SportsProf

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Thursday, August 11, 2005

Taking the Fifth

Rafael Palmeiro won't talk about his steroid suspension. His agent, Arn Tellem, who is also the agent for Jason Giambi, has apparently advised him not to. Instead of soaking up the seventh-inning stretch, Palmeiro will be taking the Fifth.

Greta Garbo said "I want to be alone." Hall of Famer hurler Steve Carlton declined to talk to the press after the Philadelphia media was critical of him for a bad 1973 season (that followed an all-galaxy 1972 season). Those two had their reasons, as I'm sure both thought to a certain extent that talking to the media would invite an uwanted infringement on their privacy. Palmeiro's case, of course, is totally different.

We all wondered what Carlton would have said during his wonderful career (as it turned out, he was rather wise not to talk to the media during his career if his later-in-life statements about various current events are any indication of what he might have said while playing). His pitching did his talking, and, boy, he threw a slider that turned sluggers like Dave Parker into fan dancers. There was eloquence in Carlton's silence, and while that ticked off the Philadelphia media, the fans actually didn't care that much.

There is eloquence in Palmeiro's silence too, as there is eloquence in the various media types who have spoken out on this affair -- and in those who have not. Hall of Fame second baseman (and ESPN commentator) Joe Morgan has blasted baseball and Palmeiro, one-time Cub 1B and current Diamondbacks broadcaster Mark Grace and former Mississippi State teammate and SF Giants first baseman Will Clark have weighed in as well. As has SI columnist Rick Reilly, who, as I have done many times before, blasted the mainstream baseball media about taking a powder on steroids and Palmeiro (Reilly went so far as to call out espn.com's Jayson Stark by name, ridiculing Stark's commentary that he'd still vote for Palmeiro on the first ballot; Reilly did so in this week's SI, which is only available to subscribers at this point, or else I'd link to it).

Even if Palmeiro doesn't say a word about his problems, you can guarantee it that fans everywhere will fill in the silence.

As they should.

Loudly.

Meanwhile, the mainstream baseball writers have to figure out what to do on this point. When I see them on television or hear them on radio, they sound very uncomfortable when the topic of steroids comes up and look like Senator (and future Vice President) Dan Quayle did in his debate against Lloyd Bentsen in 1988 (for those too young to remember, deer look more relaxed in headlights). Some writers say that they're not cops, that steroids weren't illegal in baseball (even if they were illegal in the United States, which oddly doesn't seem to matter to them), so they'll still vote Palmeiro on the first-ballot of Hall of Fame voting. Others take a different tactic, demanding clear and convincing evidence that someone was a user before casting aspersions on their career achievements. Those writers go so far, as do some others, as accusing those who cast doubt on the integrity of baseball achievements as cynics precisely because they don't have that kind of proof.

I believe that writers like Reilly and Mark Bechtel of SI.com and the rest of us for that matter have every write to have our doubts. First, there's the BALCO case. Second, there is Mark McGwire's testimony and Jose Canseco's admission, as well as intrigue around Sammy Sosa, Gary Sheffield and Jason Giambi, not to mention Barry Bonds. And now there's Palmeiro. Third, if baseball had no significant steroid problem, then why did the most successful and aggressive union in the history of the United States, the MLBPA, agree to a stiff steroids policy? This is a union that will go to war over a sentence in a contract, let alone a controlled substance.

Where are the others? Will they be content to cover the games on the field only, or are they willing to cover the entire game. I didn't like the Max Mercy character in "The Natural," but one thing he said made some sense. Players might come and go, Mercy said, "but I'm here to protect this game." The purpose of a free press generally in a democracy is to keep government honest. The purpose of the baseball press should be not to cheerlead for the home team, but to keep the integrity of the game intact. The press has not spared Commissioner Bud Selig or players' union honchos Donald Fehr or Gene Orza on general labor issues or Selig on the All-Star Game fiasco of a few years ago and a whole host of issues. So why the silence here?

Are they going to step up and protect the game in its entirety, or are they going to continue taking their own version of the Fifth?

In reading Eight Men Out, we learned that most of the media covering the 1919 Chicago White Sox failed to see that the team threw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. A few sportswriters, including the legendary Ring Lardner (as well as Hall of Famer pitcher, Christy Mathewson, who smelled a rat while covering certain games in the press box) fulfilled their duty and spoke out on what they had heard and saw. Many did not. History views Lardner with reverence; the others' reputations are found in the scrap heap of baseball history.

How will history view some of the biggest names among baseball writers today? And what will they tell their kids about journalistic duties and ethics? What will they tell their kids about taking a stand?

No one's saying that the whole scandal isn't ugly and that it doesn't present baseball writers with some tough choices. It absolutely does.

But, then again, that's their job.

Covering the entire game, from the foundation to the window treatments.

And not just the facade.

Because if they do just that and nothing more, then they're participants in a farce.

And that's clearly not their job.

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