John Thorn is a contributing writer for The Business of Sports Network
It is now one week since the release of the Mitchell Report, culminating a 20-month, $20 million investigation (into secondary sources, largely ... how on earth was so much spent?) in which the former Senator made 20 recommendations after identifying about 90 players who had used steroids or human growth hormone. What has been the fallout? Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig said that since the report’s release he has read it twice. Players union chief Don Fehr announced his willingness to meet with Selig to discuss the report’s recommendations. Some players, including Andy Pettitte, Brian Roberts, Gary Bennett, and F.P. Santangelo, acknowledged their reported use of performance enhancing drugs. Others, including Roger Clemens and David Justice, vigorously objected to their being listed among the accused.
Even President Bush weighed in. “Steroids have sullied the game,” said the former part-owner of the Texas Rangers, whose locker room in the early 1990s had been regarded as a drug haven. “My hope is that this report is a part of putting the steroid era of baseball behind us.” If Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds are left to cool their heels at the gates to the Hall of Fame for a while, as has been the fate of Mark McGwire, that seems to be all right with most writers and fans. On the other hand, Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle said, “I can assure you that Bud Selig will be voted into the Hall of Fame, and he is the commissioner whose name will be linked with the steroid era by first ignoring it, then profiting from it, and finally blaming others for it.”
So who killed Cock Robin? Mitchell’s report held the commissioner, team officials, the union, and the named players responsible for these dark days in baseball, which tainted the on-field product and skewed the historical record. But he gave the fans a pass.
In blogs and chat rooms last week fans registered their dismay, revulsion, bitterness and shock — shock!! — about the report’s revelations. In a flamboyant but illustrative example, one baseball lover wrote to the sports editor of the New York Times: “I’m literally in tears looking at this list. Men that I admired and respected, envied and encouraged, men who ran for me, dived for me, played for me are cheats....”
“Played for me” ... yes, that melodramatic, naive notion is at the heart of the matter. It is precisely what being a fan is about, and it is why the steroid scandal has hurt so many so much. We had pinned our honor to their sleeves and sent them forth to joust on our behalves — we could hardly do battle ourselves, could we? — and they had betrayed our trust. These ballplayers, these superhuman figures who could reach heights unattainable by mere humans, were our surrogates; they were us, and their fall feels like ours. If it were simply theirs—like Britney’s wardrobe malfunctions, or Lindsay’s driving lapses—we would register the amused astonishment that guiltily masks schadenfreude.
But the failure of the steroid era was somehow ours, loath though we are to admit it. We were complicit. We looked the other way just as Selig and Fehr and the clean players and the tolerant umpires and the beat reporters did, with rare exception.
Some wag once said, we elect the politicians we deserve. Let me suggest that we select as our champions—the bearers of our hopes, our dreams, our illusions—the heroes we deserve.
While Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and others labored under suspicion, we cheered their assault upon the home run records of Ruth, Maris, and Aaron. We saw no irony in Rafael Palmeiro appearing between innings of a ball game to endorse Viagra, an apparently unexceptionable enhancer of performance. (Wanna be a slugger like Raffy?) If we watched the evening news programs, we were routinely bombarded with drug manufacturers’ exhortations to ask our doctors about the latest advance in easing once bearable discomforts or newly coined syndromes. The wonders of modern medicine were gloriously available to all, we believed. We might aspire to bodies that heal quickly and stay functional beyond what used to be termed reasonable limits of age. But athletes were members of a priestly class whose place is to inspire us with unaided exploits: they had to play by the rules of the old ball game, the one we think we remember from our childhoods.
If athletes are magicians or culture priests, who perform the superhuman when summoned to do so, why shouldn’t they have elixirs and potions and magic wands? Even though part of their appeal is that they are truly just like us only a bit different — we could hit a Roger Clemens splitter, we could blow one by Barry Bonds — in truth they are not like us. We may wonder how a magician brings off his trick but we don’t expect him to share his secrets with us in the audience ... we just want a good show. We might not be flattered if we learned that at the core of his magic were the credulity and distractibility of the audience.
