Friday, June 26, 2009

Outrage

"He never lost his sense of rage." — Tom Ricker on Izzy Stone, American Journalist


Of all the things that bother me about the steroids era one of the biggies is the miasma of indifference.

That baseball, in the past twenty years, was being corrupted by drugs designed to make Greek Gods out of regular ballplayers was common knowledge. Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post, as far back as 1988, said that steroids in baseball were a problem. A few intrepid reporters tried at various times to report that, yes, Sammy Sosa or Barry Bonds looked ridiculous when compared to their rookie baseball card. But nobody listened. Nobody cared.

Even after Ken Caminiti died of steroids-related complications in 2002, nobody but a few did anything but shrug their shoulders. One of the few, Joe Strupp of Editor & Publisher, wrote this:

But instead of sparking a wave of follow-up articles or investigations to ferret out the details of steroid use in baseball—who was using it, where it came from, what it did to the body—sportswriters essentially left the story alone.

How? How could any sports reporter, following these guys day in, day out, miss the all-too-glaring signs? Especially in 2002, when all but the most blind couldn't see what was going on. If they followed these guys and saw their bodies morph, saw the back acne, and saw all the other signs staring them in the face, telling them that these individuals were cheating, how could they report nothing?

But, the fact is, hardly any journalist did just that.

Here's Jeff Pearlman of Sports Illustrated, at a panel at Blogs With Balls, alluded to the fact that one of the reasons reporters dropped the ball was exactly because they did see these guys every day and had relationships with them. So Sosa and Bonds went from having Bernie Williams's body to Arnold Schwarzenegger's and no one mentioned it because you saw them everyday? They just missed it when Caminiti died and Jason Giambi turned into Frankenstein? Shrug. No questions. Fine. Here's mine now: Where was the outrage? Where was the Woodward and Bernstein "reporters digging for a story" zeal to promote their careers, or (how naive of me to suggest) protect the game they supposedly love?

And this raises the question for me: Have we as a country, have lost our sense of outrage? Does nothing in this day and age of supposed reality shows and insult radio—shock or enrage us anymore?

It would appear so. Look around and you see not only apologists for cheaters everywhere, but very public declarations of acceptance and, in fact, approval of such behavior.

Danica Patrick, in a recent interview with Sports Illustrated, was asked by Dan Patrick if she would take a performance-enhancing drug if she wouldn't get caught. This is what she had to say:

"Well, then it's not cheating, is it? If nobody finds out?"

Dan Patrick responded: "So you would do it?"

Danica's answer: "Yeah, it would be like finding a gray area. In motor sports, we work in the gray areas a lot. You're trying to find where the holes are in the rule book."

To be clear, Dan Patrick asked the question "Would she take a performance-enhancing drug?" a number of times, in a variety of ways, including one final time, adding, "Did you answer my question?" To which Danica said, "I think I answered your question." Of course later, amid scrutiny, Patrick claimed that she was joking. Right. Go to si.com and listen to the interview and decide for yourself if she was joking.

In a survey of baseball fans across America, where the question was asked, what is the number one problem in baseball, steroids came in 3rd with only 22 percent of the vote. High salaries for baseball players came in first with 51 percent of the vote.

In an article this spring in the Idaho Press-Tribune, Phil Dailey wrote this:

I understand why Selena Roberts is on the witch hunt to further embarrass Alex Rodriguez, but honestly, what's the point? Will her new book, which is ironically slated to come out just in time for Rodriguez's return to baseball, shed new light on the steroid age? Will it prove that Rodriguez did in fact do steroids longer than what he has already admitted? Was he doping in high school? Who cares! We all know he cheated. Let's move on.
But "witch hunt" implies that no crime was ever committed, Phil. And no, it's not "ironic" that Robert's book came out just as Opening Day was approaching. That was the point.

Writer Buzz Bissinger, in an op-ed in the New York Times in 2008, wrote this stunner:

"But last week’s news trickling out of the endless investigation of Barry Bonds has caused me to feel something for him I never thought possible: sympathy. He has been charged with 14 counts of lying to a federal grand jury about his alleged use of steroids and human growth hormone (as well as one count of obstruction of justice). He denies such usage. And that’s where the whole mess sits until his trial next March. The charges themselves are questionable enough, given that Bonds, even if he knowingly took such drugs, was only doing what so many other major league players were doing...."

