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Sunday, March 12, 2006

The Writers Should Do the Same, Buster

Buster Olney wrote a compelling piece on March 9 for ESPN's "The Insider" about how Bud Selig and Donald Fehr should handle the lastet in Major League Baseball's sordid steroids affair. Basically, Olney opines that they should do a massive mea culpa, say they all blew it and then move on. The words "we apologize" or "we ask for your forgiveness" aren't included in the proposed message that Olney suggests both Selig and Fehr make. While Olney's proposed statements are rather broad, the inclusion of those words would go a long way to begin the healing of a fan base that while still loyal to its teams, feels stung by the deception that has gone on for years.

An investigation at this point could would baseball to its core, precisely because any investigator hired would insist upon turning over whatever rocks he locates until he is satisfied that the trail stops cold. That's an investigation that Major League Baseball cannot afford to endure, and it's an investigation that many fans don't want because the damage has already been done. Of course, my guess is that there are certain players who would welcome an investigation, such as players who, in the past 15 years, hit over 50 home runs in a season and were clean in doing so. Not even the best biotechnology company, however, can go back and determine what substances were cruising along in your bloodstream 15 years ago. Forever will some of our suspicions remain.

Absent from Olney's group of apologizers are the mainstream baseball media, who have done the equivalent of leaving the bat on its collective shoulder for its entire amount of plate appearances during this World Series of potential stories. During the past say 15 years they let the facts that constitute this huge storie whizz by them without any effort to address them. That means that either a) they simply didn't want to know, b) they're good feature writers who either don't like controversy, are unable to deal with it or didn't want to risk losing their precious access to the teams and the placers or c) they don't view their role as anything other than covering games, results, drafts and personalities. Covering the foundation of the game -- the core integrity of the players who used and the managers, coaches, agents, front-office people and owners who either ignored, condoned or perhaps even encouraged their use -- is beyond their skill set. That prospect, of course, is very frustrating.

Media coverage of some very serious aspects of what's become a serious part of our culture and our economy is lacking here. ESPN is an entertainment network, not a serious journalistic story, and frequently it seems that their anchors and reporters are too much a part of the story (it was hard to draw the line as to whether Michael Irvin was really covering the Terrell Owens story or merely advocating for him, although as a commentator Irvin would get a little more leeway than an anchor). Broadcasters for teams are paid for by the teams, so it's hard to find anyone critical of your hometown baseball team despite its obvious flaws. (I root for the Phillies, and to listen to Chris Wheeler at times is painful because, while knowledgeable, he sounds like management's plant in the box and is not critical at all -- he seems to defend every decision that anyone in the organization makes). Yes, at the national level, the broadcasters are critical of play, and that's good, but who is to keep the establishment and integrity of the game honest the way we hope that national and local reporters keep our governments honest?

We all like reading Peter Gammons, Jayson Stark, Tom Verducci and Tim Kurkjian. They all are very knowledgeable baseball people. But they and many others like them have to do more than tell us that the team's second starting pitcher has developed a circle change that is freezing hitters in spring training, that cool wintertime Gulf waters have seemingly helped the balky back of the setup man for a contender or that Manny is no longer selling his condo in Boston. That's all good stuff, but it's not enough.

If we do have this one day of apologies and reckoning, it sure would be nice for the mainstream baseball media to get up on the platform and apologize to us for letting us all down. First of all, despite some of their protests to the contrary that they didn't necessarily let us down because they didn't have enough information, they didn't dig deep enough. And, if digging more deeply wasn't within their skill set, they should have gotten someone at their media organization to have helped them. Secondly, the way they sound on the topic, they sound like they're squirming. This is a very uncomfortable topic for them, and they sound like they really would like to say something and make amends. Third, some of their talk about their Hall of Fame voting for the disgraced set of stars has poured gasoline on the wounds of many fans. Some mainstream writers came out within days of the unearthing of the Palmeiro scandal and the Balco scandal saying, without any apology, that both Palmeiro and Bonds were first-ballot Hall of Famers in their books. Didn't those judgments come a little too quickly? Don't principles matter? Shouldn't the means of accomplishment their records dog Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and Barry Bonds (it's easy to pick on Bonds because he hasn't made himself very likeable, but right now all four of those players are basically in the same category). The points I raise here combine to paint a picture not of serious journalists, but of adult-aged teenagers giddy at the prospect of being able to watch games for a living and hoping that in doing so the toughest guy in their middle school, the kid who is the best athlete, doesn't make fun of them in gym glass or tease them in the parking lot for being either too awkward or too geeky.

The fans deserve better than that. It's easy to write about the stuff that you know, the stuff that you like, and the stuff that you want to write about. It's much harder to write about the stuff that needs to be written about, whether you like it or not.

Any day of reconciliation and apology must include a mea culpa from the members of the mainstream media, with whom we all need a clean start. Otherwise, how can we be sure that when the next big story hits, they won't repeat the mistakes they made before.

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