Thursday, February 25, 2010

Pumped Up Pastime: A Disquisition in Three Parts (Part Three)

We come to the end of the steroid cycle. You've been feeling the manic euphoria of incredible muscle gains and the satisfaction that for once, your clothes have gotten tighter for the right reasons. Let's go out on a high note, wrapping this baby up before you start cruising for bar fights and start wondering just what the hell is happening to the family jewels.

Among the game’s superstars more recently linked to steroids is New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, widely regarded as the most talented player in the game, and worthy of consideration among the game’s greatest players. In 2007 he became the youngest player in history to hit 500 home runs in his career, a benchmark that usually guarantees entry into the Hall of Fame. Rodriguez was not included in the Mitchell report, and avoided allegations of drug abuse throughout his career. In part because he was regarded as a natural talent who would likely one day restore legitimacy to baseball’s all-time home run record, now held by the tainted Barry Bonds, following the 2007 season the Yankees rewarded Rodriguez with 10-year, $275 million contract that included incentives and revenue sharing should he reach certain career milestones and home run records. In February 2009, however, Sports Illustrated reported that Rodriguez test positive for steroids in 2003, the year he won the Most Valuable Player award with the Texas Rangers.

Over the course of two major media events that soon followed – an exclusive interview with the venerable Peter Gammons (who was far too easy on Rodriguez) and a news conference at the Yankees' spring training facility in Tampa, Florida – Rodriguez admitted to using steroids from 2001-2003, but did so in a manner that damaged his integrity and raised almost as many questions as he answered.

New York Times baseball reporter Tyler Kepner enumerated several of the reasons in his article covering the news conference: "In 2007, he lied to Katie Couric of CBS when he said he had never used performance-enhancing drugs. In his interview with ESPN last Monday, he lied about not knowing what kind of steroid he used. He also lied when he said that Selena Roberts, the reporter who broke the story of his failed drug test, tried to break into his home in Miami."

But Rodriguez's credibility problem goes much deeper than that. Rodriguez said he and a cousin had obtained the drugs in the Dominican Republic. It was his cousin who introduced him to "boli," Rodriguez said. "It was his understanding that it would give me a dramatic energy boost and was otherwise harmless." A dramatic energy boost? Athletes who take steroids do so in order to make dramatic gains in strength and muscle mass, as well as to decrease the amount of recovery time between workouts. Rodriguez may claim to have been "young and stupid," but surely he knew what steroids were and their effects on the body. (Rodriguez was the tender age of 25 when he claimed to have begun using a banned substance, and 28 at end of the 2003 season.) Surely he knew about steroid use among other players – the gaudy numbers and physical transformations McGwire and Bonds drew suspicion from even the most casual fans – and the advantages steroid use conferred to power hitters in particular. “I knew we weren’t taking Tic Tacs,” Rodriguez admitted, seeming to indicate that he knew full well what he was doing, directly contradicting the image he had been painting of a na├»ve dilettante.

It wasn't just the sincerity of his words that raised eyebrows. Rodriguez's histrionic pause when addressing teammates achieved not the intended humanizing effect of an embattled soul overcome with emotion, but rather that of a calculating politician employing a canned rhetorical device. (Aposiopesis, a sudden breaking off mid-sentence, as if from inability or unwillingness to continue, is the literary term.) "Thank you," Rodriguez finally said, after 38 long seconds.

So if the objective of Rodriguez's PR campaign is to come clean and begin the process of restoring trust, why the evasiveness and circumlocution? Why lie? Rodriguez employs collection of noted image and communication consultants, including Richard Rubenstein, the son of George Steinbrenner's spokesman Howard Rubenstein, and Ben Porritt, a former spokesman for John McCain’s presidential campaign and a partner in the crisis-management firm Outside Eyes. You have to wonder, however, weather the avalanche of advice was a help or a hindrance. “I am here to take my medicine,” Rodriguez said, using an unfortunate phrase, given the circumstances.

This is painful to watch.

