Cult of Babe Ruth Warps Steroids Debate

March 5, 2009

The steroids/performance enhancing drugs (PED) debate in baseball lost me a long time ago when I became convinced that it really is all about statistics, particularly home runs.  And more specifically I believe, the debate has been fueled by the Cult of Babe Ruth.  babe_ruthThe steroids/PED issue is often discussed by baseball purists, crusading sportswriters, and shortsighted fans with the use of the code phrase: the integrity of the game.   But the fact is concerns about the so-called integrity of the game do not appear to extend to any other facet of baseball other than home runs.  The concern over the integrity of the game never seems to address other hits or pitching, or wins and loses.  Many of those outraged over PEDs have suggested as a remedy: stripping the record book of home run totals – particularly those of Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa or now Alex Rodriguez.  It seems to me that this obsessive focus on home run hitters in and of itself seems to invalidate any real efforts to rid the game of steroids and PEDs or realistically deal with the problem.

Let’s start with records.  How I ask might we alter the record book without dealing with the far reaching impact of the overturned records?  How would this actually work?  Do you also take away the victories that came with the additional home runs hit?  Do you strip away World Series games or championships that may have been won based on the alleged artificial power added by steroid use? Do we name new champions for suspect years?   Do we refund ticket buyers who were “deceived” by steroid/PED fueled hitters?  Someone please answer those questions first before we go on any further discussing altering the record book.

On the other side of it, where is the equal outrage over the pitchers who now throw fastballs over 100 mph?  Pitchers whose throwing speed may have been artificially increased because of steroids or other PEDs.   Based on what we now know about the results of steroids/PED tests since official testing began five years ago, a disproportionate number of the players who have failed tests and have been suspended have been pitchers. But where is the equivalent public outcry over those pitchers and their violations of the integrity of the game?  Even the finger pointing at alleged steroids cheater Roger Clemens rarely suggests we should take away his strikeouts, or his wins.  Roger Clemens’ violation of the so-called integrity of the game doesn’t appear to carry the same weight as the home run hitters.   Why is that?   I believe the answer is simply that the steroids/PED debate is at its heart dishonest, laced with hypocrisy and is ultimately fueled by the Cult of Babe Ruth.

The sport of baseball remade itself from the deadball era (The deadball era which ended nearly 90 years ago was a time when baseballs weren’t nearly as hard as today’s baseball and couldn’t be hit as far) by literally changing the composition of the ball, which as a result made home runs easier to hit because the ball was much harder.   The first player to really take advantage of the end of the deadball era was the mighty Babe Ruth, who remains baseball’s all-time icon. The Babe’s prodigious feats not only built Yankee Stadium, but also built a cult of personality which still has millions of adherents to this day.

The theology of the Cult of Babe Ruth has warped and bastardized the debate over performance enhancing drugs and steroids.  There can be no rational discussion of the issue I believe until we deal with the real culprit – the Cult of Babe Ruth.   Ruthites like to hide behind their token affection for Hank Aaron.  But it seems to me that the Ruthites’ affection for Hank Aaron is really just a smokescreen.  Ironically it was Aaron who learned first hand just how powerful the Cult of Babe Ruth was when he was taunted with death threats and racial slurs 35 years ago as he began encroaching on the Babe’s hallowed home run total of 714.

Lastly, many steroid debaters talk about the impact ballplayers’ use of steroids has on “the kids”.   The kids, the kids, the kids.  The refrain is nearly deafening.  This is the most spurious claim of all.   If this witch hunt was really about the kids, or even the serious health risks posed by the use of steroids, then the hypocritical disgust of so-called fans and sports writers would be equally applied to all ballplayers and all sports.  Most of the disgust is saved for baseball players who allegedly cheated the game by using PEDs to hit home runs.  The same outrage is not directed at football players like Shawne Merriman of the San Diego Chargers, who three years ago tested positive for a PED, was suspended, and returned to his sport with little harm done to his reputation, and relatively little outrage over his PED use.

