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.

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