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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Thursday, June 13, 2002
McCarthy at the Bat
Before the next scare begins, we vehemently deny the use of writing-enhancing substances by any of the Primer writers.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, apparently an accusation is worth a million. At the start of May, baseball had been going about its business assuming that the topic they’d be forced to discuss all year would be the potential work-stoppage in August. They really ought to have known better by now, but hey, we all forget sometimes. Instead, the sport finds the great steroid scandal of aught-two thrust upon it.
The titters and jabbers about steroids in baseball have gone on for a while now. Baseball does not "randomly test" its athletes for steroids or other chemical substances, like the NBA and NFL does. So there’s been lots of idle speculation about how many players in MLB are actually on the stuff.
With the retirement of Jose Canseco and his promises to "tell-all" in his upcoming book, the engines of scandal sprung to life setting in motion the current scandal. With the subsequent admission in Sports Illustrated of former slugger Ken Caminiti that he had indeed taken steroids during his MVP season in 1996 and that half the players in the league also used steroids, the dog was now officially off the leash.
If one had guessed that such a story would tap into the nobler instincts of the media at large, one would be in for a huge disappointment. Almost immediately, San Jose scribe, Skip Bayless, accused Home Run record-holder, Barry Bonds, of steroid usage. His argument was that Bonds didn’t react correctly to his out of the blue accusation that Bonds was on "the juice." According to Bayless, "When you (Bonds) have recently been asked about steroids (o)ne response began with: ‘You want an interview or you want to irk me?’ You send up red flags faster than the Yankees do pennants."
Bill Conlin was less diplomatic: "to all the freaks, geeks and ‘roid
One of the hallmarks of McCarthyism, as it has been called, is that vague hearsay becomes evidence, accusations become proof and the lack of a strict outright denial becomes a confession. People who question the accusations are labeled as "naiive." Particular phenomena are labeled as being further evidence of guilt and other explanations for the phenomena are tossed out the window. And, basically, an entire group of people are cast into a net of suspicion where they are guilty until proven innocent.
In his interview with Sports Illustrated, Caminiti estimated that about "half" of the players in MLB are on steroids. Jose Canseco, after retiring, estimated it was about 85 percent. Other players have come out and estimated that it was probably much less than either. But what all of these numbers lack are specifics. It is quite easy to come out and throw a nice round number like "half" out there without naming names or providing any sort of evidence. Think about it, how in the world would Ken Caminiti be in a position to know about steroid usage for that many players in the league? If every single player Caminiti has ever shared a clubhouse with was on steroids, that still wouldn’t account for as much as half the players currently in the league. Jose Canseco says it’s 85 percent? How could Jose possibly have any reliable information to back up that claim. And if Canseco thinks it’s 85 percent and Caminiti thinks its 50 percent, doesn’t the vast difference between those estimates call into question the accuracy of one or the other or both? Face it, what we do know about the percentage of MLB players who are taking steroids is that the range is anywhere from one percent to ninety-nine percent; a statement with as much information value as your average beer commercial.
But that hasn’t stopped the charges being leveled at Bonds and others. The logic goes something like this:
1) Steroids helps players hit more home runs.
The implications of Bonds using steroids are, of course, enormous. Bonds’ 73 homers in 2001 are a major league record, and if that record was found to be broken due to the use of illegal substances, we’d have quite a story on our hands.
Which presumably is why the accusations are being leveled without any actual evidence to support them. If proof that he did would be one of the biggest stories of the decade, an accusation has to merit being one of the biggest stories of the month.
What we do know about Bonds from several far more reliable sources is that there are probably few athletes in the history of the world with a greater dedication to conditioning. Bonds workout habits are legendary in the Bay Area, and few would argue that Bonds doesn’t lift weights to a near religious extent, whether he "juices up" or not. It seems to me that you have a player with obvious genetic athletic gifts (son of one of the most athletic players of the 1970s, Bonds has been a baseball phenom since high school). You have a player who has been a good player since 1987 a great player since 1989 and one of the greatest ever since 1992. You have a guy who works out religiously and is now entering his late thirties where generally a persons body mass has already started to shift to a more bulked up version from a lean version. You have all of this information and yet apparently Bonds has not earned the benefit of the doubt. Think about it. An active player caught using or abusing performance enhancing drugs would be more or less ruined as the media would devour him within a week. Who is the more likely candidate for taking such an enormous risk? A guy who has made untold millions in his career, who could have a job in MLB for as long as he wants one, a player whom they’re already clearing space for in Cooperstown
or the AAAA veteran trying desperately to turn some heads and carve out a career in baseball before he’s forced to go work back at the factory? For whom is the risk (and likelihood) of getting caught greater? This doesn’t mean Bonds doesn’t use steroids, but I find it hard to believe he’s the most logical choice for such initial baseless speculation.
