I am like a lot of fans of baseball in being sick, sick, sick of hearing about steroids and unlike most fans in having played a role myself in helping put the topic of steroids and baseball front and center in the national psyche.
I am the guy who ghost-wrote Juiced for Jose Canseco (as he confirmed to the New Yorker long ago in a highly entertaining Talk by Ben McGrath). That book, a Times No. 1 best-seller, was attacked at first for being filled with nothing but lies, but now seems to be widely credited with having been on target with all its major contentions. But long before I worked with Canseco on that project, I had been hammering away on the topic of steroids and baseball.
In August 2000 I published a piece in the Sunday New York Times arguing "Baseball Must Come Clean on Its Darkest Secret," and high up wrote flat out "Mark McGwire has used steroids." That same year I reported from Berlin for the New Republic on the legacy of the ghastly East German experiments in steroids, going with the lead "Andreas Krieger could have testified without words," and described the former East German shot putter Heidi Krieger clomping into the courtroom in cowboy boots, because the massive doses of steroids given to her "accelerated" any transsexual tendencies she might have had and she thought she might as well finish the job. That was how she put it.
My point in dredging up this background is simply to illustrate that I am used to being out of step with the times when it comes to steroids. Sportswriters in general -- and I have ripped myself for being slow to step up to the plate on this -- were part of the problem, hiding behind what I once referred to on CNN in this context as "epistemological dodges" on the question of what they "knew" about players and steroids and what they did not know.
Here was the exchange with Howard Kurtz in December 2004:
KETTMANN: I think it is important to remember that the strike of 1994 and the canceled World Series left everyone in baseball, including sportswriters, wondering about whether the game had much of a future. There was a lot of talk of football taking over, or basketball taking over. So when Sosa and McGwire pumped up so obviously -- everyone knew what was going on, but there was a feeling that almost like if you criticize the war you're being unpatriotic, that if you criticize steroid use you are attacking the game itself at a time when it was weak. So I think that explains the silence of the media at that point.
KURTZ: That's a pretty troubling indictment. You say everyone knew what was going on, but they didn't want to be seen as unpatriotic in an athletic sense. That's really quite stunning.
KETTMANN: That's my belief, but I guess it comes down to what know means, because know -- you can always hide behind legalisms or epistemological dodges, but the fact is they knew. They knew that these guys, especially little second basemen who had never hit more than 12 home runs all of the sudden pow, pow, pow, hitting 35 or 32 in a season. They knew what was producing this result."
Now there seems to be wide consensus that all the steroid users, every last one of them, need to be barred from the Hall of Fame as a way to try to move forward and try to forget the shame and ignominy of the Steroid Era. So it's now taken as a given that Manny Ramirez, smiling even now as he makes a spectacularly clownish departure from the game, and Barry Bonds, awaiting a verdict in California that may come any hour now, or at least any day, have as much chance of ending up in the Hall of Fame as, well, you do -- or I do -- or Matt Damon.
That may be true. But I have a question: Doesn't this new consensus on the need to condemn these tainted players suggest that we are through this era, that it is over and behind us, and that with the Bonds trial all the big questions have been asked, been confronted and answered, as best we could? I think that is the clear implication. And I think clearly it is a mistake to imagine such is the case.
How is it possible to have the Justice Department pumping tons of money (cue up appropriate reference to the meat hacked out of the federal budget in that sad, sordid deal cut in Washington) to explore the truth of Barry Bonds' lying and steroid using, all with shockingly little real scrutiny of the single person more responsible than any other for giving us the Steroid Era in baseball: That of course would be Bud Selig.
Put simply: The summer of '98, the obviously-steroid-fueled slugfest between McGwire and Sammy Sosa in pursuit of the Roger Maris single-season mark, would never have happened the way it did without Selig's knowledge and tacit assent. At least from the perspective of the owners, baseball needed (ahem) the shot in the arm, or should I say the shot in the rear end.
Former Mets GM Steve Phillips was understandably ripped for recently saying "Thank God for steroids," but the reason it was considered a gaffe when he added "It brought the game back from extinction" was that -- in the classic Michael Kinsley formulation -- he was telling the truth -- the "truth" as the owners see it, though maybe for true fans of the quiet beauty of the game, it would have been just fine if the whole "national pastime" thing was ditched and the game scaled down -- financially and otherwise -- instead of bulking up.
Regardless, the owners got just what they wanted: Business has boomed on Selig's watch and to a large extent it was all made possible by steroids -- so he remains at the top of the game, celebrated for its success, and has gone largely uncriticized in the national media, let alone branded -- a fair sobriquet, if you ask me -- the Steroid Commissioner.
I don't even know what I think about Bonds and the Hall. I was very proud to be a card-holding member of the Baseball Writers Association of America during my years as an Oakland A's beat writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, but I left that job before I reached ten years -- which would have given me a Hall vote. I don't have one.
What I do know is: This story is not over. Selig proclaimed in January 2010, following McGwire's way-too-little, way-too-late acknowledgment that he was a juicer, "The so-called steroid era -- a reference that is resented by the many players who played in that era and never touched the substances -- is clearly a thing of the past, and Mark's admission today is another step in the right direction."
A thing of the past? Not so fast, Mr. Steroid Commissioner. More than a year later, we have Manny Ramirez -- a better hitter than McGwire -- showing that we remain in the Steroid Era. Before we have closure, and can sort out how history will judge this era -- and Barry Bonds -- we need for the buck to stop with the man who has had more power over baseball than any other.
There will always be cheating in the game, as there always has been, and there will always be fall guys for that cheating, who are punished when rich men behind the scenes dance away from blame. Bonds used steroids, but he's really on trial for being stupid -- and he may be found guilty of a charge or two. I still say that when the wash comes out, when we look back on all this years later, it will all look much different than it does now -- and that one way or another, maybe after he's dead and gone, or at least enfeebled and incapable of taking any pleasure in the news, Barry Bonds will be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
That's my prediction and in making it, I am probably ticking off some of my best friends, who happen to be among the best reporters in sports journalism, who have been out on the front lines of the Barry Bonds story for years now. But more important: What do you think? Should Barry Bonds and the others in this particular group of cheaters be in the Hall? Should Bud Selig be held more accountable? And what about the Hall of Fame itself? Do there need to be changes in how we think of who belongs there, and how we vote for its occupants? Weigh in down below.