What's the moral of Mark McGwire's decade-late, half-baked steroids confession? White sluggers who juice get jobs, black all-time home run kings get indicted and run out of the game.
The larger storyline in Major League Baseball's long running freak show has been largely ignored.
Mark McGwire, the former home run monster with the Oakland A's and later the St. Louis Cardinals, boasting Popeye-sized arms and eye-popping homers, has gotten a very different ride by baseball officials, the government and the media than his erstwhile San Francisco Giants neighbor, Barry Bonds.
It's a black and white issue.
McGwire's steroid-jacked and record-breaking 1998 home run bash is widely believed to have been a public service drug announcement for professional ballplayers and youths everywhere that Barry Bonds could hardly ignore.
But let's compare the treatment both men received. During McGwire's astonishing 1998 home run chase with Sammy Sosa, a reporter spied a bottle of a steroid precursor in McGwire's locker.
Here's what we know. Jeff Novitzky, the intrepid BALCO investigator, did not go rooting through McGwire's trash looking for syringes. No federal grand jury was convened. Commissioner Bud Selig did not order an investigation. The media? McGwire continued to be treated as a national hero. Not a single reporter or newspaper bothered to follow up and ferret out what was staring us all in the face -- Mark McGwire was clearly taking steroids.
Fast-forward a few years, to 2002. Jeff Novitzky started telling Iran White, an undercover drug investigator, that he thought Barry Bonds was on the juice. Agent Novitzky began rooting through BALCO's trash, and with the help of ambitious San Francisco prosecutors, led a several year, 50 million dollar steroids investigation.
Roughly three-dozen athletes were called before the grand jury. Several black athletes and a black coach were indicted. An obscure white female cyclist was convicted. Meanwhile, famous white athletes, Jason Giambi of the Yankees, former 49er, Bill Romanowski, and others, were not charged.
Barry Bonds, of course, was the central target. Indicted on perjury charges, he's been in and out of court the past two years, though weak-kneed prosecutors have already punted on one opportunity to go to trial. Reports have alleged that two or more Major League owners colluded in keeping Bonds from playing the past few years, conduct that if proven sounds like a crime.
But Bonds is now 45 -- and officially retired.
Fans might say he deserves his fate. But it's hard not to see the role that color plays here. Everyone knew McGwire was on the juice, and nobody, not the league, not reporters, and not Agent Jeff Novitzky, saw a reason to launch an investigation. This week, legendary Chicago Cubs manager, Lou Piniella said McGwire deserves to be voted into baseball's hall of fame, saying, "I don't think there is anybody out there that hasn't done something that they don't feel sorry for. America forgives and forgets."
Barry Bonds' success - and predicament - has earned a radically different reaction. We can tell ourselves all we want that he's getting what he deserved, but the scorecard tells it all:
Hire McGwire, Bury Bonds.
Jonathan Littman is the co-author of the new book I HATE PEOPLE! (Little, Brown and Company; June 2009) with Marc Hershon. A Contributing Editor at Playboy, Jonathan is the co-author of the best selling Art of Innovation.