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Friday, Feb. 27, 2009

The Young and the Brainless

The Fairly Detached Observers

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What a mess. Alex Rodriguez, baseball’s hope to succeed Hank Aaron as the unblemished home run king, instead joins Barry Bonds and others whose achievements will always be questioned. A-Rod’s admission of past steroid use—prompted by Sports Illustrated’s revelation of his failed drug test in 2003—raises big issues for baseball commissioner Bud Selig. The Observers, who will always love baseball, offer their advice.

Frank: A-Rod seems to think that if he uses the mantra enough—”young and stupid, young and stupid”—we’ll let it go at that.

Artie: Young and stupid is 16 or 17 years old, not 25 and in the league for what, six years?

Frank: He must think we’re stupid if he’s asking us to believe he didn’t know what was going into his body.

Artie: His body, which made him a multimillionaire and presumably was taking him to the Hall of Fame. So he has a cousin inject him with who knows what?

Frank: At first I thought, OK, he’s being smart, like Charles Barkley with his DUI arrest, and doing what everyone who gets in a jam should do—admit the deed and ask forgiveness. If Nixon had done it, he never would have been impeached.

Artie: In other words, if Nixon had acted like our current president with the Daschle tax thing and said, “Hey, I screwed up.” But for A-Rod, it’s like somehow it’s not his fault. His cousin did the injecting; he didn’t know what it was. There isn’t really any claim of responsibility, just a list of reasons why we should still love him.

Frank: All the pressure of that $250 million contract the Rangers forced on him. “It’s not easy being me.”

Artie: “I should have gone to college and maybe I would have been smarter.” He’s not fessing up that he made this choice. And now we find that in ‘07 he and the cousin were hangin’ with a trainer who was banned from big-league clubhouses.

Frank: So what does Mr. Selig do now? As we’ve said before, it’s one thing for Bud to pretend that one guy, Mark McGwire, doesn’t exist in terms of Hall of Fame worthiness. But this is different.

Artie: Now it’s an active player involved. Even with Bonds, he could try to shove him into the past. And Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro.

Frank: Last year Bud said there would be no punishment for those named as possible drug users in the Mitchell Report, and that everyone should just look forward. But he can’t do that in terms of judging records and Hall of Fame credentials. Baseball holds itself up as a national treasure, a “social institution,” as Bud calls it. He has to decide how this “steroid era” will be explained to the fans.

Artie: The ones who make everyone in the game rich.

Frank: It’s no easy task. There’s no way to quantify how much drug-taking has poisoned anyone’s statistics, or the team results. If you’re seeking to be a “pure” game, you have to address the fact that there’s been tainting. However, I doubt we’ll receive any rebate checks for 1998, when the “Mac and Sammy” show was being sold as one of the game’s glories.

Artie: Hey, business is business, as the late John Matuszak of Oak Creek said in that great football movie, North Dallas Forty.

Frank: The Tooz spoke for fans as well as players when he said, “Every time I call it a game, you say it’s a business. Every time I say it’s a business, you call it a game!”

Artie: Bud can’t choose just one of those.

Frank: Right. I see him with three options. One: He could come down hard on steroid guys, nullify some records, put people on the banned list like Pete Rose. Two: He could decide to put asterisks on certain records and disclaimers on Hall of Fame plaques, if any of those guys make it. Three, and I would say most realistically, he could say, “We’ll never be able to untangle these statistics, and all of usowners, players, media and fans—played a part in tainting our sport. The numbers will stand, but the players who cheated will have to live with that stain. And we’ll do all we can to make things better.”

Artie: I’ve heard a suggestion that the Hall of Fame have a separate wing for players from the steroid era, starting sometime in the ‘90s and lasting until steroid testing with penalties began in 2006.

Frank: A back corridor, lit by a single 40-watt bulb, no doubt.

Artie: And a sign that says, “Sponsored by Ripley’s Believe It or Not.”

Frank: You could date things from 1995, the year after the strike that erased the World Series and the year when homers—surprise!—began increasing dramatically.

Artie: Hmm... Fans dig the long ball. Some coincidence, huh?

Frank: I’ve always suspected the ball was juiced up.

Artie: Yes, sir, it was the main theory at that time, with guys like Brady Anderson and Luis Gonzalez suddenly having 50-homer years.

Frank: Mr. Selig said emphatically that he shouldn’t be blamed for this mess, that he had to fight the players’ union at every turn on drugs. It’s true that owners proposed steroid testing in ‘95 and got nowhere. But in ‘98, although we learned McGwire was using the steroidlike “andro” substance, everyone just rode the bandwagon. The media are saying “mea culpa” for not being more vigilant. Everyone else, Bud included, should do the same.

Artie: The problem with asterisks is, where would they end?

Frank: You could put an asterisk on anything that happened before 1947 and Jackie Robinson because baseball was segregated.

Artie: Or how about asterisks for the league’s expansion and the dilution of pitching, or for anyone who played before night baseball, or for this era of smaller ballparks?

Frank: Maybe a benefit from the steroid mess is that we lose our blissful illusions of Major League Baseball as a human endeavor that somehow isn’t affected by human flaws. Maybe we take it for what it is: good athletics, good entertainment, but absolutely a business. The owners sell a product for as much money as they can. The players use the game to make their fortunes. And some of them, to maximize their income, succumb to the temptation to cheat.

Artie: A-Rod was making a business decision.

Frank: It’s just human nature. I’m not saying Hank Aaron or Babe Ruth would have used steroids if they were available in those days, but there would have been users. Amphetamines have been in baseball for decades.

Artie: Jim Bouton wrote in Ball Four about bowls of “greenies” available in the clubhouse.

Frank: Speaking of business, will the customers react to all this by staying home in significant numbers?

Artie: It’ll be hard to tell because of the lousy economy.

Frank: I think if attendance goes down, it won’t have anything to do with drug issues. Nobody stayed away in San Francisco when Bonds was going for his records.

And people packed the Giants’ road games—maybe to boo Bonds, but they still came.

Artie: It’ll be the same for A-Rod.

Frank: Being realistic about big-league ball doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the beauty and drama of the game. Plus, I offer this shocking theory: For most fans, the main thing is whether your team is winning.

Artie: Well, I know one thing for sure. Steroids increase muscle mass but not intelligence. Those 104 guys who failed in ‘03 knew the test was coming and could have flushed their systems, but chose not to.

Frank: Obviously, they were young and stupid.

Frank Clines labored almost 20 years in the sports department at the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and covered the Brewers part-time for most of those years. Art Kumbalek wonders if there’s a steroid available that could speed recoverytime from the common hangover.