My Big Fat Steroids Column

First came BALCO, soon Jose Canseco’s book, now Jason Giambi met with the New York media …

Oh goody.

Right now the good folks in the media are simultaneously gnashing their teeth while licking their chops like sharks in a feeding frenzy inside a pool full of spasmodic hemophiliacs who neglect to clip their finger and toenails. Since hanging by the neck, drawing and quartering, and beheading is considered bad form in our enlightened age–ah if public flogging were still de rigeur that would take care of it–the intrepid knights of keyboard are making sure that the filthy blaggards that have permanently besmirched the national pastime are properly pilloried in the press (whew) detracting from the saintly aura given the game by such deacons of decorum as Ty Cobb, Hal Chase and Cap Anson. [editor‘s head explodes]

Don’t let the filthy bastards into the Hall-of-Fame, kick them out of the game, erase their names from the birth registry, round ’em all up, put ’em on the space shuttle and launch them into the sun where they’ll never be given the opportunity to sully the lily white plaques of Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton, and Lefty Gomez who’d never stoop to bending the rules to gain a competitive advantage.

Oh why, oh why did Jason put that syringe into his keister? Why did Barry rub that “flaxseed oil” on his knee? Couldn’t they have done something less destructive like betting on their own team or following the example of Swede Risberg and Chick Gandil who found a tamer way of displaying the seamier side of their personalities?

Burn ‘em all at the stake and let the ghost of Judge Landis sort them out.

Or, just for laughs we could get a little perspective on this mess.

To begin with, I think steroids in baseball is bad form. I’d be thrilled if the only things ballplayers used to enhance their performance was Wheaties–with a generous helping of wholesome white milk in a bowl–and spinach (separately of course you bloody literalists). What’s done is done and instead of going off half cocked (see the preceding part of this column) let’s go to wider angle lenses to look at the problem.

To begin with: none of the Black Sox are in the Hall-of-Fame and rightly so (although I‘d be easily persuaded to change my mind about Buck Weaver). However the Black Sox scandal didn’t happen in a vacuum. The question isn’t why Joe Jackson is not in the Hall-of-Fame but why is Charles Comiskey in? He knew about the fix going in, he did his part to try and cover it up, and his pecuniary practices towards his players sowed the seeds of the scandal in the first place.

Bottom line, the problems that caused the Black Sox scandal were institutional in nature: low wages relative to their contributions (read: money), owners who looked the other way as players gambled and covered it up when it surfaced, and various lowlifes being given easy access to players right within the stadiums.

It’s a little hypocritical to demand the players be banned for life while the people who created the environment are given a free pass.

What factors have led to the current mess? Money, lack of drug testing/monitoring, lack of penalties when players were caught with drugs, an overprotective union, owners looking the other way when beefed up sluggers were bringing fans to the park.

One executive that I feel should be in the Hall-of-Fame is Marvin Miller, yet it was Miller who recently said: “I disapprove of all kinds of testing unless there is probable cause to believe that the person being tested has done something wrong.

And:

If you tell me it will help the performance of a football linebacker — maybe. If you tell me it would help a professional wrestler — maybe. If you tell me it would help a beer hall bouncer — maybe. If you tell me it will help someone become governor of California— maybe, but hitting major league pitching more often and farther? You’ve got to have more evidence than I’ve seen.

Marvin Miller has always been staunchly anti-drug testing and vigorously defended players found guilty of drug violations….did this stance contribute to the problem? Only recently has Don Fehr–at the urging of his constituents–agreed to a stiffer drug policy….guilty or innocent? Bud Selig loves money regardless of how it reaches the game of baseball, so despite public proclamations about steroids, did nothing for years. Fans packed the ballpark, networks paid billions, advertisers did likewise (remember “chicks dig the longball” ads?) to be associated with baseball and the owners threw this largesse at players who were at the pinnacle of their profession regardless of how they reached the summit. We’re guilty too. Did you spend a nickel on baseball when you first suspected players were juicing?

Bottom line, if we want to start throwing around scarlet letters, we’d better reserve one for ourselves. If we wish to get rid of everyone who contributed to the drug problem we may as well deep six everyone associated with the sport since the 1960′s (if not earlier).