Clearly, the evidence suggests to me that the PED/steroids debate is not about the kids, or health risks at all, and the sanctimonious claims that the integrity of the game of baseball has been harmed by PEDs is at best dishonest and hypocritical.


Maybe It’s Best to Say Nothing

February 21, 2009

Hindsight being what it is, it’s beginning to look like Alex Rodriguez should have told reporters to get lost rather than hold that press conference the other day.  From the moment A-Rod said his unnamed “cousin” helped him to procure and then inject “boli” as he called it, the floodgates of doubt opened up. Now it seems there may be an official call for A-Rod’s cousin to explain how he got the steroid for Rodriguez and how he might have smuggled the drugs from the Dominican Republic into the U.S. – if in fact that’s what actually happened.

Making things worse is that  A-Rod is now being linked to a personal trainer prominently mentioned in major league baseball’s Mitchell Report.

“Confessions” often raise more questions than they answer.  This is now the case with Alex Rodriguez.  And perhaps that’s why you probably will not see a long line of players who will admit to using performance enhancing drugs.  The fact is nothing  said by A-Rod  or others tainted by the PED scandal will likely ever satisfy a hungry press corps or fans who feel betrayed their heroes.

The problem with cleansing one’s soul – there is never enough soap.  To many of the fans, the media and other members of the public jury, these confessors will always be “dirty” in some way.   In his attempt to appear open, Rodriguez is beginning to look just like the liar many think he’s always been.  And right now he may be the best example of why  sometimes you’re better served when you say nothing at all.

Suspension for A-Rod? – Don’t Even Try

February 12, 2009

We have now entered into the theater of the absurd. MLB commissioner Bud Selig tells USA Today that he is considering a suspension of Alex Rodriguez. It doesn’t get more ridiculous than this.

Okay, I get it. An unnamed someone with unknown motives leaks A-Rod’s 2003 steroid test results to a national magazine, which of course publishes the story. The test results by legal agreement were supposed to be anonymous and stay that way. No one was to be punished regardless of the results. Six years after the testing, and a day after the leak A-Rod is forced into an admission of sorts on ESPN. Now he faces possible suspension. Are you kidding me? Apparently the commissioner is feeling the heat of public pressure and says he may suspend Rodriguez. Based on what? What legal standing does the commissioner have? Further there are 103 other unknown names listed as testing positive. Do they now face suspension? Not for one minute has the commissioner seriously thought this through.

This is exactly why the steroids witch-hunt accomplishes nothing. Even if you believe A-Rod didn’t tell the complete truth about his steroids use in the ESPN confession, he nonetheless took a step most players would never consider taking. Now should A-Rod get suspended despite all the assurances the 2003 steroids tests promised, you can be virtually assured that no one else under suspicion will say a word and will never admit to anything. Why should they?

Why Only A-Rod?

February 11, 2009

Let me get back to a question I asked the other day about the latest steroids scandal: Why Alex Rodriguez? Why only him? What was the motive for releasing his name and his alone when there are 103 other players who also allegedly failed the test for steroids. Why weren’t other names leaked? Something is clearly wrong here. As a former journalist and current journalism instructor, I’m hard-pressed to criticize Selena Roberts and Sports Illustrated for reporting this juicy exclusive leak. This is what reporters do – report. But I have to wonder does Ms. Roberts know some of the other names? And if not, did she question why leakers only gave her the name of a single, albeit superstar, player? Keep in mind there were three other sources who corroborated the exclusive leak. Did Sports Illustrated even consider the implicit unfairness of it’s explosive tip? Did the magazine care about the ramifications?

For now, and I say this carefully, because I absolutely don’t know for sure, it appears that Alex Rodriguez’ name was probably leaked by someone connected to the Federal prosecution of the BALCO case. Only Sports Illustrated knows exactly where this leak came from. And the magazine is not obligated to reveal it’s sources. But we should ask: what’s really going on in this now years old investigation that would cause someone to leak the name of Alex Rodriguez? Did the government try to pressure A-Rod into revealing what he knows about steroids and then toss his reputation to the wind when he didn’t cooperate? Are pressure tactics being applied to other players on the list? Yes, I’m speculating, but the motives behind A-Rod’s outing need to be discussed and examined.

