry Lamar Bonds is proof of that, not proof that the sport possesses such things because it never has. I feel that Marshall—most likely a conscientious and good-hearted man—has fallen into a trap and come to a conclusion and molded his values and data to fit that conclusion and has allowed his strong dislike of Barry Bonds to cloud his ethics in this particular instance.
If that makes me unreasonable and unethical, so be it. I will recant what I have written over the last year if an independent arbitrator looks at the evidence and determines that MLB did not collude in this instance. What will Jack Marshall say if they are indeed found guilty?
I, for one, would love major league baseball to embrace integrity and honor; however if it is to do so then it first must look in a mirror. Barry Lamar Bonds is a creation and reflection of the standards and ethics of the sport and not an apostasy from it. Baseball's corruption is a large 130-year-old tree and Bonds is a twig attached to it. Remove the twig and the tree remains corrupt because the disease is at the roots and not the tips. At the roots we see the color line, syndicate baseball, the reserve clause, John T. Brush, Andrew Freedman, Charles Comiskey, Cap Anson and much else.
This toxic root was given an antitrust exemption and absolute power over its domain with predictable results—the tree trunk featured player exploitation, the rape of communities, union-busting, amphetamines provided by clubs and collusion. From the trunk came the branches of selling out to corporate interests, finding ways to avoid revenue sharing obligations by hiding revenue, taking the game away from the public despite massive subsidies from that very public, ignoring a burgeoning steroid problem, lying to the government, canceling a World Series, Jeffrey Loria, Carl Pohlad, Bud Selig, Jerry Reinsdorf, John Ellis, George Steinbrenner etc. and putting profit above every other consideration ethical or otherwise. The entire tree was covered with bark consisting of lies, deception and acting in bad faith with anyone outside (and many times within) the cartel. From one of these branches sprang a twig named Barry Lamar Bonds.
As a young Jewish rabbi once stated about 2000 years ago: "Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit ... Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them." He is the result and not the cause of baseball's corruption.
Yet, Jack Marshall feels that the removal of this twig is necessary lest it ruin the tree.
Bonds is a product of the environment in which he was raised; the bastard child of which MLB refuses to acknowledge paternity and is trying to disown. They should not be applauded or encouraged for taking the easy way out but would be better served re-evaluating how they run their family.
We’re finally done—hopefully nobody is in the bathroom when you get up there.
Our good friend, and THT stalwart, John Brattain passed away on March 24, 2009. John was a prolific writer, whose work can also be read at Sympatico/MSN Sports and Baseball Digest Daily. John's work was also featured at USA Today, MLBtalk, ESPN Insider, Baseball Prospectus, The Baseball Analysts and The Baseball Journals. Never afraid to express himself in any medium, he was also a frequent radio speaker.