As I have written before, just because a number of people commit a crime doesn't make it legal. Lots of athletes drink and drive, or abuse their spouses; should that be ok, then, because a lot of them do it? And when has it become all right to lie to a grand jury? Since when are charges "questionable" because well, "heck, it's only steroid"s and “everybody is doing it”? Bissinger continues:

In the report by former senator George Mitchell to Major League Baseball last December, 86 present and former players were named as having used steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. But how many of them are currently being prosecuted? The answer as far as I know is zero. In fact some of those named, such as Andy Pettitte and Jason Giambi . . . are still playing. But the major difference is that Pettitte and Giambi (to some extent) are likeable fellows, whereas Bonds is downright loathsome.

Once again, the charge is not about using steroids, the charge is perjury. If Giambi, or anyone else had lied to that grand jury, then charges would be filed against him as well. For God's sake, the Federal Government isn't spending all that time and money prosecuting Bonds because he's not likeable. It’s doing it because he lied in Federal open court and everyone knows it. Bissinger continues:

But the very lack of a league testing policy gave Bonds and other baseball players carte blanche. When the league finally put in place a system in 2003, it was a joke in terms of providing any real deterrent. It wasn’t until November 2005 that year-round testing was finally instituted with penalties ranging from a 50-game suspension for the first positive test to a lifetime ban for the third. Under such conditions up until 2006, what player in his right mind would not have taken performance enhancers?

Frank Thomas. Larry Walker. Dave Winfield. Cal Ripkin. Greg Maddux. Andrew Dawson. Mark Grace. Derek Jeter.

Also, don't for a second think that the under-the-table allowance of steroids was all a big conspiracy by the owners. The Player's Union fought tooth and nail to prevent a full testing policy. It was only when the Feds starting knocking on the door to the MLB that the Player’s Union finally caved.

It is also ridiculous to assume that Bonds would have done anything else but lie, even under oath. He is a professional athlete, not a role model, despite the fact that we continually insist on confusing the two, with our need to put on those rose-colored glasses. If he had taken steroids and told the truth, he would have been ruined. By not telling the truth, he would have been ruined.

Jason Giambi was not ruined, was he? He told the truth and then played out his contract with the Yankees and signed a new contract this year with Oakland. Andy Pettitte confessed to the court of public opinion and still pitches for the Yankees today.

But the crux of what galls is not just the steroids and the cheating and the lying—human are fallible; they make mistakes—but rather, Bissinger's, and indeed all these writers, cavalier, haughty acceptance of it. Their "What would you do?" assumption of everyone's lack of moral character. "What player in his right mind would not have taken performance enhancers?" "It is also ridiculous to assume that Bonds would have done anything else but lie, even under oath." Those beliefs connote a "It ain't cheatin' if you don't get caught" way of life. And I for one, don't subscribe to that. Why then do anything difficult and inglorious and honorable if you can go the easy way and cheat and not get caught? Why have rules for baseball—or indeed, anything?

But the lack of caring about rules and cheating is by no means limited to the mainstream media. Fans and bloggers all over have defended steroid users for years now. Of the litany of blogs defending Bonds—and they are legion—this was probably my favorite (spelling left as is):

All the Bond bashers who use Viagra or Ciallus sit down and shut up. At this point it is immaterial (really it's always been immaterial) whether Bonds did or did not utilize performance enhancing drugs.

An article I wrote for the web site DugoutCentral.com regarding Sammy Sosa and the allegation that he took steroids received a great many comments, many of which had things like this to say:

"Who cares?
Who cares?"

"I’m sick of hearing about steroids for one big reason: It doesn’t take away from the enjoyment I have (or have had) watching the game. Really, it’s mostly the media acting sanctimonious to elicit the buzz and responses we see above!"

"And I’m willing to bet that 70% of the players before 1980 would have taken anything they could if they felt it would have made them better ball players."

"And now thanks to selfish people like a lot of you, the memories today’s kids have of all these truly special things happening are tainted. You set out on a moral crusade, and you wound up hurting kids, and baseball itself."

And there are more defenders commenting on MSM boards. This is from a Foxsports.com message board (spelling left as is):

Your telling me you wouldn't take a substance that would make you stronger, faster and get you paid not 2X, not 3X, not even 10X what your all ready getting paid, but 20X or more. Your telling me you'd be content with making a league minimum if you knew by taking a substance you could make 500% more.Thats just ridiculous. The answer is obvious. This game of baseball is entertainment. That is all it is. Entertainment. Pure and simple....Why hate if you yourself would give up everything to have what he has....He did what all the other big sluggers did during his time, and you know what I'm not going to sweat the details because professional sports is entertainment, that's all it is.

