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Baseball, Steroids, Bonds, and Balco

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The Mitchell Report is on the way. By the time you read this, the report may be out. Undoubtedly it will show that many baseball players used steroids. Most people will be focusing on what we do now? How do we deal with the records (most obviously Barry Bonds' lifetime home run record and season home run record)? Do we strip Barry Bonds of his Most Valuable Player Awards the way Olympic medals are being stripped from track and field athletes? Do we take Pennants and World Series victories from teams if their players turn out to have been juiced?

Such questions will no doubt dominate sports talk radio. But, I believe there are more important questions to think about. I have just two. Should we really care if players used steroids? And if we do care, who is to blame for steroid use?

Baseball purists would drum Bonds and other steroid users out of the game, and the record book, on the grounds that he "cheated" by using steroids. They would at least put an asterisk after their records and names. I have talked to a few baseball writers - the people who vote on the Hall of Fame - who have told me they will never vote to put Bonds in the Hall, just as they voted against Mark McGuire, whose career stats, without the taint of steroids, would have made him a first round shoe-in last year.

But, how exactly did Bonds and these other players "cheat?"

The use of such substances was not banned by baseball when Bonds and the other juiced players started taking them. They may have been illegal, but that is surely not the test of who gets into the Hall of Fame. Every insider in baseball will admit, if pressed, that amphetamines have been rampant in baseball since the end of World War II. Most of the players caught by baseball this year for illegal substances were not busted for steroids, but for speed. We all know that Babe Ruth drank lots of beer during prohibition but no one ever thought that should stop his election to the Hall. Tony LaRussa just pleaded guilty to DUI, and the film of his arrest - with his inability to say the alphabet - is out there on the internet. This is surely embarrassing, but it won't keep him out of the Hall of Fame. Surely there are players in the record books and the Hall of Fame who smoked pot. No one is suggesting we remove the records of the great pitcher Dock Ellis, who in 1970 threw a no hitter while on LSD.

So the problem with Bonds and the other juiced up players can't be that they used an "illegal substance." It must be something else.

First, people think that steroid users are setting a bad example for our children and for younger athletes. They are poor role models. Second, people think these players "cheated" by juicing and thereby enhancing their bodies, which made them better players. Also, of course, they lied to their fans. Bonds and other suspected or admitted steroid users claim they thought they were just taking vitamins. But even the dumbest athlete (and no one has accused Bonds of being dumb) knows that your hat size does not increase from vitamins.

First, the role model issue. Isn't it time to get over the idea that athletes are role models? Too many professional athletes are college drops outs, substance abusers, rude clods, greedy snots who are rude to their fans, and just not very nice people. Nice stars, like Grant Hill or Derek Jeter, stand out because they are so rare. In fact, of course, great athletes have rarely been great role models.

Long before he juiced up Barry Bonds was a poor role model - rude, boorish, and totally hostile to those kids foolish enough to adore him. Next to Michael Vick it is hard to envision a less likeable modern sports hero. But is Bonds worse than the mean spirited, racist, and deeply vicious Ty Cobb? The drunken womanizer Mickey Mantle? The racist Dixie Walker who refused to play with Jackie Robinson? Or the Sultan of Overindulgence, Babe Ruth? Ruth ate to excess, chased women with a "Ruthian" appetite, and guzzled beer during prohibition, when it was illegal to do so. Ironically, Bonds may have used steroids before they were banned by baseball or even before they were illegal.

Now to the hard question: how exactly is it cheating to use science and medicine to enhance you skills and improve your body - especially before Major League Baseball banned steroids? Steroids made Barry Bonds stronger and perhaps gave him an edge in hitting home runs. But, as he points out, all the strength in the world does not enhance your timing or your ability to actually hit the ball. Steroids may have made great pitchers stronger and allowed to extend their careers, but the steroid did not affect control, accuracy, or the genius of knowing what to pitch when.

Steroids may have made players more physically fit, at least in the short run. But does that really taint their records? Does arthroscopic surgery taint the records of modern pitchers? What would Sandy Koufax's record look like if he had been able to get "Tommy John Surgery" on his elbow? Can we compare a modern pitcher, who wins games but never completes them, with the iron men of Walter Johnson's era who pitched till they dropped without modern medicine to repair their bodies or relief pitchers to save their arms?

Consider the great relief pitcher for the Yankees, Ryne Duren. In the 1950s and 1960s he scared batters half-to-death with a screaming fastball while wearing coke-bottle glasses. Everyone in baseball knew he drank way too much, especially before he pitched. Who in their right mind could dig his heels in and wait for the drunken, apparently half-blind speedster to throw at his head? Duren used a controlled substance - good old fashioned booze - to intimidate batters. Doc Ellis always pitched stoned on something. He recently told Sports Illustrated (July 2, 2007) that "the scariest time [in his career] was in 1973 when I tried to pitch completely sober." He couldn't get the ball over the plate as he warmed up, so "I ran to the dougout, got some greenies [amphetamines] and hot coffee, and a few minutes later I knew how to pitch again." Indeed, baseball insiders I have talked to say that the great "drug" issue of the major leagues has been "greenies" and "reds" - speed - that enabled players to make it through the long summer seasons.

Bonds and other players took steroids to be a better athletes and extend their careers. Is this any different than the men and women use plastic surgery, botox, hair dye, and other ploys to appear more youthful so they can hold-on to jobs or win promotions? Are the juice ball players really much different than the Hollywood idols with their face lifts, tummy tucks, or breast implants?

