SportsProf

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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Weasels, Wimps and Scoundrels

Those words describe the owners of Major League Baseball teams, the alleged journalists who covered the teams during the steroids era and the ballplayers themselves, and, particularly, the leadership of the players' union (which opted to protect the malefactors at the expense of the good citizens among the players).

The owners got dumb, fat and happy during the steroids era, particuarly after the labor-relations debacle of 1994, which culminated in the cancellation of a season and a World Series. So, enter the personally inflated Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire into the fray, capturing America's hearts with a drug-induced (and perhaps drug-addled) home run love fest. The owners loved the attention that their teams got, particularly at the gate, despite the fact that the players looked on the average significantly bigger than they had a decade and a half earlier (where most looked like relative stick figures or the average European man of today who lives in a city where, unlike the U.S., walking is not only encouraged but necessary). In scientific terms, while species evolve, they don't usually do so markedly in a period of a decade or two at most. Yet, despite the obvious evidence (i.e, visual evidence -- think East German female swimmers during the cold war) and the whispers, the owners hid beyond shouts of "hearsay" and took the tactic of accusing the few brave souls who waxed skeptical as typical cynics who were envious of someone else's success (if, even, you could have found those souls).

Great tactic, because once it wears out you simply have succeeded only in doubling the enmity that arose because of the suspicions instead of extinguishing it.

I've excoriated the national media before on posts (and am too relaxed right now to link to prior posts on the topic, but if you Google "SportsProf steroids" or "SportsProf steroids media" you'll probably find those posts). Put simply, those guys are glorified fans, not journalists, because any self-respecting journalist would have smelled a story and at least told his editors and urged his newspaper to get their investigative reporting team on the matter and draw attention to the issue. But they didn't do it. Why? Because they love being around the game, love having a special relationship with a player who might give them more access than the next guy, and they didn't want to lose that. Write what they saw? Take a stand and ask hard questions? That's what journalists are supposed to do. These guys -- and I include Gammons, Verducci, Kurkjian, Stark and Olney -- did not do that at all.

What makes matters worse is something I heard Tim Kurkjian say on ESPN radio last week, when the talk focused for a short time on Hall of Fame voting. Kurkjian said that he knew fellow voters who would not vote for anyone implicated in the steroid controversy. He didn't agree with this position, because he (and host Mike Greenberg) offered that given how widespread the scandal might ultimately prove to be, then perhaps you couldn't vote for anyone. Kurkjian, if my memory serves me correctly, then said he spoke with a writer about a few players who weren't implicated but who in the inside circles of baseball were widely suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs and wondered aloud whether that writer would vote for those players (whose names weren't mentioned in the Mitchell report). That comment irked me and should have irked any true baseball fan, who should reasonably rely on these top writers to break a story (or to have broken it years ago). Why did guys like Kurkjian sit on the sidelines and not cover those players' alleged use if the knowledge of it was "so widespread?" That's baffling, and now they're taking ludicrous positions about Hall of Fame balloting when they blew their coverage in the first place. You can say one thing about these so-called baseball journalists -- they really broke this story. Literally.

As for the players' union, well, there's a proverb out there that says "you don't always win by being right all the time." And, to a great degree, this union has won most of its arguments since its inception. But where they erred tactically is by closing ranks at all costs and harming the overall good name of players generally. If I'm a union member I have to question whether Don Fehr and Gene Orza remain fit to lead my union, especially if I believe that a majority of the players did not use performance-enhancing drugs. Because if that's the case, then why did the silent majority let a minority of players drag all players' collective reputations into the gutter? And why did Fehr and Orza lead them down such a slippery path? Then again, if there is silence and the leadership doesn't change, then perhaps the usage was much more pervasive than anyone thought? Half? Two thirds? Three quarters? It's one thing to support one another, but to contribute to a culture of damaging a great game without any regard for the welfare of all players is just wrong.

The Mitchell report is what it is. The interesting thing about it now is that certain players and former players have admitted to using either human growth hormone or steroids at various intervals in their careers. Those admissions give the overall report some credence, but the issue of Roger Clemens looms. Will he sue the Lords of Baseball to clear his name? That trial would compelling viewing, because the evidence posed about Clemens just doesn't seem to be very strong, at least at the moment. There's a catch for Clemens and others, however. Senator Mitchell had no power to compel people to come forward to testify. Should Clemens sue, both sides will have broad discovery powers to compel witnesses to testify under oath about what they know. So while Clemens can shield himself at the present time behind arguments about flaws in the Mitchell Report, what could come out under discovery in a lawsuit could be much more damning. Given the public beating Clemens has taken already, how much more does he have to lose by bringing that lawsuit?

Think O.J .trial with more sophisticated media coverage. Court TV execs should be salivating, because it might just happen.

And that trial could blow the whole roof off.

As for baseball overall, a few things need to happen. First, better urine tests for performance enhancing substances (including HGH) and, second, blood tests as well. The union should roll on this issue before Congress passes laws about this, and given how well Congress has done lately a negotiation with the owners should be much more preferable. Two, let history be the judge of what happened, don't suspend anyone for past sins, and let the Hall of Fame voters decide the fate of those with puffy numbers. And, while they're at it, they should give extra consideration to the skinny Fred McGriff, the onetime great Blue Jays' and Braves' 1B who had a great career and who at times was dissed as not being powerful enough for his position.

Probably because the only "Cream" he had in his arsenal was an occasional cream soda on a road trip. He'd get my vote.

Baseball needs to move on, but the writers themselves deserve their periodic descents into Hades during Hall of Fame balloting for their blown coverage on the entire subject. The owners will get away with it because, well, they make up the rules (unless we all vote with our feet), and the players will also, to a degree, because you can't play the game without them.

Except for one thing -- they know who did what, and they have to live with it.

And that can't be a comfortable feeling.

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