Rodriguez's news conference stands in stark contrast to that of his teammate Andy Pettitte, who held his own spring training mea culpa before the media just last year. Identified in Mitchell report for using human growth hormone (H.G.H.) in 2002 and 2004, Pettitte quickly admitted his use of the performance-enhancing substance, and sat down for in hour-long news conference in which he was widely perceived to have been forthright and genuinely remorseful. Pettitte said he had used H.G.H. to recover from injuries and get back on the field as soon as possible. Though not prohibited by baseball when he used it, Pettitte acknowledged it was wrong to use it without a medical prescription. Rather than allowing negative news to drip out over time, Pettitte addressed the damaging story and all of its implications and associated questions at once. “Obviously, I’ve been put under oath,” Pettitte said. “That’s it. There’s no other surprises out there.” And there haven’t been. Pettitte went about his business during the 2008 season largely unaffected by the revelations that once threatened to derail his career.

All of Rodriguez’s PR consultants, however, could not prevent him from committing several avoidable errors of crisis management. By calling attention to a “loosey-goosey,” anything-goes culture, Rodriguez, seeking to contextualize his actions and mitigate his culpability, effectively denied the severity of the issue. The twofold upshot: Rodriguez came across as avoiding accountability and drew the ire of clean players upon whom suspicion has been unfairly cast. “One thing that’s irritating and really upsets me a lot is when you hear people say that everybody did it,” teammate Derek Jeter said the day after Rodriguez’s news conference in Tampa. “Everybody wasn’t doing it.”

Rodriguez’s misleading half-truths about what he knew of what he was taking had the effect of inviting adversaries and investigative reporters to dig deeper to discover the unvarnished truth. For example, who is Rodriguez’s cousin? How did he have access to illicit substances and what did he know about the effects of those substances? Readers and reporters were asking these and related questions at a time when straightforward crisis communications management would have put these issues to rest.

Where traditional media met Rodriguez’s performance with measured scrutiny and reviews ranging from adequate to poor, social media sites offered a full spectrum of reaction, from the strongly supportive (some) to the deeply disbelieving (many). Indeed, reaction tilted heavily against Rodriguez. From sports blogs such as Deadspin and Bleacher Report, to fan pages on Facebook and discussion forums on MySpace, Rodriguez received harsh criticism from bloggers and commentators alike. It was a performance that will require a much better second act. Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman acknowledged as much. “This thing is not dying,” Cashman said. “The shelf life of this is a lot longer.”

There are arguments on both sides as to whether it is ethical to punish players who have used steroids by banning them from the game or the Hall of Fame. Those who claim that it is unfair to ostracize these players cite baseball’s rules, which for a long time were murky when it came to performance-enhancing drugs, and its long and storied history of players gaining edges through corked bats, doctored baseballs, sign decoding, pain killers, body armor, and who knows what else. Where do you draw the line between cheating and cunning gamesmanship? In baseball, the answer isn’t always clear. Moreover, some argue, is not the steroid era in baseball merely a reflection of modern American society? Kids fight attention deficit disorder with Adderall and Ritalin, the overweight fight flab with Xanadrine and Stacker, men fight impotence with Viagra and Cialis, and everyone fights sleepiness with Red Bull and Starbucks. Why single out baseball players seeking to be the best through self-improvement?

With nearly all of America on drugs for one thing or another, is all the hand-wringing over steroids in baseball justified?

These arguments have their merits, but the argument for baseball to rid itself of illicit drug abuse through stringent testing and sustained public awareness outreach is the stronger one. President Barack Obama, when asked about the scandal during his first presidential press conference, summed up the argument quite well:

If you’re a fan of Major League Baseball, I think it tarnishes an entire era to some degree. And it’s unfortunate, because I think there are a lot of ballplayers who played it straight. And the thing I’m probably most concerned about is the message that it sends to our kids. What I’m pleased about is Major League Baseball seems to finally be taking this seriously, to recognize how big of a problem this is for the sport, and that our kids, hopefully, are watching and saying ‘You know what? There are no short cuts.’ That when you try to take short cuts, you may end up tarnishing your entire career. And your integrity’s not worth it. That’s the message I hope is communicated.