We live in a consumer culture where we judge each other by the amount of jack in our pockets/wallets/bank accounts. We set the standard of what’s considered important. I think it was Will Rogers who said: “The dollar will never fall as low as people will stoop to acquire it.” People peddle in kiddie porn for money, creeps hang around our schoolyards trying to sell our kids drugs for money, people will sue at the drop of a hat for money, people will fill your e-mail and phone lines with fraudulent business schemes for money, people will scoop children off the streets and force them into prostitution for money, people will lie, cheat, screw family members over, look forward to when mom and dad kick the bucket so we can get our inheritance, betray, defraud, misrepresent for money. What about us law abiding folks? Ever enter the lottery? How about sports betting? Poker? Vegas? Be less than forthcoming on our income tax returns? Why did we do this? Now we’re acting all surprised an indignant because some ballplayer puts something in his body for money?

Did we cheer every blasted home run? Did we go to the park early to watch Mark McGwire take batting practice? Home run Derby is a popular part of the All-Star Game–how did that happen? The fans enjoyed it and folks were willing to pay money to make it happen. Did we celebrate when a prominent slugger was signed by our team as a free agent? Up to the last collective bargaining agreement there was no drug testing, there was no penalty for using performance-enhancing substances, and teams were handing out nine-figure contracts.

What would you do?

Now be honest.

Have you ever dreamed of playing in the big leagues?

Have you ever dreamed of being rich?

How far would you be willing to go to achieve this–especially were it a distinct possibility?

Now be honest and bear in mind what certain parents will do to their children to increase the possibility of their kids becoming a pro athlete.

I’m not condoning what certain players have done, I’m trying to understand why they did so. I know it’s a touchy subject, especially in view of Barry Bonds’ assault on Hank Aaron’s record but even that is a waste of emotional capital.

Why?

Who would you say the greatest pitcher of all time was?

What if I said “Ed Walsh”? After all, Walsh had a career ERA of 1.82 (1st all time), he threw a 20th century record 464 innings in 1908 and won 40 games that year and even posted six saves in 17 relief appearances.

Pretty amazing eh? Best career ERA ever.

Of course he played in a different era, where the spit ball wasn‘t against the rules. We adjust for that. Even after the spit ball was outlawed some pitchers continued to use it to gain a competitive advantage and some used it to punch their ticket to the Hall-of-Fame. There was a time in the very recent past where performance-enhancing substances weren‘t against the rules, and after they were outlawed some players continued to use them to gain a competitive advantage.

Yes, some sacred records fall but the history doesn’t change. Ed Walsh isn’t the greatest pitcher of all time….he couldn‘t carry Pedro Martinez‘s jock on his best day. Roger Maris wasn’t as great a slugger as Babe Ruth. Barry Bonds isn’t in Ted William’s territory. We make adjustments due to the era: the dead ball/spit ball era, the 20’s and 30’s, WWII, the hitting drought/pitching rich 1963-68, the stolen base-happy 70’s-early 80’s, and the performance-enhancing era we have now (and are hopefully working our way out of). Hank Aaron has Babe Ruth’s record but not his legend. Now Barry Bonds will have Aaron’s record but not his legacy.

Baseball goes through cycles, some through external forces, some from internal pressures. Baseball changes. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Baseball adjusts and goes on, so should we. Anabolic steroids, HGH, TGH, and other performance-enhancing drugs (amphetamines anyone?) became part of the game because everyone was complicit: from the offices of the commissioner and the MLBPA, through team owners, managers, and players on down to the fans. It was allowed to continue because people like you and I made it profitable for the media, advertisers, and others to associate with the sport. We’ve suspected steroids for years but still came out with our money in hand ready to cheer. We cannot fairly pin all this on players who have used. We made it profitable to do so. Deep Throat said “follow the money”; do that and more often than not, you’ll find the reasons why something happens.

This is no different.

Think about this: We–the fans–always had the power to rid baseball of drugs. If nobody came to the park, if nobody watched the games on TV, if nobody bought any merchandise and souvenirs, and the stated reason is that we objected that the sports was tainted with drugs–how long do you think it would take for everybody involved in baseball to rid the sport of performance-enhancing substances?

Remember, when we point a finger, we’ve got three pointing back at us.

Performance-enhancing substances are now against the rules. Those found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt will be disciplined according to the rules. Those rules came into effect in 2002 and were strengthened in 2004-5. Let’s avoid the urge to engage in our own particular version of vigilante justice and remember not to punish retroactively. For those of you who feel strongly about the “character” and “integrity” issues that go into Hall-of-Fame considerations remember this: the baseline for this standard was set with the very first election where Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth were among the charter members of the institution.

Pitchers and catchers report soon. Let’s get back to the good stuff.

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