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Saturday, February 12, 2005

Say It Ain't So, Jose

At least that's what the Lords of Baseball, the current players and the current baseball media must be thinking.

My guess is that after Major League Baseball promulgated its ban on steroids and its testing for their use, most involved in baseball thought that all of the ugly baggage of the BALCO case (and any other past whispering) would be dispensed with. After all, they admitted they had a problem, they dealt with it (although many thought they dealt with it less than robustly) and it was time to move on. Attendance was great last year, the Red Sox of all teams won the World Series, and they handled the problem the way the average fan would handle a case of the hiccups. Call it closing ranks, call it hiding in plain view.

Seemed like a good plan, I am sure, for all of those involved. And that includes the mainstream sports media, who isn't the check and balance on the sports establishment the way, say, the front-page writers are on government and the politicians who run it. Why is that? Probably because many writers are at least secret fans of the teams they cover (after all, it's more fun to cover a winning team than a team that will lose 100 games, although it probably takes more talent to cover the latter than the former), and probably because outside of the daily sports pages the networks who cover the sport have a major conflict of interest that has many facets. First, some of them televise games, so it's against their best interests, in terms of selling ads, to expose a scandal and report it in detail. Second, some of those whom the networks employed are in what I will now call baseball's orbit. They are former players and managers who have friendships with those whom they are covering and, perhaps, who themselves want to be employed within organized baseball again -- in the front office or in the dugout. As a result, the easier road is to close ranks with your former teammates, friends and potential employers, as opposed to expose the Michelin-man aspects of some former and current players and their numbers. Sure, there's objectivity as to managerial moves, player moves and on-field decisions, but not about the larger issues that face the game.

But like the kid who was incredulous when he heard that of all people Shoeless Joe Jackson had something to do with the 1919 Black Sox scandal, the fans are incredulous that Major League Baseball and the writers who cover it (some of whom they very much respect) have been more than content to cover it up instead of cover it. No, I am not suggesting that they know of bad things and have worked with teams not to print them. Rather, I am suggesting that they conveniently turned a blind eye to a huge story.

I have posted on this topic before, here, here, here, here and here, and now I want to explore some new theories at my surprise and disappointing at the mainstream sports media. I mean, how many times have you had to listen to sports talk radio and hear the hosts challenge callers about the alleged steroid use of various players (Mike and the Mad Dog on WFAN in New York, for example, grilled/pile drove at least one caller over the summer because he actually hadn't seen Barry Bonds take any controlled substances) and ignore the point totally. True, if a caller hadn't seen the usage, that's one thing, but can't the radio hosts and writers at least speculate as to the difference in size between Bonds when he was a Pirate and the Bonds who is a Giant? How does that happen? It's a fair question to ask, and it's not libelous in the least.

Where were the questions about one-time average hitters suddenly becoming power hitters? Hitting 50 home runs in a season? About physiques markedly changing?

Therein lies the problem with the mainstream sports media. To whom are they accountable? To which audience are they playing? Are the ESPN commentators playing for ratings? Are they being constructively critical? Are they asking the really hard questions?

I mean, how can you miss that some of the players had bodies like the guys in the WWE, which had a steroids scandal of its own? How could you miss that players' numbers increased dramatically and only chalk it up to diluted pitching because of expansion and smaller ballparks? After all, last time I checked teams almost required pitchers who could throw in the 90's, whereas in the 70's and 80's it was okay to have guys who threw even in the 70's. And the last time I checked, it was harder to hit guys who throw in the 90's than guys who throw in the 70's, even if the latter group had Bruce Hurst as a member and now has Jamie Moyer as one.

Worst of all is the disrespect those whose numbers didn't increase with the times got and those who played in eras before the smaller parks and all-too-probable steroid use. And isn't it ironic as all getout that now everyone is denying that he used steroids. After all, why did Major League Baseball enact the policy in the first place if the owners and many players think that using the juice was a problem? Just to deal with the BALCO guys? Just for a handful of guys?

Here's a tip to all baseball fans out there -- give yourselves a lot of credit and never, ever let a baseball writer or radio show host patronize you again on what you do or do not know about the game of baseball. Ever. You know about pitch counts, you know about platooning, you know about who can cover what ground and you know which guys have natural power and look like Henry Aaron and Willie Mays and which guys look more buffed than Ted Kluszewski (who was the biggest guy in his day) and have bottle-bought power the same way a supermodel has a bottle-bought coiffure. Which means that when you were kids you learned well the lesson from "The Emperor's New Clothes," a lesson which apparently was lost on the mainstream baseball media.

After all, the logic problem presented is fairly simple -- why does a policy get enacted? It gets enacted because there is behavior that management wants to change. Most of America puts up stop signs after accidents happen and usually doesn't have the foresight to put them up when they sense future train wrecks. Is baseball different? I don't think so in this case. The policy was enacted because there was a problem. Which means, of course, that more than a handful of players were getting their newly found power from problematic sources (to say the least).

It is dangerous to paint with a broad brush, so I don't want to say that every reporter and commentator missed the story (but most of them did) or every player is juicing (there are obviously many who are not and did not), but there was enough stuff going on that the story should have been covered. Kudos, at least, to those players who strong-armed their union management into doing the right thing. That decision took some guts.

As will digging hard and doing an analysis of players whose physiques changed markedly over the years as their power numbers did. And that should happen, if for no other reason than to re-legitimize the numbers that earnest players put up without any artificial help.

The baseball fan base -- and the integrity of the game -- deserve nothing less.

P.S. If the mainstream baseball media doesn't do it, I'm sure that the sabremetricians will. So go to it, guys, and show us the discrepancies.


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