The egregious way in which the Feds have pursued the BALCO case and Barry Bonds in particular has clearly sullied its investigation of steroids in sports. The Feds have recklessly pursued players like Bonds in its quest for headlines, when if they really cared should be going after the creators and distributors of these illegal performance enhancing drugs. The way I see it, traffickers are getting a relative pass and high profile athletes are getting embarrassed and in some cases prosecuted. Again, I am absolutely not excusing the actions of drug cheating athletes, but if we only look at Alex Rodriguez and his forced admission of steroid use and his now tarnished reputation, we are probably missing the big picture – and the real story.

A-Rod Comes Clean – Who are we to judge?

February 10, 2009

I’m glad Alex Rodriguez has now come clean about steroid use while with the Texas Rangers. Unlike many athletes, the ever image conscious, Alex Rodriguez is often thoughtful, poised, well-spoken and generally well-mannered. That A-Rod came out in the confessional-style interview with Peter Gammons on ESPN. It was a measured and impressive performance, the kind that any crisis expert would praise. But I’m nonetheless uneasy about A-Rod’s “confession” and its implications. First, we don’t know if what he said in the ESPN interview is the complete truth. It’s probable that the unadulterated version of A-Rod’s steroid use is far more than we need to know and far more than A-Rod’s now tarnished image can stand. The true Truth we may never know.

I suppose he felt he had to confess. He is baseball’s highest paid and highest profile player, now permanently tarnished, with years left before retirement, which would have meant years of speculation and suspicion. Perhaps he considered just how poorly stonewalling and lying has played out for Rafael Palmeiro, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds. I’m sure he also thought about the relatively positive receptions that teammates Jason Giambi and Andy Pettitte got with their semi-confessions. So he likely made a calculated choice to tell the truth knowing he had nothing to lose and a patched-up reputation to regain. This is a process that will surely be repeated. Eventually the other names on that list will be leaked too. And they will have to decide whether to confirm or deny.

I’ve been thinking hard about what’s really making me feel uneasy, and I believe what’s troubling me is the judge and jury roles that some in the media, some inside baseball and many fans are now taking up. For instance, the owner of the Texas Rangers Tom Hicks says he feels a “strong sense of personal betrayal” by Rodriguez. Are you kidding me? Hicks is the same guy who proudly overpaid for A-Rod and then reaped all of the benefits of employing baseball’s best shortstop. Hicks is being a hypocrite. A lot of folks are being hypocritical.

While it seems clear that A-Rod’s “confession” was a carefully crafted PR ploy designed to limit the damage and elicit sympathy from shocked fans and future Hall of Fame voters what should we expect? We are part of the problem. We have chosen to idolize Alex Rodriguez and other players and we are willing to spend lots of money to buy tickets, souvenirs and other memorabilia. Thus whether we want to admit it or not our involvement as fans makes us indirectly complicit in the steroid mess. So in the end who are we to judge?

Et Tu A-Rod?

February 8, 2009

Baseball’s latest steroid revelation now fingering the Yankee’s Alex Rodriguez leaves me with a lot of questions. Such as: Why only A-Rod? Who else is on the list of 104 players who allegedly tested positive for steroids in 2003? Who leaked the details of the test results to Sports Illustrated and why? Why weren’t the test results destroyed when ballplayers were promised absolute anonymity? Are the Feds to blame? They are ones who seized urine samples and documents in 2004 from the testing labs in pursuit of the BALCO case. When does the steroid witch-hunt end?

I could go on. There are dozens of unanswered questions. And I’m sure we’ll never get a straight answer to any of them. The point is there is no way to know for sure about anyone or anything regarding steroid use in major league baseball. Its all speculation and innuendo. All we do know is that players used steroids. We don’t know how many used and we don’t know when they used. That’s all we know – that’s all we’re likely to know.