Before the Mitchell Report runs players out of baseball, and keeps Bonds out of the Hall of Fame, we should at least ask why Major League Baseball ignored the issue of steroids for so long, just as it ignored the massive use of "reds" and "greenies."

The business of baseball is entertainment. Owners love Bonds and other juiced players. They fill the stadiums. As he chased one record after another Bonds packed in the fans. He provided the thrills. If MLB really got serious about steroids there would be fewer home runs, shorter careers, and perhaps a lot less money coming into the coffers of Major League Baseball.

Follow the money. In 1992 - the pre-steroid era - total baseball revenue was about $1.2 billion. In 2006 - with steroids on everyone's mind - total revenue was just over $6 billion. (Sports Illustrated, 11/26/2007, p. 27) No wonder the owners and the commissioner turned a blind eye to Barry and the other guys who were bulking up on chemicals. All that bulking up had a very nice affect on the bottom line.

No wonder Bud Selig and his gang of owners ignored steroids for so long. It was good for business to pretend that Barry Bonds grew few a few inches in the 30s, and his hat size increased, because of some exercise routine that made him get taller and his head bigger. Thus, MLB - led (sort of) by a gutless commissioner - did virtually nothing to stop the use of steroids.

Why didn't the Players' Union step in and fight for very strict bans on steroids- to protect the members? This is one of the great mysteries of the Union. Unions are supposed to care about the health and safety of their members. But not the Players Union. The Union followed the money, just like management. The Union somehow forgot it was supposed to represent the best interest of the players. Instead, it just represented the ability of free agents and other players to make more money. In doing this, the Union encouraged players to risk their long-term health for short term, steroid induced gains. The Union encouraged a race to the bottom, not on salary, but on health and safety. There is rumor that Barry Bonds started juicing up because he was trying to keep up with and already juiced up Mark McGuire, who was beginning to look like the Pillsbury Doughboy with a bat. Had the Union taken a strong stand against steroids - even forced the owners to work hard at eliminating the problem - Barry Bonds might be headed for the Hall of Fame untainted by juice. Instead of protecting its members, the Union has fought against strict enforcement of testing for steroids and has been complicitous in harming players and the game.

So, management and labor turned a blind eye to steroids because it was good for business. Every time the ball went out of the park management and the players saw the bottom line increase. No one asked about the long-term health of the players or the game. The "integrity" of the game was about how many home runs were hit and how much the revenue increased. Meanwhile, the fans flocked to the stadiums to see the alleged cheaters knock balls out of the park. No one asked how old timers like Bonds remained strong enough to hit them. The fans wanted entertainment. Juiced up players gave them, quite literally, more bang for their buck.

Baseball is a business - it is the business of entertaining millions of fans by having incredibly gifted and talented young (and increasingly not so young) men do fabulous things with a ball, a glove, and bat. Hitting a round ball with a cylindrical bat seems to defy physics. It is the hardest sport to play and the most interesting to watch. It is a thinking fan's game and at the same time it is the game of the average Joe or Jane. Anyone can play baseball, but almost no one can play it really well. Watching great players - whether juiced or not - is an amazing treat. But for the past decade fans have flocked to see the juiced guys do even more remarkable things.

So, can we really blame it all on Barry Bonds and the other juiced up players? Soon the Mitchell report will doubtless denounce him and others for their steroid use. On December 7 he will face a court hearing for perjury, for allegedly lying to a grand jury when he denied he had used steroids.

I can't say I much like Barry Bonds. Nor do I even respect him. But, I doubt he is any worse a human being that the racist misanthrope Ty Cobb. The recent (and wonderful) biography of Joe DiMaggio (Richard Ben Cramer, Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life) paints a very ugly picture of an arrogant, stingy, greedy, and thoroughly obnoxious human being. Had people really known him he would not have been the pride of any Yankee fan. By comparison, Bonds seems almost nice. The Babe and The Mick were more charming, and more fun, and surely nicer guys. For more than 40 years they thrilled fans. But were they any better role models, as they ate and drank too much and chased far too many women?

I would love to see steroids banned from sports. They are unhealthy and physically dangerous. They are a Faustian bargain - offering immediate success for the price of an athlete's body, if not his or her soul. Worse yet, young kids who have no judgment and only see the glory of a Bonds home run are rushing to use them. In the process they are jeopardizing their health to make the team, get the college scholarship, and maybe make it to the pros. But, nothing in the Mitchell report will go to the larger societal issue of why we invest so much in sports - why national magazines like Sports Illustrated rank high school football and basketball teams and why colleges waste so much money on big time athletics. The Mitchell Report will just focus on professional baseball and a few players like Barry Bonds.

Barry Bonds is hardly the most likeable guy in sports, but he is not the worst sinner either. Nor are the other steroid users. Bonds may no longer be an American hero, and he may ultimately go to jail for his dishonesty. But, is this why as a society we are so worried about Bonds and steroids?

Perhaps our real anxiety is that far too many Americans see too much of themselves in the owners who greedily ignored steroids, in the Union that turned a blind eye to the health and safety of its members, and the players who sacrificed their bodies for a few more years in the big leagues and little bit more glory. In the end Bonds and his juiced up buddies may turn out to be just be a regular Americans trying to get ahead with whatever tools they can find, sadly risking their health for a few more bucks, while their employer and their union tacitly encouraged them to do so, and the public payed to watch it. The real reason we fear or loath Barry Bonds is because we may all be a little too much like him.

Read more news and blog posts on the Mitchell report on steroids in baseball here.