Friday, March 31, 2006

Steroid Investigation

There are two central facts that must be considered before discussing the MLB investigation into steroids.
1) Bud Selig is engaged in damage control. If Bud Selig were a character in a play, and you wanted to know his motivation, it would be: damage control. This is not to say that Selig is an evil man who cares nothing for the game of baseball but his own reputation; the real world isn't that easy. I'm saying that Selig's prime motivation is not the best interests of the game; it's in preventing the steroids scandal from becoming any worse than it already is and covering the asses of everyone not already implicated. There are other secondary concerns, but I think that this is by far the overarching motivation. Selig reminds me of Nixon Press Secretary Ron Ziegler; he's not the devil and he's probably not a criminal, no. But if you think his job is simply to speak the truth, you're naive. If that was his motivation, the owners wouldn't have hired him.
2) Baseball was embarrassed into performing this investigation. Selig can't admit publicly, of course, that baseball is doing this investigation because of the book Game of Shadows that provides extensive documentary evidence of steroid use. But that is why baseball is doing this investigation, and don't fool yourself that it's for any other reason. If Selig were truly interested in investigating steroid use in baseball, as Buster Olney points out, he would have done so years ago. Maybe he would have started when Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco made allegations that many baseball insiders considered to be generally true; maybe he would have started when he got the list of positive steroid tests conducted by baseball itself (enough to warrant a more stringent policy as negotiated in the CBA). Or maybe he would have done it after ESPN: The Magazine's report came out this winter. But he did not. He waited until he could wait no longer. If the book (and other books forthcoming) had not come along, neither would this investigation.

That being said, the story (if you hadn't heard) is that the MLB is launching an investigation into steroid use in the major leagues, to be headed by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell. On one hand, Mitchell has a reputation as man of integrity. On the other hand, he's a current Director of the Boston Red Sox, a member of the board of Disney (former owners of the Angels and current owners of ESPN), and was considered a candidate for the Commissioner's job now held by Bud Selig. I guess Selig never watched Law & Order; he doesn't know the importance of avoiding even the appearance of impropriety. If Selig wanted to buy some integrity for baseball, he shouldn't have compromised that integrity in advance by naming someone inside baseball to head the committee. This honestly surprised me; the position of "head of investigating committee" is pretty broad; surely Selig, anticipating the backlash against Mitchell, would have chosen someone outside of baseball to head the committee. There are plenty of other options. To be fair, Mitchell does have a good reputation and has stated that he will be impartial; that he won't let his ties to the Red Sox inhibit his investigation. But this is hard to believe; have you every heard anyone say, "Yes, I will be very partial. And thanks for asking."
The committee will investigate use of steroids by those with ties to BALCO and others (Selig stressed this) going back to the onset of steroid testing in 2002. However (Selig stressed again), if Mitchell feels there is pertinent evidence of use in years prior to 2002, he will have the power to expand the investigation. Gone unstated is whether owners, executives, personal trainers, etc., will also be investigated; their duplicity (and possible criminal conspiracy) are quite pertinent to determining responsibility. Will they be held responsible?
I don't think there's any reason to believe that they will. No one who claims to be investigating themselves actually is, simply because no one will come out and say, "My investigation reveals that I and my colleagues were seriously at fault, damaging perhaps forever the game of baseball. I performed citizen's arrest upon myself and currently have George Steinbrenner in a pair of handcuffs." Selig won't give anything but the most cursory examination of baseball executives, only so much as bad publicity forces him into, simply because it wouldn't be in the "best interests of baseball," read "the best interests of baseball owners."
As Olney points out in the article above, there's very little Selig can do that hasn't already been done by the San Francisco Chronicle writers who penned Game of Shadows. Can they really just go and recreate their investigation without coming off as laughable johnny-come-latelys? Will anyone take seriously an investigative probe that's less revealing than their morning newspaper?
What will most likely happen is that the committee will throw out a few sacrificial lambs, hoping that they will be enough to quiet the scandal. The parallels to Watergate become striking here: first they just stick to Hunt and Liddy. Then, when that gets laughed off, they throw out Mitchell and Magruder. Then comes Dean, then Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and then it starts getting really scary. Selig's hoping that tossing Mitchell and Magruder to the press will be enough to end this scandal. Because that, my friends is Selig's top priority: end this damned thing before it ruins more than just Opening Day and costs the sport any more in the public eye.

On another page entirely is Barry Bonds. Bonds is actually going to be playing games this year, and I honestly don't think I'll be able to watch his first at-bat away from San Francisco. Because he is going to catch hell from the fans, and if I said I felt sorry for him, I'd be lying. It will make a mockery of the game.
Speaking of making a mockery of the game, Bonds is 7 HR away from passing Babe Ruth on the all-time HR list. If you think people hated Roger Maris for breaking Ruth's single-season record, you ain't seen nothin' yet. This won't just be the casual fans, but the baseball purists. It's a defining moment in the game's history, one which the MLB intends to celebrate, according to published reports. On one hand, the MLB has to celebrate it, because anything else would be an admission of Bonds' guilt. On the other hand, it will make a mockery of baseball and baseball history, especially if it happens away from San Francisco. In 1973, Braves' ownership tried to keep Hank Aaron out the lineup in away games to ensure he broke the record at home. I wouldn't be surprised if Selig did the same thing for entirely different reasons.
But while Bonds is the figurehead, he isn't the average steroid user, someone who is getting unfair treatment, I think. Maybe not unfair, so much as unrealistic and sanctimonious. It's not a surprise how many people are willing to do whatever it takes to win, it's surprising how many are not. It's the same thing we do with drug addicts, other criminals, and poor people: we disdain them in order to make ourselves feel better, utterly denying any kinship with them or admitting the possibility that we're much more like them than we want to think.
What the steroid scandal really reveals is the underside of humanity in a world obsessed with winning: some people fight dirty. We shouldn't blame Selig & Co. for being blissfully ignorant about the steroids scandal without blaming ourselves as well. We demand more entertainment from our athletes and then blame them when they go that extra mile to deliver. I hate to sound hopelessly cynical, but if you're surprised by this side of humanity, then you're rather naive. Shame on any commentator who self-righteously condemns all steroid users outright; there but for the grace of God go each and every one of us.

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