Most of the comments on the message boards are also unapologetic defenders of Bonds. Yet another web site takes a shot at defending Alex Rodriguez, with many of the same arguments.

Rodriguez (and it pains me to say this) was the bigger victim. He took steroids. In other words, he did what Major League Baseball expected him to do: Bulk up its myths to bulk up bottom lines.

Another blogger, this time on Bleacher Report wrote this:

“Clemens, Bonds, Palmeiro, Sosa, McGwire.

“They're just not likable people. Pompous, arrogant, self-absorbed, quick to judge and quicker to lie in the face of blatant truths....And although those guys have shamed themselves and the game, I can give you 706 million reasons why I can't blame them—that's roughly the combined earned career salaries of those six players, to date, not including endorsement deals and outside engagements.”

And then, there is the Unofficial Barry Bonds/Steroid Era Compendium, an amazing site which breaks down a myriad of the arguments against Bonds with the basic slant of "You can't prove anything." It also links to “further reading” which includes 'Witch Trials, McCarthyism and Baseball" "Valuable Time Wasted in Attempts to Outlaw Steroids" and "Steroids: Not Really a Gamekiller."

In effect, the whole "Defending Steroids" argument boils down to a few simple arguments. "You're self-righteous if it matters to you that ballplayers cheat for an illegal advantage." "It's just entertainment, who cares about the rules." "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'." "Everybody does it and all the old-times would have done it if they could have, therefore it's all morally equivalent and we should ignore it."

And the "morally equivalent" part of it is the part that rankles. Just because some people cheat doesn't mean we should throw up our hands and let everyone cheat. And we shouldn't assume that since some do indeed cheat, that all do, or would. And after all, shouldn't we try to be better, especially in a game we supposedly love? On a field of competition, shouldn't we at least try?

See, that's exactly the reason I watch sports. For the same reason that former baseball commissioner once wrote, "All play aspires to the condition of paradise...It is a dream of ourselves as better than we are." So I can watch human beings try and occasionally succeed brilliantly, to be better than we thought we could be. I watch so I can see Joe Namath or Willis Reed or the 1980 U.S. hockey team, or Dwight Clark, or Villanova 1985.

And wouldn't it disappoint you if you found out that the 1980 Hockey teams were doping? Or that Joe Namath or the Villanova team cheated in some way? Honestly, wouldn't you feel a loss, a sense of outrage that something precious was taken from you? I know I would. And if you wouldn't, why then, on earth, do you watch sports?

5 comments:

Guy said...

thank you

blmeanie said...

I have seen this post sitting there since you posted it, I finally took the time to read it.

Some very nice points and references.

The one thing about baseball that is not replicated in other sports the same way is the history. The stats. When Kobe or Lebron pass whomever is the all-time scoring champion of the NBA (see, I like hoops and can't say for sure who it is without checking - Kareem?) will the world stand still for the moment? The HR record is that kind of moment, connection through the eras, poetic if you will.

Bonds/steroids/Sammy/McGwire/Arod etc. all have ruined the best thing about baseball. The history, the connections.

When Eli Manning or Drew Brees passes the NFL record for all time passing yards (Favre?) it will be an accomplishment. Nowhere near baseball's HR king.

The outrage is there, it just isn't worth yelling anymore because there is nothing anybody can do about it...the commish should have acted around 2003. Should have made some seriously difficult decisions and made history with his leadership and determination to right what was wronged.

Instead we have outrage that turns into lots and lots of whining. Too late, too late.

P-Cat said...

Thanks Meanie. I know this was a huge article. Appreciate you taking the time.

And yeah, I know there is no point in complaining and whining. But this issue really gets under my skin. Becuase you're right, this is about baseball's history. And in it being hijacked....well, it drives me crazy.

Thanks for the comments

Eric said...

Great article. Your outrage is justified. But to offer a dissenting view: For those of us who want to enjoy the game, isn't there a point where we have to accept what has happened and move on? We (you, me everyone) have made baseball a multi gazillion dollar industry, and the stakes are a lot higher than the fans' measly sense of honor or guilt. The MLB is moving in the right direction on PEDs. I choose to appreciate that and not well in the past. What's done is done. The "purity" of records (some set in an era before racial integration for heavens' sake) is now further worsened. So it goes. Let's move on and enjoy Albert Pujols.

Eric said...

*dwell in the past haha