Baseball, Congress and Steroids

I watched a substantial portion of the “baseball hearings” conducted the other day by a committee of the House of Representatives, its purpose being to get the major leagues to do something about the rampant use of steroids by the players to better “bulk up” their bodies and consequently their bank balances, since such balances depend on statistics and statistics are enhanced by those with the greatest strength – producing the most home runs, highest batting averages, lowest ERA, etc. The most apparent user of steroids – at least allegedly – is Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants; therefore, he, of course, did not participate.

There were a number of “panels” that appeared throughout a very long day. One was comprised of parents whose sons had died as the result of steroid-use. Another was comprised of players, along with Jose Canseco, a former player who has admitted steroid-use and written a top-selling book laying out the whole sordid affair, not that the matter hasn’t been before the public for decades. Another panel was made up of Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and other officials/administrators connected with the game, along with the head honcho of the players’ union, Donald Fehr.

Predictably, the committee expressed deep sympathy for the parents, although one wonders how astute they were in diagnosing the problem of their sons, given the mountains of information that has been available on the subject for years. Their insistence that their sons viewed the players as role models essentially showing the advantages and harmlessness of steroid-use, therefore also making it the right exercise for them, rang a bit hollow since they might have been expected to exert a greater influence than the errant athletes – even discipline – in the matter of negating that hero-worship and the consequently fatal use of drugs.

The congresspersons were – to put it mildly – hostile to the players, owners, officials, and the union rep. It appears that the committee had requested some material from the baseball people supposedly putting together a drug policy and had been put off for a time and then presented with a sort of hodgepodge that merely angered them, both upon its substance (or lack of it) and their negligence. In no uncertain terms, the solons socked it to their victims verbally, and with good cause, actually. The new drug policy represented a toothless tiger. For instance, a player could be reprimanded/punished four times before actually facing expulsion from the game.

The new policy: The new agreement had called for a 10-day suspension or up to $10,000 fine for a first positive test. A second positive was to result in a 30-day suspension or up to $25,000 fine, a third in a 60-day suspension or up to $50,000 fine and a fourth in a one-year suspension or up to $100,000 fine. After that, discipline would be determined by the commissioner, who could do anything he liked, presumably. The latest word, however, is that now it's suspensions only, as a result of an announcement on the 21st. Obviously, the fines meant absolutely nothing, since the top players’ salaries are calculated in the millions of dollars a year. That little word or meant that just the fines but not the suspensions could have been operable, and it’s a lead-pipe cinch that the fines would have been the order of the day, not the suspensions. The union hasn’t voted yet, however, so it remains to be seen how the whole sordid mess shakes out.

Notwithstanding the deletion of the fines-aspect of the agreement – if it happens – and the mandating of suspensions, a player has all kinds of chances. This is odd in a way when considering baseball’s treatment of Pete Rose, the holder of one of baseball’s most prestigious – perhaps the most prestigious – record, most hits in the history of the game. Rose was banned from the game for gambling, with no second chance, even though he did nothing to push his career or damage his body, at least with respect to drug-use. No one has ever claimed that he affected the win/lose aspect on games on which he bet, either. This is not a brief for Rose…he was wrong and he knew he was wrong. But what he did negated no records and did nothing to hurt the game itself. By contrast, people merely smirk when discussing the home run record (73 in a season) by Barry Bonds. He has genuinely hurt the game.

People may differ on the matter of records. Mr. Selig made it plain that no records would be affected by the numbers put up by players who have obviously cheated by using drugs. Certainly, no statistics will be changed, such as batting averages, pitching won-lose percentages, slugging average, etc. However, there is the nagging conviction that to codify these records and other numbers is to denigrate the game itself. Those who remember the exploits of Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron, and Roger Maris from years long gone at least wish for an asterisk, but that doesn’t seem to be forthcoming, either. To this day, an asterisk appears beside the name of Maris because he set a new home run record in 1961 (61 home runs), but did so in a 162-game season. The holder of the previous record of 60 (1927) was Babe Ruth, who set that record in a 154-game season. Political correctness has seeped into every nook and cranny of American life today, but certainly is not retroactive. Maris’s asterisk was officially removed by then commissioner Faye Vincent in 1991, but it still appears.

It was obvious, and made unmistakably so by union representative Fehr, that the players union wants no part of a meaningful drug program. The players are out for big bucks, big numbers – big muscles. The median player salary on both the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox for the 2004 season, for instance, was in excess of $3,000,000, and some players sign contracts worth much, much more than that. Barry Bonds is reputed to have made $18 million in 2004. It is indeed a mystery to union workers why people who sign individual contracts should belong to a union, in the first place, but so it is, and for decades the players have for all practical purposes run the show.

Commissioner Selig minced no words in making it plain that his desire is that Congress pass laws manifestly applying to baseball, which it has granted anti-trust status. It was obvious that he didn’t trust either the players union or the owners to carry out even the ridiculously flawed drug-use protocol that was presented to the committee. It is probable that he will not change his mind very much if the new agreement is ratified, since baseball will still be in the position of policing itself, roughly the equivalent of making the fox guardian over the henhouse. This is not to mention the added perk that the “discipline monkey” will have been removed from Selig’s shoulders if Congress steps in. It will then be the law, stupid!

Big bucks, perhaps primarily brought on by the overwhelming entry of television into the arena drives all of sports now…on every level. The entire sports scene – involved with everything from recruiting high school players to illegally enriching them and bloating their grades in college to drug-use in the pros – has been corrupted, not that there hasn’t always been the element of shadiness in the whole scene. It’s just so much more flagrant now…filling the newspapers everyday with its filth.

And so it goes. It will be interesting to see how the records fare this year if the NEW agreement is actually enforced and significant drug-testing takes place in baseball.