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.

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