Thursday, December 13, 2007

This collective collapse of ethics is the worst thing that has happened to baseball. Ever.

Cynical sports intelligentsia, many bloggers, and run-of-the-mill sports fans will insist that the appropriate response to former Senator (and Judge) George Mitchell's report on steroid use among major leaguers is a yawn. "I don't care if he used steroids or not," I heard one Fox radio sports host say last week of a major leaguer whose name has often been associated with use of the drug.

Well I do care. And not because I'm a moral vigilante.

If the use of steroids didn't have a clear and deleterious effect on the game played on the field, I might not care that players use them.

But steroids turn their imbibers into inhuman behemoths. When Mark McGwire faced pitcher Mike Morgan to hit his record-breaking 62nd. season homerun in 1998, it wasn't a conventional contest between an undeniably talented longball hitter and a big league pitcher. It was more like pitting a gorilla against a chihuahua in a battle over a piece of meat. The gorilla was bound to win.

McGwire and the others named in Mitchell's report, including a total of seven MVPs, have compromised the game for more than two decades, making all their record-grabbing exploits irrelevant. For years, fans of the game have known that the homeruns of McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro, Bonds, and others were gotten on the cheap, the result not of talent combined with training and smarts, but of those things enhanced by the stuff sold to them by performance-enhancing dope dealers.

All the individual records and World Series championships won through the use of steroids over the past two decades are tainted. Though no ex post facto action can rightly be taken, I wish that the names of Roger Clemens, McGwire, Bonds, and others could be expunged from baseball's record books forever. Hank Aaron and Roger Maris earned their homerun titles. That can't be said of baseball's steroid junkies.

The scandalous abuse of the game can't just be attributed to the many players implicated in the Mitchell report, though. Team owners, managers and coaches, trainers, sports journalists, and the office of the Commissioner of Baseball all looked the other way as steroid use became pervasive, altering what happened on the field of play, perverting the game.

This collective collapse of ethics is the worst thing that has happened to baseball. Ever.

In 1919, as most baseball fans know, eight members of the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Two of the eight, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte confessed to a grand jury that they had taken money from gambling interests to do just enough to give the championship to Cincinnati. The excellent Wikipedia article on the Black Sox scandal notes:
Prior to the trial, key evidence went missing from the Cook County Courthouse, including the signed confessions of Cicotte and Jackson, who subsequently recanted their confessions. The players were acquitted. Some years later, the missing confessions reappeared in the possession of Comiskey's lawyer.[1]

However, the majors were not so forgiving. The damage to the sport's reputation led the owners to appoint Federal Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis as the first Commissioner of Baseball. The day after the players were acquitted, Landis issued his own verdict:
Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises to throw a ball game, no player who sits in confidence with a bunch of crooked ballplayers and gamblers, where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball.
With this statement, all eight implicated White Sox were banned from Major League Baseball for life, as were two other players believed to be involved.
The point? Then, as now, baseball confronts an ethical crisis that threatens to turn the sport into a WWF-style mockery of the game. If steroids and steroid users aren't evicted forcefully from the game, final game scores--not to mention pennants, world championships, and MVP and Cy Young awards--will be as meaningless as the scores of Harlem Globetrotter-Washington Generals games.

Baseball's banning of steroids must be a forceful as its ban on gambling. No matter if the courts can't or won't act, no matter what the exponents of it's-okay-if-you-get-away-with-it ethics may say, Baseball must impose draconian, Kenesaw Mountain Landis-style penalties on future violators of steroid rules.

Earlier I said that if the use of steroids didn't have a clear and deleterious effect on the game played on the field, I might not care that players use them. But there's another reason why I care about the use of this poison by baseball players.

The New York Times piece on the Mitchell report notes:
Don Hooton, who became an outspoken critic of steroid use after his son Taylor committed suicide after using the drugs, attended the news conference Thursday [at which Mitchell summarized and presented his report] and said of the Mitchell report: “This is more than about asterisks and cheating; it’s about the lives and health of our kids.”
As long as baseball--or other sports or society, in general--winks at the use of steroids for anything other than legitimate medical purposes, kids will use them. And kids will die because of them.

After years of countenancing steroid abuse, Baseball must right its ship. The integrity of the game depends on it. So do the lives of kids.


Unknown said...

maybe if there was any actual proof of steriod use by these players, beside some convicted dealer's accusations, i would be more inclined to be outraged. exactly what is the difference between taking steriods and say a protien shake, mixed with some createne? If you are not concerned about the health of the players that is. They both help a player get stronger so your arguement that they are cheating because they took steriods would have to apply to any athlete who has ever taken any substance that affects their ability, including advil. And please don't give me the it's for the kids crap, it's their parents job to keep them off steriods, not major league baseball. No one watches pro sports to get moral guidence.

Mark Daniels said...

(1) The proof offered by the Mitchell report would stand up in any court of law and I notice that there has been no rush to deny on the parts of any of the named players.

(2) I'm opposed to any enhancement that negatively impacts the health of the players. That's precisely the point of my use of the word "might" in the sentence, "If the use of steroids didn't have a clear and deleterious effect on the game played on the field, I might not care that players use them."

(3) Of course, parents or guardians are responsible for overseeing what goes into the bodies of their kids. It would be idiocy to argue otherwise and anyone familiar with my writing here can tell you that I believe in parental responsibility.

But it's a cynical dodge to point that out and so suggest that "successful" major league players and teams have no impact on the deciion making of young people, their coaches, or their parents. If the use of steroids is seen as a legitimate means of achieving "success," then young people who want athletic success will use this garbage. Bottom line: Parents have the ultimate responsibility, but that doesn't mean that the rest of society doesn't have some responsibility as well. I particularly point to the Commissioner of Baseball and the team owners.