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Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Closing of the Ranks

The steroid story of the day is a report that an FBI agent warned Major League Baseball ten years ago that players were using steroids.

Major League Baseball's response: it never happened.

So now we're watching an amazing phenomenon. The organization that insisted upon a steroid-testing policy isn't willing to admit that it made any mistakes or acknowledge that any individual used the stuff. So, once again, I'll ask the question: why do you need a policy if no one used the stuff?

Of course people did, but the folks who run MLB are embarrassed at this whole scandal and they're closing ranks to protect their investment. Call it it spinning, call it spin-doctoring, they're doing it. (They're also a little late with their policy, but expect to see the fine print soon). Rumor has it that they're calling J.K. Rowling to see if she can write some magic into the script and hope that the headmaster, Bud Selig, can wave a bat and make the whole mess go away.

It's one thing to dispute what Jose Canseco says, but the FBI too? And what will happen when some player comes forward, a player with a conscience, someone who people genuinely like, and spills the beans, names names. What will Major League Baseball and the players' union do then? Shun the guy, or give him an award? Or will this turn out to be like a Mystery Book Club Thriller, where potential confessors and transgressors start to disappear one by one? Who will write the final chapter on this -- the heretofore fawning (or fanning) national baseball media, or John Grisham?

To be clear on the point, I want Major League Baseball to put this who ugly chapter behind it as quickly as possible. I don't want to fry the players who cheated, I just want to make sure that those who did not get their due (and that history isn't kind to those who got their power out of a bottle). I don't really want to hash out what might have happened in great detail, but I also don't want to condone the hypocrisy that was the ostrich-like treatment this subject was given while it was going on and the public denials that are taking place now.

I want to watch baseball games with my son, who I took to his first game this past August. I want to talk with him about the nuances of the game, about how sometimes the second basemen and shortstop communicate as to what pitch will be thrown, about how to hit the cutoff man and about how a fleet outfielder takes the extra base. I don't want to have to explain to him why certain players look like professional wrestlers (the same way that parents didn't want to have to explain to their kids what Bill Clinton was doing with Monica Lewinsky). Thankfully, I probably won't have to do that, but some parents, whose kids are older, will be hard pressed to explain why once favorite players seemingly have shrunk and aren't hitting the ball with the power they once did.

Baseball is the national pastime, still. It's a game where you can have a conversation with an old friend while watching it and eating peanuts. It's a game that still fits into the line of "baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet." It's about your grandfather's Dodgers when they were in Brooklyn, about how old you were when the Amazin' Mets were doing their thing, about where you watched Bill Buckner muff the grounder that cost the Red Sox the '86 World Series. It's about watching Steve Carlton pitch as a kid and wondering how he got his concentration, and it's about memories of lithe outfielders named Mays and Aaron hitting prodigious shots. It's about watching a game on a warm summer's day, eating ice cream with your family.

And it needs to get back to that. Fast.

But not without having learned some tough lessons about conduct that took place during the past ten or so years.

To the credit of those involved, the teams and players have taken a decent (if not iron-clad) first step toward solving the steroids issue. (They haven't tackled amphetamines, but they'll get there one day, I suppose). To their detriment, the closing-of-the-ranks strategy is undoing some of the good will that they engendered by agreeing upon the policy in the first place.

Let's hope that all of the vetting gets done quickly and efficiently, so that all fans can focus on legitimate accomplishments and end up rooting for people who are not pharmacologically enabled beyond all reason.

Our country's best institutions always don't enjoy smooth sailing. They go through rough patches, and their measure is taken not by how they do during the glory days, but how they handle their adversity. Glossing over problems without a reckoning that demonstrates integrity only prolongs the agony. Standing up and addressing problems head on could well be tough medicine for Major League Baseball, but in the end it's medicine worth taking. In the long run, the game will be better off.

It's hard to say what that medicine is or how long it will take to work, or, even, in what form it will come, but whoever is dispensing it has begun to medicate the patient. If the powers who run Major League Baseball and the players' union are intellectually honest about the entire situation, they'll realize that ducking is best done on the field, not off it.


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