Monday, December 17, 2007

Roid Rage: Are we all that surprised?

Last week, the Mitchell Report came out with a few surprises. In reality, it was more like watching David Copperfield: you know that the magic trick was just slight of hand and not the result of god-like magical powers that made the Statue of Liberty disappear. We were led to believe that 45 year old Roger Clemens, still blowing the doors off, was doing it through a hard-working, clean weight training regimen. Apparently it wasn't as clean as we had hoped. Ol' Roger, among other high profile names, was fingered quite a bit as a 'roid user in the report, and it sucks. Most fans would really like to believe that the "game" is pure and that everyone playing is on the up and up. But, really, has it ever been? For that matter, has any other sport (NFL, anyone?) ever not been?

I really hate these hypocritical baseball purist bastards who praise the achievements of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens for years and years, with the hint of impropriety going on, and then, turn and blast those same players for steroids. The biggest jerks/idiots in this whole thing are the Commissioner Bud "Spineless" Selig and the rest of the owners who turned a blind eye to this after the 1994 strike. Bud and the Billionaire Boys club KNEW what was going on. But like a gambling addict on a winning streak, the winning and large money FELT too good to walk away, or in this case, make a stand and say it was wrong.

After the Strike, Baseball Purity as a religion should have died a long hard death. Let's be honest, folks. After playing a half season and then shutting it down and NOT having the World Series, any sacred cows were sacrificed. Baseball, which was becoming less popular as the 80s closed and the 90s charged in, lost its mojo and was in serious trouble. When the players came back about 3 weeks into the 1995 season, I went to see the California Angels, my childhood team, a few times. A team which once attracted 2.3 Million people a year when Reggie Jackson was in town, were getting exactly 15,000 people a game for the first 2 months of the season. With the ballpark only one fifth full, I got to do something that I had never done growing up, sit behind the screen at home plate in the 1st row before the 7th inning stretch of a tight ballgame. No one cared, because frankly, the general public didn't care. For the Angels, the seats filled up when they ran up a 13 game lead in August, but for most teams, 1995 was a disaster.

Then, came the homers. In 1996, McGwire and Griffey flirted with Maris' single season record of 61. Next came the buzz about baseball again. "Will they do it? Will Big Mac pass the Babe and Maris?" With the buzz, came ticket sales. Whenever the home run trains of McGwire, Albert "Taco" Belle, and other guys who had pumped up the HR numbers rolled into town, ticket sales skyrocketed. Everyone wanted to watch a large guy hit a baseball, long, high, and far into the night sky. It was awesome! The fans loved it, the players loved it (with more money available to make $15 M a year), and the owners loved it because baseball was back.

We all know what happened for the next 10 years. McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, Palmeiro, and dozens of others assaulted the baseball and the record books with super-human strength, and we loved it. There was talk of steroids (McGwire was asked this quite often in 1998 as he hit 70 HRs, but he always suggested it was Creatine.) We WANTED to believe him, so we did. He was the HR King. When Barry Bonds, big head and all, crushed Big Mac's record in 2001, the questions started about steroids, but weren't really that loud. Bonds and the rest of baseball trucked on. Then, we got a glimpse behind the curtain. Actually, Jose Canseco whispered to us, "Psst....look how they do it. Look how I did it." The house of cards came tumbling down.

Congress got involved, holding grandstanding public hearings about the assault on the purity of baseball and the use of illegal substances. They brought our heroes in front of their publicity seeking panels to say "C'mon, tell us that we haven't been duped and that everyone is on the up and up. And, say it under oath." We know how that went: not well for baseball. The cat was out of the bag. Next came Balco, grand juries, and other nonsense that could have been stopped when it started. It wasn't.

Bud Selig, the former controlling owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, in the early 90s led a coup d'etat against Commissioner Faye Vincent, and did exactly the opposite of what the mostly corrupt and deplorable Black Sox era owners decided was in the best interests of the game: to keep the executive decisions for player and team conduct separate from the moneyed interests of the individual owners. With his power grab, Bud effectively doomed the sport to where it is today: seven pence much the richer, but completely discredited with all players who hit 40 plus dingers or win 20 games after age 30 under suspicion. Bud should have taken it like a man and said, "It went on and it shouldn't have, but WE DIDN'T ENFORCE IT and we are rolling our way to the bank. So there." End of discussion. Instead, Bud wimped out and placed the blame for the enforcement anywhere but in his office.

The funny thing about the baseball controversy is how a sport that has NO DOUBT had its players beef up with anything they could get their hands on has somehow slipped past the radar. Looking at today's hulking monsters who play every Sunday in the fall, it's almost comical that the NFL has somehow avoided the scrutiny of the media and Congress. I guess in this sense, it's better to not be the National Pastime, but instead be the most popular kid in school and in the sports-viewing public. Let's go back to 1985, when some guy named Fridge Perry was an anomaly on defense: a 300-plus guy who was actually somewhat mobile. But he was 300 lbs! Few guys were THAT big in the NFL in the early to mid-1980s. Now, today's average college offensive line is loaded with 300 lb steers who can run the 40 in less than 5 seconds. Do you think these hulks are clean of any artificial substances that end in roids? You have to be kidding.

I have little physical evidence to substantiate my claims, except for the blistering pace of human evolution over the last 20 years that allows a 300 lb man to move like he was 160 lbs. If baseball has steroid problems, then a physically punishing sport like football is definitely rife with juicers. (I mean, has anyone been fooled?) What's the difference between baseball and football? Football has better leaders and has a better marketing machine. Somehow, they have Obi-waned the powers that be and the public, but minimally enforcing violations and being proactive that "we are doing something to offenders we catch". Baseball hemmed and hahed and is in trouble.

Where to now? Steroids are clearly bad and give the athletes who use them an unfair advantage that people who are clean do not enjoy. Athletes put themselves at risk for severe health problems at the cost of a few years of fame and money. I wish steroids weren't sullying the games we watch. As a young kid, I hoped one day I might play somewhere on the big stage, but knowing that others made themselves better unfairly makes me wonder if I even had a chance to make it without cheating. Steroids have been around since the mid-1950s. Any player who played any sport since is suspect. Like many others out there, I feel duped, but can you blame a guy who watches others gain an unfair advantage in a way too tolerant environment and does it just so he can earn his $10 Million a year? It's a tempting mistress with that kind of money on the line.

Cheating by taking steroids is not right, but baseball has to own up and legitimize the records that happened before the enforcement of these rules. In the United States, governments cannot prosecute people for actions that were not considered crimes at the time of commission, even if laws are now on the books as crimes. Baseball didn't ban these substances outright until it was already infected and players were tainted. When they drew the line in the sand by officially banning the substances over the last couple of years, anything after those points can then be put up for scrutiny, and any player caught should be suspended. Anything before, unfortunately, should not be changed. You don't have to like it, but it's really the only fair thing to do at this point. For this whole mess, you can blame Bud.

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