It is fundamentally unfair to force employees to consider undertaking a massive health risk, indeed a Faustian bargain – anabolic steroids have been linked to medical and psychological problems, violent mood swings, depression, liver damage, and cardiovascular disease – in order to stay competitive and retain a job. Furthermore, there is a reverence in baseball – unique in professional sports – for records and statistics. 3,000 hits. 500 home runs. 300 wins. A 56-game hitting streak. 2,632 consecutive games played. Baseball fans instantly recognize the mystique attending these numbers. They serve as benchmarks for assessing careers, comparing players from different eras, and inspiring awe and wonder for magnificent achievements. Steroids rob these numbers from their grandeur, while degrading and diminishing accomplishments that should regarded with respect and admiration.

The Mitchell Report
makes several thoughtful recommendations for restoring integrity to the game, including establishing a department of investigations, cooperating with law enforcement agencies, establishing clear ethical codes for all clubs, launching persuasive educational campaigns for both players and fans, and strengthening the current testing program so that it not only tests for steroids but also HGH and performance-enhancing drugs designed to evade detection. I agree, and also believe baseball should take the symbolic and substantive steps of installing new leadership in both the commissioner’s office and the player’s union, as the current leadership bears culpability far too great for the game to effective rehabilitate its reputation, both in terms of reality and perception. Moreover, tainted players seeking redemption should quit offering repeated denials in the face of overwhelming evidence, as Roger Clemens has done, but instead admit their errors in judgment, apologize, and commit toward working for the good of the game through drug education programs for youth.

The game of ball is glorious!

Walt Whitman once wrote: “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game – the American game. It will take our people out of doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair those losses, and be a blessing to us.” If the entirety of the game commits to doing the right thing, it may once again be that blessing.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Johnny B. Gone

I'd like to interrupt the solemn righteousness of the steroid series to talk about the latest in another drawn-out soap opera: As Johnny Damon Turns. It's official now -- Damon, Tigers agree -- Johnny is a Tiger, for one year, $8 mill.

I'm disappointed by this for a number of reasons. I like Damon, I’ve followed him his entire career, dating back to 1995, and despite his advanced age (36 – John Paul Stevens territory in baseball years) I think he can still play and be a major contributor to a winning team.

I liked Johnny even during his Mountain Man days, when he was responsible for an October grand slam in Bronx that I only discuss with my therapist.

I also think the Yankees made him a fair offer at two years, $14 million. Damon and Boras badly misread and misplayed the market, and now all sides, including Yankee fans, lose out. I understand that ego is a factor when a star player is asked to take a significant pay cut, especially coming off a strong regular season and dazzling postseason performance. But the reality of the market is that aging outfielders with deteriorating defensive skills don't get multi-year big money contracts.

Clearly the Tigers were not willing to guarantee two years. Damon has repeatedly declared his love for New York and desire to remain on the Yankees, so I think it’s a shame that hubris (it felled Oedipus too, Johnny!) prevented him from taking the best offer from the team for which he most wanted to play.

Still, I'm glad he got a gig. Recently it looked as though he might not begin 2010 with a club. That's a good thing for all of us, because this is what he would have been doing otherwise:

Good lord. If he plays well and we have a need, let's pick him up at the trade deadline.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Pumped Up Pastime: A Disquisition in Three Parts (Part Two)

We come now to the tipping point, the volta, the proverbial bases-clearing sh*tshow.

As the media intensified its focus on the story, perception among the fans began to shift from the superhero idolatry of 1998 to growing cynicism and disillusionment. In the eyes of many fans, baseball, unwilling to regulate itself, had become overtaken by Dionysian ethos in which ethics, the law, players’ health, and the integrity of the game and its records were all secondary to the pursuit of mammoth home runs and eight figure salaries. The best evidence of cresting of this perception came in March 2005, when the House Government Reform Committee issued subpoenas to several then-current and former major league players and executives, compelling their testimony at a hearing about drug use in baseball.

