Monday, January 18, 2010

McGwire and the Steroid Saga

Mark McGwire finally admitted to what we all suspected. He took steroids while playing baseball including his then record setting season of 1998.

We've all been over this before with other ballplayers who either came out and either flat out admitted their usage of performance enhancing drugs or apologized to everyone in earshot yet not divulging what they actually did to warrant the apology. Regretably, the former is far less common than the latter.

I understand why McGwire didn't admit to it when he testified in front of congress in 2005. His lawyers got in his ear staunchly apposing any heart-felt confession so as to not implicate him either by direct evidence or otherwise (Jose Conseco's book) to any steroid investigation at that time or in the future. I remember watching his testimony on C-SPAN. I waited for an admission or some act of contrition. Once he pleaded the 5th, my heart sank. His "pleading the 5th" might as well have been a guilty verdict in the court of public opinion. He collectively lost the paying fans and the hard-core baseball traditionalists in his evading the subject. As we have seen before, once the court of public opinion comes to a verdict, it is very difficult to change that verdict.

McGwire said he wanted to say something in 2005 while in front of congress. He didn't. Now almost 5 years later, his motives for speaking out are in question. People will will lump in the same group as the Rafael Palmeiro's of the world who, to this day, deny the test was accurate or claim it was someone else.

Back in the 1990s, we all lived in the moment. We watched McGwire and Sosa make history. It was the ultimate feel-good moment after the strike of 1994. It followed Cal Ripken's consecutive game streak record in late 1995. The resurgence of baseball into the national collective consciousness was an elixor that everyone was drinking up. Attendance was up. People were making money...and lots of it. It was like the strike that wiped out the World Series never happened. By 1998, we were all inebriated on baseball. And it felt real good!

Since the early 2000s when the Balco investigation implicating many players including the current season homerun record holder Barry Bonds became everyday news, the publication of Jose Conseco's tell-all book and the subsequent leaking of 104 players who tested positive for PEDs in 2003 was spread over the internet, we as fans felt increasingly duped and cheated. Now, we question every homerun hit back then as super-charged with roids.

Yet we all feel cheated by the players. We feel let down by the players who we thought played for the love of the game. Almost overnight, our baseball buzz became the ultimate hangover that no amount of sleep or spirin would cure. The focus was on the players. That's were our distain ended. Truthfully, our distain should have only begun there.

The owners for years have denied that they had any knowledge of the drug usage of their players. The commissioner has also said he was in the dark. The players' union likewise has said that they never promoted the use of PEDs with their union members. (They evaded the question answering without saying yes or no). The managers, coaches and front office personnel have also issued statements underlining their obliviousness to what was going on.

Am I missing something here?

These business savy owners were making tens of millions of dollars with world-class athletes as their "workers" and they had no idea? These ownership groups affiliated with countless other high end business ventures with billions of dollars in capital investment had no idea? The most powerful union on the planet had no idea what their union members were doing?

Your damn right they did!

Back in the late 80s and early 90s, the FBI was investigating illegal steroid distribution. Eventually, they uncovered the doping regiments of many athletes. By 1993, McGwire's steroid use was known by the FBI. Back then, the authorities were going after the suppliers not the users like ballplayers so no charges were filed against any athletes.In 1994, the FBI shared their finding with Major League Baseball, specifically Kevin Hallinan, baseball's security head. Whether or not the information matriculated through MLB brass is not known. Hallinan says they could have done nothing because MLB had no testing program in place at that timee.

Years later, Canseco's book came out, Balco was revealed and the federal government got involved. As quickly as the owners could stash their cash, put their blinders on, lawyered up and hunkered down until the dust cleared or until they were subpoenaed in front of congress which ever came first.

It was an act of congress, so to speak, that brought Bud Selig, baseball commissioner and Donald Fehr, head of the players' union to Capitol Hill to testify. Nothing came of it. There hands were tied due to the collective bargining agreement which had no testing procedure. Only after strong suggestions by leaders in Congress did testing became more strict and inline with the other main sports. Yes, Bud Selig asked George Mitchell to do an independant investigation--a PR move--on the depth of the usage of steroids in baseball afterward. The report basically corroberated what we all knew from the get go and that steroids, HGH, etc permeated the game. That was several years ago and as of this writing in 2010, we have yet to hear Selig give an apology or an 'I'm Sorry."

But that won't happen. Its his legacy on the line. After all, he's due to step down in 2012. How about the owners? Not a peep. They are still unscathed by the whole thing.

If we all claim to be purests. If we all claim to put the game of baseball ahead of any interests, then we must also look deeply into the actions of the owners, management and players' union who benefited from the steroid era along with the players. All of the groups are equally at fault. The owners and players' union allowed this to happen. They knew what was going on but choose not to address it. They turned a blind eye and continued to watch the balls fly out of the ballpark as their bank accounts grew. All of baseball is implicated in this era.

I am by no means abdicating the players of their behavior. They took advantage of the times and made their money too. They took PEDs because it gave them an edge. They knew it was artificial but they did it anyway. The short-term statistical and monetary gain to the playeers, like the owners, seemed worth it at the expense of the now apparent long term damage to themselves and game.

If the players are punished (no entrance into the hall of fame) then the owners and players' union should be punished too. Yet how do we punish them for which there is no hard evidence? The answer is we can't. Unless there are documents that show collusion among the owners and management to cover up the rampant usage of steroid and other drugs among the players back then, the truth will stay unknown. If such documents exist then what? How do you punish them? Do they fork over money to the players or the players' union like they did in the 1980S free agency collusion case? How can you? They are implicated in this too. Using the same rationale, can we punish the players who have not tested positive or played before 2003 with a blanket gulity verdict? No we can't. Yet the players are under a cloud of suspicion while the owners and players' union are virtually untouchable and they know it.

The story isn't over. There are more than 100 names that tested positive back in 2003. Those names are out there. Eventually, these names will get out. Only then will we have concrete information that illustrates the scope of PEDs in baseball. Granted, its not all inclusive but its the best we'll have. As more information about the late 90s and early 2000s comes to the surface and is digested by all, the true indicator of what PEDs meant to the game will be readily apparent.

Historians will say that corruption has been a part of baseball since its inception in the 1860s. Gamblers stalked ballgames affecting outcomes for decades leading up to the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. Fights broke out in stands between players and fans and umpires. If that were to happen now, Psychologists would be touting it as the ultimate degredation of society unmatched in any time in history.

Since then, gambling, although not totally eradicated, is not what it once was. Baseball is better organized and well-governed compared to its historically cousin. I am sure that Ruth and Cobb would have juiced if PEDs were available back then. You can bet that Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, Commissioner of Baseball in the 1920s, would have had them banned for life if he found out.

Players now have something to gain about not talking. That is their legacy. The owners, management and the players' union also have something to gain and that's power and leverage. By talking, they dissolve that steady hand they've been waving for years. To them, like the players, the eluring scent of power and financial gain is a far bigger motivator than doing what is right for the game. I want to believe that McGwire is genuine in opening up. Yet he has something to gain and that is a paycheck as a hitting coach. His remarks on how the steroids didn't help him hit homeruns only clouds the legitamacy of his statements and his character. I really want to get behind him. I honestly do. But I just can't bring myself to it. As these names like McGwire's come out, remember this:

Like the players of the past, The players duped us. The owners, the management, the commissioner, the union also duped us.