Wednesday, August 5, 2009
(Bill James recently came out entirely on my side in the steroids dispute (1) the impact of steroid use in MLB is overblown (2) in context of the history of baseball, from changes to ball, to park, to segregation, to amphetamine use, it's just without merit to argue that the record book reflected a level playing field that has now been tarnished by the steroid era (3) steroids weren't against the rules of baseball prior to 2003; the 90s memo by Fay Vincent that some now prop up as being evidence to the contrary is an attempt to give the commissioner a power he did not possess and most importantly (4) history will look at us as foolish, that this moralism of classifying steroids as a "bad, evil drug" is temporary, that future generations will not view their use as anathema but as part of an anti-aging regiment.
I've been steadfast on all of these issues for years; life is long, we change our views; the next time a member of the BBWA says "none of these guys is ever going into the Hall of Fame" - just remember that; ARod will still be on the ballot 30 years from now - virtually everyone who currently has a HOF vote will be long gone; our lives will have changed in literally unimaginable ways (for example, until the age of 29 I never owned a computer; I'm not 38 and make half my living as an online college instructor; the next time I read the words I'm writing now will be on my phone - words that will circle around the globe seconds after I finish them; it took George Washington 2 weeks to find out he was President and I think I knew Michael Jackson had died before LaToya did - the idea that our view of steroids in fixed in the American consciousness forever because Mike Lupica says so is small)
Anyway - here's the rest of my old steroids talk)
In a typically unfunny and wrongheaded piece, Rick Reilly called for the MVP Awards won by those caught up in the PED hysteria to be turned over to the "clean" runners-up.
Putting aside that the degree to which the drugs aid performance in a statistically significant way has not been quantified, among the players Reilly chose as his new NL MVPs are Mike Piazza, Albert Pujols, and the player pictured above, Luis Gonzalez.
These are Gonzo's career home run totals for each of his 19 big league seasons:
0, 13, 10, 15, 8, 13, 15, 10, 23, 26, 31, 57, 28, 26, 17, 24, 15, 15, 8.
Should we play "one of these things is not like the other"?
I don't know what Gonzo took and I don't care, but it highlights the silliness of asterisk-mania. Yesterday's "A-Rod will give us a clean home run king!" becomes today's "look at how his lip quivers, that means he's telling a half truth!"
You don't know who took what, and you don't know what impact any of it had.
But yet, still, we are ripping and shredding away at a handful of guys, destroying legacies, threatening liberty. We've gone all Shirley Jackson, seemingly randomly choosing to destroy Player Y while leaving Player X intact. Barry Bonds goes to jail - Jason Giambi gets moustache day at Yankee Stadium.
It's foolish when placed in any kind of context.
In a baseball context, you have NL umpire Tim McClellan from Monday's Dan Partrick Radio Show saying somewhat bravely that he doesn't care at all about what anyone took prior to the drug testing policy in 2004.
McClellan's argument wasn't complicated. PED use wasn't against the rules prior to 2004 (and no, memos from commissioners didn't make it so, the office didn't have that unilateral ability - nor, of course, were the memos serious - there was never an attempt to enforce any type of PED policy, too much money rained down upon the owners for that to happen) and there has always been a boatload of actual breaking of the baseball rules, doctoring bats, balls, diamonds has always been part and parcel of our national pastime. Gaylord Perry's a confessed career long cheater; with full knowledge of that, the BBWA put him in the HOF. Whitey Ford cheated with winks and smiles, but his manipulation of the ball is legendary.
Patrick's response was typical, effectively saying: Can you really compare corking a bat to taking steroids?
Why not? Why no congressional hearings, meetings with the commissioner, years of outrage from sports pundits? When will Mike Lupica call Whitey Ford a disgrace? Isn't cheating cheating?
Patrick's additional response was, of course, that even if PEDs weren't against the rules, they were against the law - and that matters!
Know what else is illegal? Gambling. Is there a baseball clubhouse where illegal gambling doesn't occur constantly? Card games. NCAA pools. Golf. Constant violations of the law.
Where is the outrage?