By any measure, the hearings were a public relations disaster for baseball. McGwire, among the former players subpoenaed, appeared emotional and close to tears in his opening statement, in which he said he intended to focus on the future, and had been advised by his lawyers not to comment on allegations of his or other players’ steroid use. The following exchanges come from New York Times reporter Duff Wilson’s coverage of the testimony:

Sitting calmly after his emotional opening statement, Mr. McGwire, who retired after the 2001 season, refused a request by Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, to give a clear answer about whether he had used steroids.

‘Are you taking the Fifth?’ Mr. Cummings demanded.

‘I'm not here to discuss the past,’ Mr. McGwire responded. ‘I'm here to be positive about this subject.’

Representative William Lacy Clay, Democrat of Missouri, said: ‘Mr. McGwire, we are both fathers of young children. Both my son and daughter love sports and they look up to stars like you. Can we look at those children with a straight face and tell them that great players like you play the game with honesty and integrity?’

Mr. McGwire replied, ‘Like I said earlier, I'm not going to go into the past and talk about my past.’

Yet Mr. McGwire offered to be a spokesman against steroids. ‘My message is steroids are bad, don't do them,’ he said.

When Representative Patrick T. McHenry, Republican of North Carolina, asked how he knew they were bad, Mr. McGwire replied, ‘I've accepted by my attorneys' advice not to comment on this issue.’

To make matters worse, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig implied that baseball’s steroid problem was largely the creation of a media frenzy on the topic. “Do we have a major problem? No,” he said. His communication strategy was not dissimilar from that adopted by the Bush administration in the wake of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal. A few bad apples at the bottom of the chain of command were to blame; upon punishment of these individuals, the problem is essentially solved. Case closed.

Wrong. The strategy wasn’t very convincing for Bush administration (and in the case of Bush administration, investigations would later reveal the strategy to be wholly inaccurate, if not deceitful), and it was even less so for baseball. In 2005, Selig may have thought the strategy passable because notwithstanding the very few who had admitted to steroid use, there was little hard evidence of widespread abuse. Allegations were just that – hearsay and speculation and no smoking gun. On December 13, 2007, a credible authority finally demolished that fig leaf with a wide-ranging, withering report about drug abuse in the game.

The bad apple defense, visually represented here for your full multi-sensory comprehension.

Former senator George Mitchell, commissioned to investigate illicit drug use in baseball following the congressional hearings, issued an approximately 400 page report that linked 89 major league baseball players to performance-enhancing drugs. Kirk Radomski, a former New York Mets clubhouse attendant, and Brian McNamee, a former trainer for the New York Yankees, were the principal sources for the report, which was also based on interviews with more than 700 people, including 60 former players, and 115,000 pages of documents. Receipts, cancelled checks, telephone records, e-mail messages: nothing was left unexamined. Mitchell also noted that the names were a mere sample, based upon information provided by those willing to cooperate. “There was a collective failure to recognize the problem as it emerged and to deal with it early on,” Mr. Mitchell said. The introduction to the report reads as follows:

For more than a decade there has been widespread illegal use of anabolic steroids and other performance enhancing substances by players in Major League Baseball, in violation of federal law and baseball policy. Club officials routinely have discussed the possibility of such substance use when evaluating players. Those who have illegally used these substances range from players whose major league careers were brief to potential members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. They include both pitchers and position players, and their backgrounds are as diverse as those of all major league players.

The day after the Mitchell Report is made public.

The bad apple excuse no longer held water, as nearly everyone from the farmer to the grocer to the consumer could see that far too many apples in the bushel had been spoiled. Among the biggest names the report singled out was seven-time Cy Young Award winner (accorded to the most valuable pitcher in the American and National leagues) Roger Clemens, considered by many to be the greatest pitcher of his generation. According to the report, Clemens turned to steroids in the latter half of his spectacular career to maintain his strength and stamina while offsetting the natural effects of aging.

The report instantly brought to mind an eyebrow-raising incident that occurred during the 2000 World Series.

Clemens in batsh*t mode.

