What baseball must learn from Lance Armstrong

Words numerous enough to fill a mountain have been spent on the subject of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, but if there’s a sport that’s even worse off, it’s cycling. More than half of the top 10 finishers of the Tour de France in the past decade have either admitted to, tested positive for, or otherwise been officially sanctioned for doping. If you expand that list to include the cyclists who have been accused by other riders, named in reports, or caught with performance enhancing substances outside of races, the number rises close to three-quarters. It’s a dirty, dirty sport—and baseball should be paying close attention.

What I find most interesting about the recent developments in the Lance Armstrong fiasco isn’t the admission of guilt or the incredibly sophisticated methods cyclists have used to skirt around the rules, but the public reaction. The public should have reacted similarly to how they did when Barry Bonds was caught up in his own steroid mess, no? So why does it seem so much more widespread and so much more negative?

Let me be clear—Barry Bonds clearly received a harsh public treatment after his steroid allegations entered the mainstream. Arguments revolving around game purity have been tossed around for years. And this year, in his first year of eligibility, the greatest hitter of his generation (and his father’s generation, for that matter) received 36.2 percent of the vote, presumably all due to his shadowed history with performance-enhancing substances. I’m not arguing that the public has ignored his steroid use, by any means. But when the Bonds’ allegations were at a peak, he didn’t garner 24-hour news coverage with headlines ending in “-gate” in bold red letters. Why?

I’m convinced a significant portion of the difference is due to the public’s opinion of these two athletes before anything happened. Lance Armstrong was an incredibly popular national icon who reached levels of popularity usually reserved for Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks and Oscar-winning actors, not for athletes in a sport with a relatively low fanbase like road cycling. He was the United States’ gleaming pride. He beat cancer, for Christ’s sake. And most importantly of all, he was as outspoken of an advocate for stricter drug-testing measures in sports as there ever was. In such a dirty sport, he was a clean, shining beacon of integrity. What wasn’t to love?

Obviously, Bonds never enjoyed such popularity. He was incredibly talented all the same, but to call him “likeable” would be a bit of an exaggeration. The public never warmed up to him in quite the same way they usually look up to sport stars, and when steroid allegations piled up, he denied everything in a way that didn’t change very many opinions.

On the other hand, Armstrong took pride in being clean. He repeatedly insisted he was the lone clean voice in a filthy room, even going as far as taking legal action against those who claimed otherwise. Wouldn’t you? If you had won seven grueling races in clean, legitimate fashion, and people started questioning your cleanliness, wouldn’t you want to scream it from the rooftops? And when the allegations got louder and more frequent, it’s easy to see that the hypothetically-clean Lance had a natural reaction. He held his ground and screamed louder. In a sort of now-perverse fashion, Lance’s defiance in the face of the steroid allegations made one of the most untouchably great athletes of all time relatable.

And that’s why the public reaction to Armstrong was sharper and more negative than most anything that Bonds faced. The public can deal with a villain doing bad things. The relative indifference Alex Rodriguez faced when admitting steroid use can attest to that. But a sterling role model who betrayed everybody by engaging in the very same behavior than those he repeatedly decried? It’s not the actions, but the betrayal of trust. It’s the height of the fall.

It’s this hero worship that baseball needs to watch out for. If a large portion of baseball players are indeed doping, as people like Jose Canseco have claimed, baseball obviously has significant issues to sort out. Cycling’s reputation in the public eye is irreparably damaged not only from the breadth of its steroid problem, but because the sport had all of its eggs in one enormous gleaming basket. Baseball is still recovering from a similar situation with Mark McGwire and Bonds, but all of the forward progress of the last decade can come to a screeching halt in a hurry with every failed test.

It’s nice to think that we’re far enough away from the steroid era that the public’s trust is all the way back, but re-opening that wound is something baseball simply can’t afford.

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  1. Muuka Muyumba said...

    I have advocated for a truth tribunal type of amnesty where players hold an interview like McGwire and ARod with Costas and discuss use of PEDs. Be specific. Selig must sign off on this and tell clubs to welcome these players back into their fold. It was an era of baseball akin to segregation and greenies that has to be accepted at this point. I think most fans now accept that a large majority of players were using, so the greatest players (cheaters) of this era now have to be the beacons of truth.

  2. rubesandbabes said...

    Let’s wait to hear what Lance says.

    Catchers sometimes pick it up after a few years in the game, but the guy that got traded yesterday has the smoking gun on the back of the baseball card, and he’s not the only one on his new team. The closer even has a tourettes/rage schtick. Hmmm.

    Cycling at least tests the athletes, unlike baseball. One HGH test a year. Bartolo Colon to be tested 5 times this year, Ryan Braun 3 or 4. Total Joke.