Here’s one question that baseball historians will surely be uncomfortable with and likely dismiss without much consideration – But I ask it to make a point that I hope will cause you to pause and think: Why are we so sure that former single season home run champion Roger Maris never used steroids when in fact steroids were indeed available in 1961? Why are we so sure that Maris never used steroids when in fact he only hit 275 career home runs and only hit more than 30 home runs 3 times in his career (all in a statistically unusual three-year period including the record setting season in which he hit 61)? Baseball dealt with Maris’ statistical aberration by granting him an asterisk for the home run record, and never voting him into the Hall of Fame.

I bring up Maris as red-flag waving example of how unproven speculation can lead to innuendo and character assassination. That’s what’s going on now. A-Rod has had quite a few huge statistical seasons and remains the odds on favorite to eventually eclipse Barry Bonds all-time home-run record. But until yesterday very few people publicly speculated that A-Rod was a steroid user. Most believed that he was the savior in waiting who would one day erase the “stain” of Bonds. Now based on unnamed sources and test results that we will likely never have confirmation about, A-Rod takes a very public fall. But what have we gained? What do we really know? Nothing.

We’ll never know for sure about Roger Maris and others from his era because there was no testing back then. And there was also no suspicion. But we’ll also never know when baseball’s so-called steroid era really began. Did it begin when the first group of players began hitting more than 50 home runs on a regular basis? Did it begin when an increasing number of pitchers began throwing more than 98 miles per hour? Did it begin at some point after the development and approval of the first steroid drugs in the 1950s?

I’m not defending the use of steroids or other performance enhancing drugs in any way. But this witch-hunt has gone on for far too long. Not one thing has truly been accomplished. Only fingers have been pointed. And only at a select few individuals. There is a level of hypocrisy about this that is shameful. I say let’s grant all the players past and present blanket amnesty for indiscretions involving performance enhancing drugs up to today, and move forward from here. Without amnesty everyone loses, Baseball most of all.

Baseball’s Righteous Hypocrites Cast the First Stone

January 10, 2007

It’s official, Mark McGwire did not get elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame. More than 75 percent of the baseball writers who cast votes for induction into the Hall made a statement against the alleged steroid user. Meantime those same voters had no problem voting in Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn. Both Ripken and Gwynn received more than 97 percent of the votes cast. Both were great players who deserved induction. Ripken will be remembered first for his Ironman streak of more than 2600 consecutive games played for the Baltimore Orioles. Gwynn will be remembered for being one of the greatest hitters in baseball history with a lifetime .338 batting average – the best since Ted Williams.

But Mark McGwire will mostly be remembered by writers and some fans for refusing to address questions on Capitol Hill a couple of years ago about steroid use in baseball as TV cameras slowly zoomed in on what looked to be his dishonest face. His shaky testimony before lawmakers to some absolutely meant McGwire was guilty of using performance enhancing drugs to hit his tape measure home runs. Soon after a lot of sportswriters couldn’t wait to be judge and jury. These are the same sportwriters who gushed without shame in 1998 when McGwire hit his record breaking 62nd home run and finished the season with 70.

Should we care whether McGwire was a steroid user? Perhaps we should. But the fact remains that in an era when it now appears that untold numbers of players were using steroids and human growth hormone and everyone inside baseball knew about it, including writers, the hypocracy resulting in the Hall of Fame voting becomes almost shameful.

I feel sorry for McGwire. He like a handful of “obvious” alleged steroid users was caught in a trap of negative public opinion and writers’ grandstanding without any real proof. The facts are that McGwire never failed a drug test. He also never admitted to taking illegal drugs. His only real crime is that he just “looked like” he used lots of steroids. And sportswriters looking for a scapegoat conveniently found one in McGwire, even though they, like us, will never know for sure if McGwire did or did not “cheat”. Just like none of us will ever know whether the “good guys” Ripken and Gwynn used performance enhancing drugs either. But one thing is clear – on Hall of Fame election day the righteous hypocrites who pick and choose our heroes have indeed cast the first stone.