Friday, November 23, 2007

The Wheel Is Going to Turn

When you’re up by 10 runs, you don’t continue to steal bases. When the great Chicago Bulls teams were hammering opponents, Phil Jackson took Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen out of the game and sat them on the bench. Gratuitously showing up your opponent violates a basic rule of professional athletics. It’s poor sportsmanship. If you’ve taken your foot off the accelerator and your second team is *still* beating the snot out of the opponent, there isn’t a lot you can do. However, you are supposed to make that visible effort to cease the destruction, and you don’t rub your opponent’s nose in their ineptitude.

I must admit that even though I’m not a Patriots fan, I’m in sheer awe of what they are accomplishing this season. Tom Brady, Randy Moss, the entire defense, they are rewriting the record books. We’re witnessing what might be the best NFL team to ever take the field. Better than the Lombardi Packers, better than the Montana and Rice (or Young and Rice) Niners, better than the Payton and McMahon Bears, and perhaps even better than the great Dolphin team of Griese, Czonka, Warfield, and The Perfect Season. Four or five guys are going to have to suffer broken bones for these Pats to lose a game, and even then I’m not so sure. You have to admire the numbers that Tom Brady and the offense are putting up game after game after game, and the ease with which they're doing it. And you KNOW that no matter how soft-spoken they are, they know damn well what’s going on. This Patriots team is playing a whole other game, every week. So, when the New England Patriots are up by 4, 5, even 6 touchdowns and continue to go for it on 4th down (tossing a touchdown pass against the Bills on 4th and short, instead of kicking a field goal), the sentiment is becoming harder to escape: the Pats have no interest in unwritten rules such as “thou shalt not show up thy hapless, helpless opponent”. The Patriots are certainly winning, but without any class.

Now look, I’m neither stupid nor na├»ve. I realize that the object of the game is to win, and if winning weren’t important we wouldn’t be keeping score. And I similarly understand that the best way to keep the Pats from scoring over and over and over is to play better defense against them. Finally, it’s not the Patriots’ fault that they have created a machine that can’t help but annihilate anyone and everyone they face. I get all that, really I do. But you and I both know that the Pats are perfectly capable of calling off the dogs as the game drags on, but they’re making a conscious decision not to. Bill Simmons of ESPN has a term for it: he calls it the Fuck You Touchdowns. His theory is that Bill Belichick is punishing the league for denigrating him and his team after Spygate, and in every game he’s sending the same message: You think we were beating people only because we were cheating? Fuck you. We’ll score on you whenever we want. You want to tear down our greatness? Fuck you. We’ll score at will. And then we’ll do it again. Kick a field goal on 4th down? Fuck you. We’ll throw the ball into the corner of the endzone. How do you like that? You don’t? Fuck you. We’ll do it one more time.

And Simmons might be right. The Pats don’t have to stop playing, of course. They can be the vintage Nebraska Cornhuskers or Oklahoma Sooners and hang 60 and 70 points on the board every week. But in the NFL, you don’t get more style points for winning by 50, rather than 35. There’s going to be a price to pay for what some view as disrespecting the game and the guys on the other side of the ball. The wheel’s going to turn, and this scintillating run won’t last forever. While some teams may never achieve greatness (see the Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions), every team eventually has to hit bottom sometime. Talk to the Oakland Raiders, the Miami Dolphins, or my beloved St. Louis Rams, who not so long ago were hailed as the Greatest Show on Turf. One of these days, no matter how good you were, you are going to suck. Pats fans should remember what it’s like, because it’s going to happen again. Maybe not next year, but it’s coming. And when that does happen to New England, as it someday will, teams aren’t just going to beat them, they are going to make it their mission to punch them in the face a few times for good measure. They’re going to humiliate New England, and have fun doing it. The Pats will get bitch slapped around the field. That unstoppable wide receiver on the Redskins isn’t going to come out of the game, and they’re going to throw to him over and over and over, just to make the point. The battering ram running back on the Jets is going to come back into the game in the 4th quarter just to score another touchdown and make sure he sets the record against the Patriots instead of waiting for the following week. The Steelers will fake taking a knee and toss another touchdown pass at the end of the half to put them up by six touchdowns instead of settling for five. Pats fans will at this point be counted on to whine and scream bloody murder that “you shouldn’t kick someone when they’re down, and we would never do that”.

I am going to be watching that game. And I will be laughing my ass off.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Guardians of History

Barry Bonds has been indicted for perjuring himself in front of a federal grand jury. Senator George Mitchell is about to introduce a report on rampant steroid use in major league baseball. Mark McGwire, who with Sammy Sosa had famously broken Roger Maris’ home run record in 1998, disgraced himself in front of a Congressional hearing seven years later with his graceless evasiveness and refusal to “talk about the past”, even though it had become common knowledge that he had been juicing throughout the late power surges of his career. Ken Caminiti admitted that his 1996 MVP year was largely a result of performance enhancing substances. Subsequent drug use and abuse killed Caminiti in 2004.