I read Ball Four just like everyone else; I can never recall being a sports fan and not knowing that ballplayers gobbled speed like candy. Baseball players took illegal drugs to gain an advantage. They did it in the 80s, the 70s, the 60s and the 50s.
John Perricone, who has consistently and thoroughly been right about steroid use, recently unearthed a Sports Illustrated piece from 40 years ago in which the entire 1960s sports landscape was said to be awash in steroids.
Is there any debate about this? Taking drugs without prescriptions have always been part of baseball culture. And that's putting aside the gallons of cortisone athletes have pumped into their bodies their entire lives. Kirk Gibson gets shot up to hit a home run and he's a hero, Alex Rodriguez gets shot up to hit a home run and he loses his reputation.
How will the future regard this current hystorical period?
There's a book by Ray Kurzweil, called The Singularity is Near, the thesis of which is that by 2045, people will have merged with machines in ways that will effectively mean the end of the biological human being. The idea that when Alex Rodriguez retires ten years from now and then is first eligible for the HOF five years after that we'll still be consumed by what type of ointment he used in 2002 doesn't really seem worthy of serious discussion.
We've had a bad decade, you and me. There was a C-Span poll of American historians last week ranking each of the 43 US Presidents. I tend to distrust rankings like that, viewing American Presidents much like I view baseball managers - largely as fungible figureheads. The Phillies won the World Series in 2008 and Charlie Manuel was "in charge" but he deserves as much credit as McKinley does for "winning" the Spanish-American War. You can take the guy sitting in the dugout, I want Cole Hamels charging up San Juan Hill.
But there are exceptions. Malcolm Gladwell's new book Outliers discusses the commonalities of exceptionally successful people; I tend not to view the world this way; I see as outliers the people who are truly, painfully destructive - so painfully bad at their jobs that they cause incalculable harm. I didn't vote for Barack Obama because I thought he would bring hope to the hopeless - I voted for Barack Obama because George Bush spent 8 years destroying the ballclub. I don't need Obama to be Earl Weaver; I need him to stop giving Neffi Perez 450 plate appearances.
In two decades, historians may analyze the first decade of this millennium as the one from which the US couldn't recover. The economy never comes back, the engendered international hatred blows back time and time again - and the environmental collapse leads to conversations like "Remember when we had running water all 7 days a week? We were like Aqua Emperors! Now sacrifice the rabbit to Poseidon and pray we are allowed to bathe this week."
The American Empire was collapsing, will go the thesis of book upon book in 2030- and the media was consumed with Alex Rodriguez taking a variant of a drug that we now put in pre-natal vitamins. Instead of hearings about subprime lending and torture we hauled Rafael Palmeiro to Capital Hill. Alberto Gonzalez and Karl Rove got to walk free and Roger Clemens was a grand jury target. Dick Cheney, who hasn't left the US since 2010 for fear of being captured and hauled to the Hague for his much deserved war crimes trial lies in his hyperbaric chamber but Barry Bonds's trainer's mother in law had her house stormed by fifty-five federal agents.
We'll be owned by the Chinese. But at least Luis Gonzalez will have his MVP Award.
Slowly but surely, people outside of the traditional sports media, people less invested in institutionalism, are questioning the establishment view of the Bonds case. The sports media for years - for years - have treated Barry Bonds in a mocking, sneering way - the level of invective hurled at him for the better part of this decade has surpassed any for similarly positioned athletes. While NFL players who failed PED tests like Shawn Merriman and Rodney Harrison worked as network analysts last season, while NFL players like Ray Lewis and Leonard Little, implicated in actually serious crimes performed on the field week after week, while Kobe Bryant has been able to return to the life he had before Colorado - the sports media and an arm of the US Government has made it a mission to destroy Barry Bonds. Victor Conte got 6 months, but Greg Anderson did 12.
This is Jonathan Littman's article in Playboy entitled The Persecution of Barry Bonds; you'll read phrases like perjury trap and repeal of the 4th Amendment.
Many of us have recognized that the last decade has involved unchecked federal government power designed to suppress dissent, to attack those who would question it; and that government power relied on a compliant media, whose silence or overt support helped lead to as disasterous a decade as has occurred in our lifetimes.