  3. mcbrown said...

    First of all, I’m not sure the reaction is actually any stronger – given the different dynamics of cycling (which has only one recognizable face in the US) and baseball (which has many) I think you need to aggregate the media reaction across ALL the top players who were wrapped up in the PED mania. My recollection is that it was pretty loud in aggregate, probably louder than the Armstrong coverage.

    Second of all, we also have to account for the changing media landscape. 10 years ago was an eternity in internet time. The general level of constant news and opinion hyperventilation was lower.

  4. bucdaddy said...

    “Let me be clear—Barry Bonds clearly received a harsh public treatment”

    He received kind of a harsh treatment from MLB too. Look at his batting line from his last season: .276/.480/.565/1.045. The man could still hit a ton, and if he couldn’t much play the field anymore he could still DH. IIRC after his Giants contract ran out he offered to play for just about anybody for peanuts—and couldn’t find a job. He would have been a good fit for a team like Oakland, which had a track record of grabbing an old hitter who still had some gas in the tank on the cheap for a year (Frank Thomas).

    Instead, Bonds was forced to retire at 42, blackballed from baseball. That he didn’t make more of a fuss about what seems a pretty clear case of collusion to keep him unemployed might hint at his reluctance to reveal secrets he would just as soon not, but that’s just supposition.

    We really shouldn’t be arguing over Barry’s case for the Hall this year, we should be arguing about it next year, or in 2015, because he should still have been playing at 43 and maybe 44.

  5. fergie348 said...

    I don’t know anyone who would suggest that the performance difference between Barry Bonds’ hitting skills and the 100th best hitter in the league when he was playing could be directly and exclusively attributed to the substances he ingested.  It is fairly easy to attribute that same level of difference in the pro peloton to substances ingested.  Drugs were more widespread in cycling because their efficacy in races is clear, demonstrable and well known.  No such efficacy link to either hitting or pitching skill in baseball can be made.  This is probably the sole reason why PEDs are/were so much more widespread in cycling than in baseball and why cycling has had to employ a much stricter testing regimen to catch cheats.

  6. hopbitters said...

    bucdaddy, I’m not much on conspiracy theories, but when you have the those numbers from a guy who would take the league minimum and donate it to charity, it’s almost unthinkable that out of 30 teams, nobody would give him a shot even with his baggage.

  7. abarnold2 said...

    The drug problem in cycling is much broader than anabolic steroids. For instance, one of the big controversies about Armstrong is whether he tested positive for erythropoietin (EPO), a substance that allows the body to generate more red blood cells and thus more oxygen in the 2001 Tour de Suisse. EPO enhances performance but much differently than anabolic steroids. Of course, the USADA report also details Armstrong’s alleged use of anabolic steroids and human-growth hormone. While anabolics and HGH are present in cycling, it’s substances such as EPO that really matter to abusers in the peloton.

  8. Mike said...

    The public reaction was in line with the public’s reaction when he won a cycling event – WHO CARES?

    Cycling is about the 30th most popular sport in America. And the interest in Lance Armstrong was more due to the cancer angle than what event he did or didn’t win. So it’s predictable that there was little hue and cry from the public when he was stripped from his titles and when he admitted to something he had been vehemently denying for years.

    The mark Lance Armstrong made on the sports world will go down as no more than a blip on the radar screen of sports history.

  9. David P Stokes said...

    I think that mcbrown and Mike raise a good point.  As 100 Americans at random to name a dozen baseball players, and almost of them will be able to do it, even if they don’t really follow baseball or sports at all.  Ask them to name a dozen cyclists, and they can’t do it.  After Armstrong, a few might remember Greg LeMond, and that’s it.

  10. rubesandbabes said...

    bucdaddy and hopbiters are making up stories about Barry Bonds.

    There was never any offer to play at the league minimum from Bonds and dontate the $ to charity..

    Bonds left the Giants because there was no way he was gonna take a pay cut, given the stats bucdaddy cited.

    Bonds just wanted his ‘normal’ paycheck and that was taken of the table.

  11. Paul G. said...

    Lance intentionally ruined the lives of people who accused him of the very same things he is admitting now.  I do not know of any equivalent situation with Barry Bonds or any other of the PED accused in baseball.  Perhaps it happened but if it did they have escaped my notice. 

    We are discussing very different levels of corruption here.  Barry is a cheater but Lance is a cheater and a lowlife dirtbag with the added bonus of proclaiming himself the acme of good.  At this point Barry is much more likeable.

    It doesn’t help that Lance’s Oprah interview answers seemed specifically designed to avoid future prosecution.  He only came clean on things outside of the Statute of Limitations.  Even his “courage” to come clean is phony.  Barry may dislike me but at least he’s honest about it.

