Wednesday, December 19, 2007

And Joe said, "are you kidding? Of course it's so."

So, now that the nation has had a chance to digest the contents of George Mitchell's report on steroids and other banned drugs in Major League Baseball, what will be the upshot of all this?

Very little, I predict. Mitchell recommended no punishment for any of the 90 + individuals identified in his report as involved with steroids and HGH (Human Growth Hormone). I'm not sure what charges are available to federal prosecutors -- or anyone else -- against players who admitted doing something that was illegal in their sport but not illegal under federal law. Barry Bonds was indicted for lying to a grand jury and obstructing an investigation into Victor Conte and his drug lab, BALCO, not for using steroids. Had Bonds gotten his drugs somewhere else, say from a New York Mets clubhouse attendant or a personal trainer employed by several New York Yankees, he never would have become the target he did. Bud Selig, the commissioner of MLB, is saying with a straight face that he will get to the bottom of all this and work with the players' union to establish some sort of legitimate drug testing policy. To me, Mitchell's report makes Selig looks far worse than any of the players identified. Selig presided over MLB at the height of the "steroid" era, and was just as complicit in allowing Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and perhaps Roger Clemens to mount their drug-assisted assault on baseball's most hallowed records. Selig should have resigned the moment the report was released, apologized to baseball fans, not to mention Hank Aaron and Roger Maris, for allowing such a farcical era to ensue. As for the players, they did what players have always done at the most competitive levels of professional and amateur sports -- looked for ways to cheat without getting caught. I just can't believe Americans are so naive as to think that steroids in baseball are the first encounter with drug-fueled cheating in our great game. Go buy a copy of Jim Bouton's Ball Four, first published in 1970. Bouton, a former major league pitcher who bounced around baseball for about a dozen years, pulled the curtain back on professional athletes for their worshipers to see and was vilified for it. Bouton wrote about drug use, alcohol dependency, philandering, shady business practices and everything else that was common to the baseball culture. "Greenies," or amphetemines, were the drug of choice for most major leaguers (and, according to some accounts of drug use in sports, still the preferred drug today) back then, and Bouton wrote about just how dependent players were on their pills to keep them going through the drudgery of travel and the fatigue of playing almost everyday. He also blew open another long-standing myth about professional sports -- that the men who played these games were grateful to get paid anything for doing something they loved. They played because they couldn't really do anything else, and they played because they got paid. If the players didn't care about the money, they wouldn't have enlisted Marvin Miller to fight for free agency.

Punching a hole in another Hollywood-Madison Avenue myth about the American character is too easy, especially when it involves the high-horse of sports. Taking steroids is probably a bad thing, especially in such concentrated doses. But the athletes who took them, and still might be taking other substances to "enhance" their performance, are doing so because their fans want to see them shatter records and perform superhuman feats. They understand how short their window of opportunity is to make almost $2 million a year as an average major league baseball player, and so they're willing to do what they have to do to get the competitive edge. Drug and alcohol use has long inspired men and women in the arts, music, finance, higher education, law, politics . . . well, virtually everything. Is anyone prepared to take back Charlie Parker's most brilliant playing because he used heroin, cocaine, abused alcohol and neglected his family, dying at 34 with a liver the doctor said resembled a man's twice his age? Diminish the Beatles post-1966 recordings because they smoked a lot of pot and occasionally used L.S.D.? And just what the hell was Steve Jobs doing all those nights to stay awake in the garage when the foundation of Apple was under construction? How many thousands of people have used drugs to ease their pain, "inspire" their creativity, spark their energy and who knows what else in their personal and professional lives? When does it matter and when does it not?

I'm more sure about something else -- leave race out of the discussion on steroids and baseball. Sally Jenkins, the fine sports columnist for the Washington Post -- the paper's best, actually -- wrote a column Tuesday suggesting that a double standard exists in how the press, the public and law enforcement treats white and black athletes suspected of drug use. The eagerness of the Feds to prosecute Barry Bonds and Marion Jones (another BALCO client), while demonstrating less enthusiasm for the Roger Clemens and Brian Roberts of the world, is rooted in race, says Jenkins.

I just can't get behind this argument, and I'm usually one to see these things, even though I am white. Barry Bonds and Marion Jones got caught in the middle of the BALCO prosecution. Jones confessed while Bonds has not. Bonds is smart for playing the race card. I think he's guilty, and he's resorted to the best possible smoke screen to distract an investigation based on fact. I feel like I'm listening to someone Jewish (which I am) retreat to accusations of anti-Semitism to deflect criticism of bad behavior by a high-profile Jewish figure or some transgression by Israel. It's tacky and tasteless, but, when you're ass is on the line, you do what you have to do.

Pete Rose, who deserves the disgrace into which his gambling took him, is white. So is Lance Armstrong, who fended off accusations for his seven years at the top of the cycling world because he was a great American athlete in a sport dominated by Europeans. Mark McGwire, who will probably never enter the baseball Hall of Fame, is also white. So is Bill Clinton. So is Hillary Clinton. Thinking about it a bit, I wonder if baseball (and the government) has spent more money looking into Barry Bonds's alleged misdeeds than Pete Rose? Rose, like Bonds, spent years insisting he had never done anything until one day he admitted that he done everything his accusers had said.

And what about Michael Jordan, who "retired" in the 1993 because he said he had lost his desire to play basketball? That same year, prior to his retirement announcement, Jordan's high-stakes gambling activities became public. Speculation about his losses ranged from the high five figures to the millions. And there was some mumbling that he might have bet on basketball while still playing the game. A year before the NBA first took notice of Jordan's gambling, one of his "associates" was found murdered, with records of checks that had been written to him for amounts that were identical to what Jordan owed various people. Of course, Jordan managed his public persona expertly, coming across to the public as a nice guy who just happened to play basketball better than anybody in the world. He became perhaps the first professional athlete to "brand" himself so successfully, launching, of course, his shoe line and everything to come after it. The NBA's most valuable economic commodity had gotten himself into "Sopranos-style" trouble, with every passing story and "investigation" revealing sleazier and sleazier characters and arrangements, and the amounts of money allegedly being gambled and lost getting higher and higher. By his first "retirement" Jordan was making $40 million a year in endorsements alone from Nike, Chevrolet and McDonalds, and had become the face of the NBA, which had found a savior for the post-Bird, post-Magic years. So, was Jordan's "retirement" a way for Jordan to settle his debts and straighten himself out at minimal exposure to himself and the league? Why would someone who had just led the NBA-stocked "Dream Team" to an Olympic gold medal in 1992 "retire" at the first of his many athletic peaks, especially when he was superb, injury-free physical condition? Did baseball ever cover for Rose the way that the NBA covered for Jordan?

Professional sports are ruthless enterprises, a whole step above the "amateur" leagues and organizations that serve as the training grounds for the lucky few who step into the light and make their millions. Had George Mitchell taken his investigators to Wall Street, K St., Capitol Hill, Hollywood, the L.A. music industry or any other concentrated area where ambitious people are out to make their fame and fortune he would have found enough illicit drugs, unsavory characters lurking about and money-making scams and double-dealing to make MLB look like an entry-level recreational little league. Long before there was Victor Conte, Jim Bouton and Pete Rose, there was Arnold Rothstein (the alleged mastermind behind the 1919 Black Sox World Series scandal), the Wrigley family and countless others who rigged sports to their advantage and openly procured drugs to make the players "perform" better. Heroes, sports heroes anyway, fall hard. Maybe the lesson of all this will be for people to rethink the value we place on professional athletes and their achievements.

. . . until A-Rod's next multi-zillion dollar contract for playing baseball.

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