Of course, this is sportswriting and logic left town a while ago. No, if you can connect the dots the right way, and point the fingers at the right targets, people will read your column. Even Caminiti’s own testimony has all sorts of problems with it. Caminiti said he started taking steroids midway through the 1996 season, after which he hit 26 homers en route to a career high 40 homers. What isn’t mentioned is that Caminiti’s most noticeable power spike happened two years previously in 1994, when he hit a career high 18 homers in only 406 at bats, an increase of 96 percent over his previous career high rate. The next year in 1995, his rate went up another 11 percent after moving out of the worst home run park in baseball in Houston. In the year he said he started on steroids, Caminiti’s rate went up another 49 percent, before dropping back down after. It seems that if the numbers mean anything, 1994 would be the logical place to assume he started taking steroids. If 1994 wasn’t when he started, then obviously other factors besides steroids could explain such an increase in power and therefore the accusations leveled at Bonds and Sosa aren’t fair based on a power increase alone.
But then fairness took the last bus ticket out of town as well. Since the retirement of Albert Belle, Bonds has taken the mantle of "least liked player by sportswriters." Being fair to Barry Bonds is not one of their main objectives, and being fair to the players themselves aren’t real high on their list either.
The seemingly eternal war between the MLB owners and the Players’ Association is not just a background issue here. The players, in their efforts to avoid the fate of being crushed by ownership as the unions of the NFL and NBA had been, decided that the PR war was a war they couldn’t win and so they should direct their efforts elsewhere. The players, already wary of media with direct ties to MLB ownership (The Chicago Tribune, LA Times, Fox Sports, ESPN, The Arizona Republic and countless others all share common ownership with major league franchises), ceded complete control of this stage to the owners and instead focused their efforts on the labor courts where they felt they could win. While the strategy proved effective in the labor war in the last strike, the resulting after-effects were that the players allowed themselves to be portrayed as a group in a most unflattering fashion. How many stories have you read about the "greedy players?" This standard reaction over the last few years has manifested itself here as various scribes level charges against the Players’ Association that it’s stonewalling on the issue of steroids. If it really cared about its players, they argue, it would allow random testing for the "good of the game" and the "welfare of the players." Cleverly, the "greedy players" objective correlative has been used as a base of operations against another anti-players offensive.
Though steroid testing may have direct benefits to the standards of competition for the sport, that doesn’t change the fact that there are a bunch of people whose day at work doesn’t involve pissing in a cup, and yet demanding that another group of people should have to. While as an employee I might agree to such testing under strict guidelines (the issue of "false-positives" is critical here), I sure as hell wouldn’t volunteer for it unless I was promised something significant in return. I would fight hard for a system where the testing was not random but rather used only in cases of previous offenders or credible hard evidence existed that suggested steroid use.
No doubt MLB will use this issue as a club in their negotiations with the MLBPA since it seems to have gained considerable traction in the press. The owners will likely send out one of its field agents-I mean a baseball columnist will write independently about how the "greedy players" don’t care about anything but the almighty buck. There will be more and more accusations that this guy who just hit four homers in a game is on "‘roids," and that guy who just struck out fifteen is on "the juice," and so forth. It’s an issue that the cult of righteous indignation running rampant in baseball coverage can really sink its fangs into. Baseball writers have increasingly dashed to the moral high-ground in an effort to tap into the masses’ willingness to tear down its public figures. Joe Fan now can rest assured that it wasn’t the reason Bonds and others are such good baseball players is not that they are simply more gifted, or worked a million times harder at it than the average person, but rather that he cheated by pumping. Each fan pretends to act disgusted at the substance abuse running rampant from steroids to the tragedy that has become Darryl Strawberry. They long for the days of Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth where their heroes could be assured to have steered clear of such problems.
In the end, no one really knows whether steroid use in the majors is an epidemic (as Ken Caminiti told Sports Illustrated) or simply isolated in a few players (as Caminiti told others after the Sports Illustrated article was printed). Whether some players are using performance enhancing drugs is a serious issue, since it could affect the integrity of competition. However, it should be noted that these substances are used for valid medical reasons and in some instances could be an appropriate course of treatment for a player sustaining certain types of serious injuries. This is not heroin we’re talking about here despite what much of the public hysteria might suggest. It is the responsibility of calm, rational adults to weigh the problems and issues involved with the situation and come up with a well reasoned policy that is acceptable to all parties involved in the industry. Of course all the calm, rational adults all moved out years ago so we’re left with nothing but a barrage of verbiage ranging from speculation to unfounded accusations, while the core problem of trying to find a fair and evenhanded way of dealing with the issue goes unaddressed. "Tailgunner Joe" would be so proud.
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