  12. Jfree said...

    I suspect that baseball will learn the wrong lesson here. They will see the negative reactions re Lance’s investigation/admission – decide that the belated honesty is the problem – and decide to keep things covered up as much as possible and assume (probably correctly) that any remaining questions about the era will simply go away with time/inattention.

  13. sameoldsameold said...

    hm.  on one hand you have a guy who did everything in his power to prove he wasn’t cheating, while he was cheating.  a guy who tried to destroy the lives and careers of his former friends and team mates, his accusers.  a guy who cashed the checks, which were based on his proclaimed innocense, his cleanliness, his PR cachet.  a guy whose whole career and fotune is based on lies.

    and on the other hand you have a guy we all knew had roided up over the winter when he did it, and sort of kinda of blew off any questions or accusations…cuz he was cheating, and we knew it, and he really didn’t care all that much that we knew…

    yeah, i’d say there’s really not a lot of comparison between the two guys in question.  the entire premise is a bit of a reach…

  14. rubesandbabes said...

    Hi bucdaddy,

    Yes, okay – sorry.

    But the Giants were not offered this deal. Nor did they want Bonds. Plus, the teams are not named. It’s win-lose getting the best guy for free. Why would he have been free; what’s the reason for this nice bargain?

    It’s more than just possible that the A’s took a beatdown from MLB/Selig over the A’s owner’s public positive comments about Bonds at this time. So, blackball kinda works as a concept, but the question about Bonds’ doping had turned the corner by then…

    Add Jeff Kent, Frank Thomas, and Kenny Lofton to list of guys ‘blackballed.’


    Now after the watching Lance’s confession, can’t help but feel he has upped the ante / opened the door on Bonds and Clemens’s HOF chances by his example of a more honest confession than Big Mac’s.

    Lance’s confession is very significant in that he admits his doping was part of the performance.

    Lance’s story going forward is going to take a couple of years to develop. There could be more from Lance. He will be in the news anyway for sure.

    He seems to have hurt himself with the claims of the clean comeback, thus likely still lying. In baseball we’ve seen this again and again where the suspected player in question ‘can’t talk’ without putting themselves in jeopardy, statute of limitations, blah, blah. Frustrating, but part of the story, every time.

    The bike world wants Lance to talk under oath, name names, but they will maybe end up ‘happy’ with further confessions more directly aimed at cycling fans, and possibly cancer community people, too.


    Barry Bonds could really rehab his image with a detailed confession, and now there is that possibility because of Lance.

    All Bonds would have to do is issue a statement, and then he and Lance can be on Armstrong’s required(?) “truth and reconciliation commission,” with GW Bush as chair. Easy!

  15. Lovekin28 said...

    I think the difference between Armstrong and Bonds is that Armstrong was directly improving his performance, Bonds increased attributes that allowed him to do something he did well even better, give someone a gym and PED’s they can become a great cyclist but they still may not be able to hit a 90+ MPH pitch over the fence. There is still a level of talent that is required beyond physical fitness.

    I think that baseball players that used PED’s were helped but not to the extent that cyclists, runners and swimmers would get from PED’s. Any Hall of Fame that doesn’t include Bonds is a joke.

  16. Marc Schneider said...

    IMO, the only reason to worry about steroids is the dangers they pose to health. They should be banned for that reason. As far as baseball records,who cares?  Cycling is different than baseball; as Lovekin28 said, steroids directly improve the performance of cyclists (or, I guess swimmers too).  The equivalent in baseball is if a player took something that somehow improved his hand/eye coordination.  Other than that, steroids probably have some effect-in Bonds’ case, most likely keeping him healthy enough to perform in his later years.  Now, if you were going to make the argument that Bonds and others should be kept out of the Hall because they took dangerous substances and could have influenced others to do the same-which Armstrong certainly did-I might agree but that is generally not where the argument goes.

  17. John C said...

    Let it go. Just let it go.

    Anyone with half an ounce of sense knew that Lance Armstrong was doping when he was running roughshod over France like nobody had seen since the German Panzers did it. All world-class cyclists do it. Lance was just smart enough to get away with it for years.

    And the same thing goes for baseball. Anyone with any sense knew what McGwire and Sosa were doing in 1998, and why we suddenly had all these guys hitting 50, 60, even 70 home runs. And no one said a thing at the time. All Bonds did was get fed up with seeing lesser players out-perform him, so he got in on the act and did them all one better.

    As far as the Hall of Fame goes, the only penalty I’d put on Bonds and Clemens is that they should wait for Ken Griffey Jr. to go in first, since I think the consensus is that he never used any PED’s. Sosa and McGwire shouldn’t ever go in because they weren’t HOF-caliber players until they doped.

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