Baseball is officially awash in its latest divisive, dangerous and unutterably sad crisis. Since the latter half of the 1800’s, baseball has coped with internal wars over upstart leagues, money, labor issues, gambling, race, and now performance-enhancing drugs. This post isn’t a history lesson. If you want the story behind how we got to where we are now, I’d recommend two seminal books that serve as critical histories of the Steroid Era. If you haven't read them, you owe it to yourself to buy them both.

The first is “Juicing the Game”, by my friend Howard Bryant. Howard is a widely respected, former beat writer who’s worked in the Bay Area, New York and Boston. He’s now a senior columnist for ESPN. “Juicing the Game” is a lucid, important and far-ranging history of how the steroid era came to be. It’s a scathing indictment of the baseball hierarchy and their willful disinterest in acknowledging or combating the rampant use of steroids or other drugs, in deference to the infusion of cash arising from baseball’s new power game that was embodied in the old Nike marketing slogan “Chicks Dig the Long Ball”. More than just relaying the facts, Howard contextualizes how and (most importantly) why it got so completely out of control so quickly.

The history of BALCO and the Bonds affair is perfectly captured in “Game of Shadows”, by San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams. It details with precise evidence, sworn testimony and background explanation the rise of an egomaniacal con man named Victor Conte, and how he amassed a collection of Olympic-caliber athletes (Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery), football players (Bill Romanowski) and baseball players (Barry Bonds, Benito Santiago) who willingly and in fact gleefully injected themselves with cocktails of steroidal and other performance-boosting substances.

People should remember that Bonds is not being indicted for having used EPO, Human Growth Hormone, the Cream or the Clear. He was indicted for lying about it. Jason Giambi went before the same federal grand jury and admitted his steroid and other substance use. He took a profound hit in the press and his professional reputation, but he’s not facing decades in prison for what he put in his body while playing first base for the A’s and the Yankees. Giambi told the truth. Bonds lied repeatedly, and his career is likely over because of it.

Baseball press, historians and fans are going to have to figure out what to do with the significance of all the alarming power statistics that started in the mid-90’s. Is it “cheating” if the lords of baseball were too greedy, selfish or ignorant to implement an actual substance testing policy until it was long too late to stop the damage to the integrity of the game? Is it Mark McGwire’s, Ken Caminiti’s or Barry Bonds’s fault that they got away with perpetrating a fraud on the game? Was it a fraud? How do you convict someone of violating baseball’s basic fabric of meritocracy if their “crime” wasn’t yet a crime in their game? This is not as cut and dried as it might seem. Personally, I’m grateful that I don’t have a Hall of Fame ballot. Howard does, and he’s told me that he won’t vote for McGwire, Bonds, or anyone who he believes juiced. Peter Gammons is on record as saying that until someone *proves* guilt, he’s going to have to presume innocence, and vote (or not vote) for players based solely on their performance on the field. Will Gammons’ vote change based on this week’s events? I don’t know. You’ll have to ask Peter.

None of this is easy, and all of it is both sad and infuriating. Personally, I don’t blame Bonds, McGwire, Caminiti, or anyone else for what they did to gain an extra advantage, any more than I blame Gaylord Perry for getting away with his famous spitball for decade after decade, eventually leading to his Hall of Fame induction in 1991. It’s an athlete’s job to do what he can to gain an advantage. If you don’t stop him, he’s going to keep doing it. Umpires are responsible for stopping spitballs, not pitchers. Bud Selig was responsible for safeguarding the good of the game, and at that he failed spectacularly. Donald Fehr and the players’ union should have understood that keeping the players honest was central to the good of the game. Blocking stringent testing as a violation of privacy only serves to allow rampant drug abuse in every major league clubhouse, thereby rendering some of baseball’s most sacred records open to debate as to how “real” they are. The teams themselves (most especially the A's, Cardinals and Giants) didn't want to know what was happening in their own clubhouses, because the last thing they'd want to do is kill the golden goose. Because of Selig, Fehr and baseball's collective ownership, all of us now wonder not about what we know, but about what we don’t know.

Two important events are about to transpire which will unquestionably shake the foundations of the game as we know them: Barry Bonds faces arraignment in US District Court in San Francisco for lying to a federal grand in December 2003, and the Mitchell Report is on its way any day. Bud Selig, if he’s capable of it, will have to deal with both events. Why? Because both the impending Bonds trial and the Mitchell Report will show baseball was not just asleep at the switch, but intentionally unwilling to police itself, its players, and the protection of its own legacy. As commissioner, Selig serves as baseball’s ultimate guardian of integrity, just as Kennesaw Mountain Landis did after the Black Sox scandal and Bart Giamatti did in the Pete Rose gambling affair. Selig failed us, all of us, and for that he is going to be every bit as on trial as Barry Bonds. Except Selig doesn’t have to face a federal judge. He only has to face history.