Friday, March 10, 2006

Bonds and Steroids: All but a done deal

Tuesday, news of a new book documenting in great detail Barry Bonds' "alledged" steroid use rose to the top of the sports headlines. So I let it sink in for a few days before commenting on it. Frankly, even after a few days, the story still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Since the steroid scandal story broke several years, I've reserved judgment, stood back and let the natural progression of events take care of themselves keeping faith that some piece of information--diamond in the rough, if you will--would shine like a beacon enlightening me to the what REALLY happened. Tuesday, ironically on my birthday, this missing link may have very well surfaced unlocking what most of us suspected for a very long time.

(Picture to the left is Bonds in 1998)

Two authors, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote "Game of Shadows" based upon thousands pages of documents and interviews of over 200 people concerning Bonds' steroid usage. (You can click on this Game of Shadows link for more details on how the book came to be) In it, they describe doping schedules, what he took, when and how long among other bombshells. Consider this book--from what I've heard-- to be the Woodward and Berstein/Washington Post Watergate story equivalent.

Stories like this that have potentially longstanding effects on the game of baseball peek my curiosity being a baseball purist of sorts. Invariably, the need for more information in an effort to quench my insayshable curiosity gets the better of me. So I google some more hoping for that one article that clarifies everything hopefully tipping my opinion one way or another.

The problem with this method is that there is so much information readily accessible over the internet true AND false. Consequently, the process of filtering out what is hearsay and what is confirmed fact must be efficient and effective. Needless to say, its a monumental task that I hoped would get easier. It hasn't.

Since exerps of the book--billed as the missing link to the Barry Bonds steroids scandal--came out, certain subtopics which paint a broader and more true picture of how this story relates to baseball need to be discussed. Many of these subtopics have been pushed under the radar (Why this happened is more of a discussion of journalism ethics which can be talked about at another time) which does nothing to help us understand the entire story.

Let's go ahead and investigate these misreported and/or left out subtopics individually:

* Contrary to popular belief, a male in his mid 30s can increase his musculature by 10 or even 20 pounds in a relatively short period of time if he works out correctly, rests enough and most of all eats the proper food. Yes, even without steroids you can go from 180 pounds to over 200 pounds in 4 to 6 months! Creatine, an energy source that is found in red meat and other foods can also assist in adding muscular weight. Best of all, it can be purchased at your neighborhood grocery store. I know people who have done this.

(Picture is Bonds in 2000)

* The increase in overall offense in Major League Baseball since 1995 has been driven mostly on three factors:

Diluted pitching due to league expansion in 1993 and 1998, smaller ballparks (rarely do you see an outfield fence more than 365 feet in the power alleys) and more tightly wound baseballs. One of the networks did a story a few years ago at the Rawlings Baseball Facility. What do you kno, the room that wound the baseballs was off limits to the reporters. Hmmm. They claim that the balls are the same but tests since then prove otherwise. Sure, steroids are a factor. No question about it. In some isolated player cases, steroids might be the main factor. But to point to steroids as the main reason for higher homerun totals and more runs scored league wide is stretching it a bit.

(Picture is Bonds in 2001)

* Here's a personal one that I love to debunk: Protein Powder does not come in pill form! I can count at least a half a dozen times where sports writers, who obviously have no knowledge of workout regimens and supplements, talk about "protein pills". Protein comes in powder form and, as of 2006, its great for you!

Anyway, back to the book.

If what the authors say is true in their outlining of Bonds' steroid use from 1998 to 2003, then its fairly safe to say that many other ballplayers could have been on similar doping regimens injecting whatever chemical they thought would give them an advantage. Scary thought when you consider that 7% of all ballplayers tested positive in the first year of testing back in 2003. Who knows how many players were using performance enhancing drugs in the 1990s or earlier.

Is taking steroid in baseball prior to 2003 considered cheating? Some people say no because baseball didn't test for performance enhancing drugs or anything else for that mater. In effect, baseball had no problem with these substances or else they would have been banned a long time ago. In a twisted sense, baseball--although not officially--gave their blessing. "Take whatever you want" was the non-verbal communication from MLB and the Player's Union. Therefore, as many people conclude, it wasn't an unfair advantage because any player could "juice up" without any recourse from MLB.
One other aspect to ponder: Many players back in the 1960s and 70s took "greenies" --stimulants-- to get themselves "up" for a game. Those are considered performance enhancing yet no one has made an agrument for inserting astericks next to players of decades before. By the way, testing will start for the first time for amphetamines in 2006, more than 40 years removed from their first alledged use.

Although MLB didn't test for steroids of other drugs at that time, it is a felony to obtain without a prescription or distribute steroids and has been since 1991. Do you fault the players for taking advantage of the non-testing era knowing that it was illegal? Many athletes don't care about the future ramifications of these substances. These guys are "wired" differently that the rest of us mortals. Anything to get an advantage regardless of the effects to the body; many of they don't care.