On the mound for the Yankees, Clemens was facing the Mets’ Mike Piazza. Clemens fired a fastball that shattered Piazza’s bat, a portion of which made its way its way toward Clemens, who proceeded to field the shard of wood as it were a baseball and hurl it in the direction of Piazza, who was running up the first base line. Clemens, red-faced and wild-eyed, stared menacingly at Piazza, who appeared perplexed as to how to respond. My own initial reaction while watching the play unfold was that prior to the game, Clemens must have downed a rather stiff testosterone and adrenalin cocktail (or ten). I wasn’t alone. Upon the release of the Mitchell report, New York Times sports columnist Harvey Araton also recalled the incident, noting, “It was an act so irresponsibly bizarre that I commented in a column, tongue in cheek, that Clemens’s behavior met a standard for what pharmacologists have referred to as ’roid rage. Here we are, seven years later, and I’ve come to realize I wasn’t kidding.”

No, you were not kidding Harvey. And neither is the New York Game when it says look early next week for the conclusion of this conscience-stricken chronicle of modern chemistry.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Pumped Up Pastime: A Disquisition in Three Parts (Part One)

As much as Major League Baseball wants to drive a silver stake through the steroid issue and finally bury its pumped up past for good, it continually finds Rasputin rising up to lay hands around its neck and whisper "You bad boy." With Mark McGwire joining the Cardinals as a hitting coach this year, and the likes of Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzalez, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, and Barry Bonds soon to join him on future Hall of Fame ballots, the steroid issue isn't going anywhere.

And so the New York Game, ever mindful of your psychic health, brings you a three-part therapy session on baseball's Faustian bargain. Go right ahead, it's ok to lie back and put your shoes up on the leather coach. Sorry, no smoking. (We're trying to cut down stimulants and addictive substances, remember?) Oh ok, what the hell. We both know this is going to get ugly.

Relax your mind and go back in time to those heady, carefree days -- the late 90s. 1998 in particular.

1998 was an extraordinary year for Major League Baseball. Four years after the strike-shortened season of 1994, which saw the World Series cancelled for the first time in 90 years, fans returned to the game in droves, riveted by the record-breaking home run chase between the St. Louis Cardinals’ Mark McGwire and the Chicago Cubs’ Sammy Sosa. McGwire and Sosa were chasing a record that had stood for 37 years, and one of the most venerated in professional sports – the New York Yankees’ Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961, surpassing by one home run the record set by Babe Ruth in 1927. Many sports commentators considered it among the most difficult records to shatter. Maris, under pressure and scrutiny from a media that by any measure was infinitesimal to today’s twenty four-seven cable and Internet behemoth, famously began losing his hair in clumps as the season wore on. For today’s players, the chase would too heavy a burden to bear, these commentators reasoned. For 37 years they were right. McGwire and Sosa, however, did not wither under pressure. Both players, in fact, sped past the record as if were a Model-T on the autobahn. McGwire finished the season with a staggering 70 home runs, Sosa with 66.

Seventy home runs. The figure was mind-blowing. “Babe Ruth and Roger Maris are no longer the landmarks. Now, the names that home run hitters will aspire to are Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire,” read a New York Times feature. The electrifying chase, as expected, commanded wall-to-wall media coverage, and nearly all of it was positively glowing. To the fans, many of whom remained bitter about 1994 and demonstrated those feelings by tightening their wallets, it seemed as if all was finally forgiven. According to Sports Illustrated senior baseball writer Tom Verducci:

It was an expansion year, with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks adding two more television markets, $260 million in expansion fees, and another 324 games to the inventory of moneymaking possibilities. Attendance jumped 12 percent, with almost seven and a half million more people paying their way into ballparks. The per-game major league average improved by 4 percent to 29,054, the best it had been since before the strike hit. The ratings for games televised by Fox improved 11 percent.

The previously inconceivable benchmark of 70 home runs in a single season – the new standard that will stand for decades, if not all-time, many commentators then asserted – was shattered only three years later, when Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants smashed 73 in 2001. These record-shattering superstars weren’t the only ones hitting baseballs a further, and at a more furious pace. Home runs and scoring totals were up across the league, in numbers that were statistically striking when compared to previous eras. The 1993-2004 era had the highest home runs per game average in baseball history: 1.03 in the National League and 1.11 in the American League. Contrast that to 0.74 and 0.89 respectively in 1983-1992 and 0.68 and 0.79 respectively in 1973-1982.