Marion Jones’s tearful admission of her use of illegal supplements caused us barely a moment’s shared pain, and not a twinge of remorse for having waved the flag in victory along with her. NBA referee Tim Donaghy’s admission of colluding with gamblers was yesterday’s news in an instant. NHL goonery was tacitly a part of the game; why get excited about that? The Michael Vick canine abuse matter was larger, of course, and repellent for reasons discussed in this column previously. But the fans “owned” none of the dogfighters’ collateral guilt. Baseball’s scandal was different.
Baseball fans love a trick, a ruse, a sly swindle, as long as it is played out between the white lines. Scarred baseballs, pine tarred pitching hands, corked bats, even the hidden ball trick ... all are countenanced gladly as part of the game, if a guy can get away with it. Mechanically aided schemes like the one that may have tilted the 1951 pennant race — a telescope at a window of the center field clubhouse at the Polo Grounds, linked to an electrical buzzer to the bullpen, with signals thence flowing to the batter to signal the oncoming pitch — seem beyond the pale, yet even in that instance the players in the know kept their silence for half a century. In baseball as in real life, we may admire those who abide by the law but we will love those who successfully evade it.
Despite many amateurish attempts to correlate the use of performance enhancing drugs with enhanced performance (the latest such appearing in the Milwaukee Sentinel of December 16), no scientific study has yet determined or even indicated that the drugs in question make a pitcher throw a ball with more speed or cunning, or make a batter deposit his hits in locations more distant or artful. As David Kaplan of the University of Wisconsin has demonstrated, baseball has long exhibited statistical “outliers” like those whose homers per at bat were more than 3 standard deviations from the mean. These have included not only Barry Bonds in 2001-04 and Mark McGwire in 1998-2000 but also McGwire in 1992 and Bonds in 1993 ... as well as Hank Aaron in 1973, Willie Mays in 1965, and Ted Williams in 1960. None of these and many other “freakish” long-ball feats have had any impact on the long-term (half-century) trend to more home runs and fewer triples.
Is it possible that HGH, the new bugaboo of those who would restore the game’s virginity, is (as many have argued about steroids) a placebo, boosting performance for those who believed it could? Yup. Dr. George Griffing, Professor of Medicine at St. Louis University, writing this week for WebMD’s eMedicine service, reports:
“In people with normal GH levels, HGH does not improve athletic performance in terms of muscle strength, flexibility, and endurance. In fact, several placebo-controlled studies have been negative. A four-week, double-blind Swedish study using two doses of HGH and placebo found no differences in subjects exercising on a bicycle in terms of power output and oxygen uptake. In another study, a single injection of HGH increased plasma lactate and reduced exercise performance.... It turns out that, like Paul Bunyan, the athletic benefit of HGH is a myth.”
Facts be damned. Fans say that they want the game cleaned up and the miscreants punished. They want their baseball back. The cruel thing is that while fans praise tricksters and connivers, this time the joke’s on them, maybe even a double or triple joke. They thought they were watching one sort of game while in fact they were watching another. The steroid scandal has trashed their memories—their places in their own family albums—and it has held up to them, mockingly, their own gullibility.
More than any other sport, perhaps more than any other American institution, baseball is the game of memory, individual and collective, real and imagined. What has been “sullied,” to use the President’s term, is not merely the game but our individual and collective past. Because baseball took advantage of our innocence, we seem inauthentic to ourselves ... even though scientific evidence of an actual massive assault on the integrity of the game and its records, rather than simply a widespread intent to commit one, is lacking. Major League Baseball and its fans will get back together, as they did after 1994, aided by the glamour of home run records. But it will be a bit sad, as all reconciled couples are.
John Thorn wrote his first book thirty years ago and since then has produced dozens more. His next book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden, will be published with Simon and Schuster in Spring 2008. Thorn writes "Play's the Thing," a column for the Woodstock Times. He is also a columnist for Voices, the publication of the New York Folkore Society, and 108, a new baseball quarterly. Recently announced is a new scholarly baseball journal that he will edit for the publisher McFarland & Company; it will be called BASE BALL: A Journal of the Early Game. View Thorn's complete profile at the Business of Sports Network.