Sports is not immune from this. The Jim Calhoun episode from last week is an excellent example.
Calhoun was asked at a press conference if, as the highest paid government official in the state of Connecticut, he'd join the Governor in giving up a fraction of his salary to help offset the billion dollar budget shortfall in that state.
To me, the story wasn't so much that Calhoun scoffed - screamed - told the reporter he was a clown and to shut up - to me, the story was the reaction of the sports media.
Reporters uncritically accepted Calhoun's line that he was beyond criticism given the 12 million dollars taken in by the UConn basketball program.
Beyond that Calhoun was wrong, UConn took in 7 million last year and spent 6 - Calhoun's implicitly taking credit for that money earned, despite never (far as I know) hitting a single jump shot.
But the sports media, having created this coach worship culture - where we are taught to lap up whatever pearls drip from the mouths of these great leaders of men - didn't make that distinction. Moreover, the question as to where that 12 million (actually one million) goes wasn't asked - it's not the science lab that gets that money, it's the UConn basketball program. Big time college sports is hermetically sealed - the success of a basketball program doesn't translate to success anywhere else on the campus - which is why at schools like UConn all across the country Universities are in the midst of hiring freezes and layoffs. I've previously written about the intense difficulties, really unprecedented difficulties, that PhDs are having in the professorship job market. This is a time when everyone employed by Universities - everyone employed at any level by state governments - are faced with salary cuts at the very least.
But if you ask the highest paid government official in Connecticut about his own salary - he'll tell you to shut up and do it to the full support of the media.
Sure, Calhoun's tone might have gotten him a tsk, tsk (not from Greg Gumble, however, he was just fine with the coach bully boy tone) but it was the identity of the questioner that was most slammed by the sports media - he was immediately marginalized as not a mainstream journalist - he wasn't from a real newspaper - he was a provocateur - he was a leftist, after all - he was once arrested for taking photographs at a parade!
In a different generation, we'd call him a muckraker, doing the job that the mainstream media used to do.
He gets bullied, he gets arrested, because we allow it. Because we have so little questioning of power in this country that any that occurs strikes us as offensive. And that's what most interested me - what most interested me was that the sports media spoke in one voice to rip the journalist for asking the question in the forum...a press conference...where he chose to ask the question.
'Cause why would anyone ask a serious question at a press conference? Craziness.
Talk about offensive rebounds. Like we do. Ignore the broader social issues. Don't you know there's an accepted narrative - a right way to think about everything?
Barry Bonds is a cheater and liar and doesn't deserve the home run record. The "story" isn't the San Francisco Giants building a stadium on his back and then throwing every trace of him out of it - the story isn't MLB growing at an unprecedented rate and then declaring those who caused it to grow weren't ethically sufficient to go to the HOF - the story isn't Babe Ruth hitting home runs off entirely white pitchers - and then Hank Aaron hitting home runs in a tiny ballpark in an era where bowls of amphetamines were placed in open view in clubhouses - the story isn't the US government, at a time when there are no hearings for torture, 2 unwinnable wars, environmental catastrophe and a complete collapse of the American economy spending 55 million dollars to chase Barry Bonds for 6 years -- the only story you're allowed to tell, over and over and over again, is how Barry Bonds cheated baseball.
I love me a daily newspaper. But if some of the "journalists" who have sucked up to power wind up without jobs, there's positive outcome of the collapse of that industry.
Edit: Here's 91 year old Marvin Miller - more right than anyone in the sports media about the persecution of Bonds - and the attempt at union busting in which the sports media has been complicit. If you aren't registered it may be behind the firewall.
It really has been remarkable - dial back a handful of years and all you heard from the sports media is that the union was at fault for being too stringent about drug testing - too much in opposition to management. And now, after the 2003 test results somehow escape - the union is blamed for being too compliant - not standing up and fighting to get the results destroyed. I actually saw Costas make both points in the same breath on the MLB Network the day the ARod story broke. The Union is simultaneously too rigid and too compliant for the sports media - because, of course, it's really organized labor that's to blame for the media - as we watch the wealthy loot this country into oblivion.