There are many factors accounting for this shift, among them the shrinking size of ballparks, the dilution of quality pitching owing to a higher number of teams in the league, an evolving strike zone, and advancements in sports training and nutrition. No single factor, however, is as significant as the proliferation of illegal performance-enhancing drugs. I seek to examine the use of those drugs, particularly anabolic steroids, in Major League Baseball through the lens of business ethics and public relations. Further, I will argue that Major League Baseball – from the owners and managers to the players and coaches, as well as their agents and union representatives – were complicit in enabling the widespread use of illicit drugs whose usage has considerably damaged the integrity of America’s pastime. All affiliated with the game now have an ethical obligation to make meaningful contributions to its moral convalescence.

Baseball’s steroid era begins with Jose Canseco, the self-proclaimed “godfather of steroids.” Canseco played for a variety of teams in the big leagues from 1985-2001, finishing his career with 462 home runs (then 22nd on the all-time list). A six-time All-Star and winner of the American League’s Most Valuable Player award in 1988, he was also the first player to hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same season. And only eight other players in the history of the game can boast of having hit at least 400 home runs while stealing at least 200 bases over the course of their career. On these numbers alone, a good argument can be made for Canseco meriting election into the Baseball Hall of Fame; that however, is unlikely to happen, as Canseco was also an avid user and promoter of anabolic steroids.

His 2005 book Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ’Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big is a tell-all chronicle of chemical self-enhancement. Initially met with skepticism and questions about the author’s credibility – Canseco has been arrested for nightclub brawls, has few friends in game, and was said to be strapped for cash – his book nonetheless spurred the media to begin serious investigation of his claims. Canseco asserts that he had improved his performance through steroid use as early as 1984, and soon began informing teammates and players throughout the league about the benefits. He claims to have personally injected former teammates Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Juan Gonzales, and Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez. He also claimed to have knowledge that several stars were users, including Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Bret Boone, Miguel Tejada, and Jason Giambi. Giambi, a onetime Oakland Athletics teammate “went overboard with steroids,” Canseco wrote, and became “the most outright juicer in the game.” Giambi, according to Canseco, “had the most obvious steroid physique I've ever seen in my life. There was no definition to his body at all. You could see the retention of liquids, especially in his neck and face; to those in the know, that was a sure sign of steroid overload.”

Giambi "before":

Giambi "after":

Canseco’s book echoed the whistle-blowing of the longtime third baseman Ken Caminiti, who in 2002, one year after concluding a successful 15-year career that included a National League Most Valuable Player award in 1996, asserted that he had used steroids throughout his career, and that steroid use was widespread throughout baseball. “Look at the money in the game,” Caminiti said. “The salaries are through the roof. So I can’t say ‘don’t do it’ when the guy sitting next to you is big as a house and he’s going to take your job and make the money.” In 2004, Caminiti died of a heart attack at age 41. He had tested positive for cocaine a month earlier, while on probation for cocaine possession.

Is the catharsis kicking in yet? Look for part II later this week.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The New York Game

Welcome to The New York Game. The title refers to the style of play developed and codified by Alexander Cartwright of the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club in the mid-nineteenth century. Despite the still widely accepted myth that Abner Doubleday “invented” baseball in Cooperstown, New York in 1839, The Knickerbocker rules, applied to a baseball precursor known as “town ball,” essentially established the modern game as we know it.

With this blog I intend to focus on the Yankees and the wider baseball world. I might even occasionally discuss that other New York team, the Mets, ill-fated Hotspur to the redoubtable Prince Hal (note: not a reference to Hal Steinbrenner). It’s been a slow couple of weeks for all matters ballgame, but with six days before pitchers and catchers report, that’s about to change.

Was that a “Yankee, go home?” I just heard? Oh no, my friend. We’re just getting started.