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Thursday, December 02, 2004

Baseball's Ugly Problem

I've meant to blog on this topic for a while, but the news of Jason Giambi's experiments in pharmacology have put this topic on the front burner for me again.

Steroids. Human Growth Hormone. The fact that the Major League baseball players have the best (and most aggressive) union in the world. The fact that this story begged to be told for so long. Yes, that's right, it begged to be told, and, quite frankly, the baseball media took a powder on it.

Oh, sure, they reported that steroids could be a problem, but that's all they really did. They saw players' body shapes change and head sizes grow, they saw the massive acne on backs, hair loss and scars on butts from where players injected the juice -- and they wrote precious little about it. I recall Curt Schilling's being quoted as saying that he once slapped a teammate on the butt in the locker room and either got stared or yelled at because he really had hit a sore spot. I recall several writers' writing that they had a dilemma -- be true to journalism and write the obvious story, or be true to your career and don't, because, if you did, you'd lose access to the teams and the players. They just wouldn't talk to you.

Or worse. They could hit you. With a bat. Or have someone from their entourage do so. And, the writer (or writers) then would have been wondering why, instead of being rewarded with a Pulitzer for uncovering a bad scandal, they got put on night court coverage, perhaps at a remote suburban bureau. Break the story, hit it hard, and break your sportswriting career.

Except, of course, when the news/evidence hits you in the face and you cannot avoid it. Which is now, because of the news as to what Jason Giambi testified to. And this news raises a bunch of questions, as follows:

1. Will the MSM put sportswriters on the story or real investigative reporters on the story? I hope they put the latter, because the former are conflicted, might be too close to the situation (which could create ethical problems), and are not skilled in writing the investigative piece. This is front-page news, and it's worthy of front-page reporters.

2. How will Major League Baseball's spin machine go into overdrive here? This could be the one case where the owners and players lock arms, sing "Solidarity Forever" and try to close ranks and bury the story as a family issue that needs no outside intervention. The owners will say the right things publicly (that they have a policy, that the policy will work, that this is really an overblown problem), but if you're an owner with one star and he's suspected of being on the juice, you're not going to shoot yourself or your team in the foot because it's not in your economic interests to do so. Forget about setting an example for the kids (and, really, the heck with them, because they're too busy playing soccer anyway). Go into damage control immediately, even if it means taking a weak moral stance.

3. As for the union, well, they'll fulfill their duty and defend the players to the max, which is what you would expect, and it's too hard to be critical of that stance. That said, if the union is too strident on an issue like this, it will get steamrolled, because there are winds of change in the air. Memo to Donald Fehr: embrace the change and champion them, stick up for the majority of players who do things the right way, and you and your union will come out smelling like a rose. If you do not, I think that the product on which your clients so richly depend -- the sport itself -- could suffer worse than it did after the 1994 strike. Know your membership -- there are boatloads of players who are royally pissed that they lost money because their stats paled in comparison to some juiced-up opponent or teammate. What about their interests? Who speaks for them? Memo to Donald Fehr: you do.

And this time, memories will be longer.

One thing is for sure: this story will get hotter and will linger over Major League Baseball for many months to come. Forget the nice story about the Boston Red Sox, forget the hot-stove talk about which free agent will go where, forget the story about how the Yankees are an organizational mess with a bad farm system and some (really) bad contracts, forget all of that.

For now, the story is steroids, and the entire sporting world is watching.

And let's hope that when facing the really fat pitch (the really juicy story), the mainstream sports media doesn't fan this time.

It's time for the baseball writers to hit in the clutch.


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