Beyond the physical reprecussions, the ethical implications are far greater and can't be ignored. While MLB didn't test for these substances which are illegal according to federal law, players who took these drugs did so with complete disregard for the game itself and all it represents past, present and future. It is this ethical pedestal that these steroid using players should be measured not the poor decisions made by corporate power politicians who represent the owners and the player's union.

Here's an aside about baseball cheating: Its existed in baseball since its inception. No argument here. Whether cheating manifests itself in stealing signs or applying a foreign substance to the baseball in order to change its trajectory players are looking for an advantage and will always will. But consuming artificial chemical substances that don't occur naturally which are illegal in an effort to enhance your body beyond what it is designed to do can't even be compared to Joe Neikro's scuffing-the-ball-with-a-nail-file incident.

Who do we blame for this steroid mess? Many blame the players and want all statistics marked with an asterisk who played from 1995 to 2003. The problem with that is we don't know was "juicing" and who wasn't because no testing existed prior to 2003. Sure, we have our suspicions. But how can we penalize players who earned their numbers the right way with proper workouts and supplementation? The fact is there are players who were using steroids during this period but we will never know with one hundred percent certainty who they were. Frankly, the stats should speak for themselves and left alone. The court of baseball public opinion with its deep historical tradition will be far more critical and damming than a simple "*" next to a player's name.

Many blame the owners. The argument is how could team owners and management not know what was going on. Its foolhardy to think that they had no knowledge. Ticket sales soared during the Cal Ripken games played record chase right after the strike of 1994/early 1995. Rather than inflict another black eye on baseball with a steroid scandal, owners just ignored the problem. Fans were coming back to the game, the sport was being re-energized and the owners were adding beaucoup jack to their wallets. Why stir up steroid talk and upset the applecart?

Many blame the Player's Union. Same argument applies here that applies to the owners. How could they not know? Many players were growing at an alarming rate and so was the frequency of injuries due to many players' bodies breaking down due to the increased muscle mass. Players were having career years offensively and their pay reflected it. From 1989 to 1995, players' salaries jumped 100%; salaries jumped another 50% from 1995 to 2000. The union was in the driver's seat. Player's salaries were going up and most of all, the strongest union on the planet--as some have described it--was as strong as ever. So why address a growing drug problem when it will only weaken their position?

Some blame the commissioner. Back then, Bud Selig was in a quandary. Does he officially bring steroids to the attention of the owners and player's union at the risk of starting another labor war? Most of all, did he want to deal with the public relations nightmare that it would create knowing it would continue to build eventually leading to a fracture that might not be repairable given the delicate state of most baseball fans after the strike? In baseball, the commissioners does not have the power that Paul Tagliabue has in the NFL or David Stern commands in the NBA. So, his hands were tied. After al, baseball was on the road to recovery so like dirt on the kitchen floor, the topic of steroid abuse by baseball higherups was pushed under the rug hoping that no one would notice.

Fast-forward to 2003. BALCO (company involved in creating designer steroids) was in hot water with the Feds, players were called to testify before a grand jury, steroid testing was finally established in an agreement between the union and the owners, congress became involved in 2005 and above all of this, a man at the heart of the steroid universe Barry Bonds was closing in on the most revered of all sports records: THE HOMERUN TITLE. As ESPN writer Gene Wojciechowsk said in a recent article, "...Bonds allegedly chose home runs over ethics."

Two weeks into spring training, this "super-tell-all" book comes out describing everything drug-related Barry Bonds has done since 1998. Whatever the fallout after the book is released, several events must happen: Baseball must own up to their mishandling of the entire steroid mess over the last 10 years. Bud Selig on down the line must take command of the situation and launch a full investigation similar to the Pete Rose gambling issue. I do not envy Bud Selig. He'll be walking a thin line between his extracting and subsequent handling of the truth of steroids past and present and the backlash of any recognition of Bonds' possible breaking of the most celebrated statistic in all of sports.

Most of all, Barry Bonds must come clean with baseball and its fans. He should admit to what he did and finish out the season with the scandal hanging over his head. He's on the verge of breaking the most hallowed mark in sports--the homerun record--which cannot be tainted by scandal. More significant than the players' union or the owners, the homerun record's very nature by its elevated status represents the game far deeper than any individual who might break it. Any link to the record by any individual or individuals whether against the formal rules of baseball or not should be removed in order to preserve the sacredness of the record. Its just a shame that baseball from the commissioner on down the line through ignoring the steroids problem created an even bigger problem that will take many years to dismantle.

As for Bonds' legacy, Gene Wojciechowski wrote, "The tragedy of it all is that Bonds didn't need the alleged chemical boost. His legacy was secure. His Hall of Fame plaque was a done deal. It didn't matter if we thought he was a jerk because his statistics were so overpowering. No longer."

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