Two years ago The New York Times published an article by sportswriter Steve Kettmann which anticipated the "everybody and their brother is juicing" articles that have become all the rage (you can read the original here, but it will cost you twenty bits). Even though Kettmann didn’t name names, in its day the article created quite a firestorm. Until Jose Canseco and Ken Caminiti got into the act last month, it was the go-to reference piece on steroids in major-league baseball. Apparently unhappy with the prospect of losing his title as whistle-blower in-chief, Kettmann decided to reassert his dominance last week by writing a borderline libelous article for the online edition of The New Republic in which he out-sensationalizes even Canseco and Caminiti. This time Kettmann is naming names, and evidence be damned!
But before getting to the alleged juicers, Kettmann has some scores to settle. First he dredges up the old controversy over his New York Times piece by (1) reminding us about how important it was at the time ("My article in the Times inspired a flurry of sports columns and radio talk show discussions on the subject, much as the recent Sports Illustrated cover story on Ken Caminiti and steroids has lately."), and (2) sneering at baseball insider writer-wannabes who think they have something to add to the conversation ("A Yankee strength coach named Brian McNamee even roused himself to write a response in the Times. His column tried to refute my assertions on widespread steroid use in baseball by arguing, "My mother always said, 'If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.'").
But Kettmann has bigger fish to fry. He calls Caminiti a "weasel" for backing off his allegation that 50 percent of all players use steroids. No matter that Caminiti says he was misquoted in the original piece. Anyone who refutes the 50 percent figure that Kettmann says "many of us had been hearing for years" must be a pawn of "the players' so-called union, which never met an intractable position it didn't like."
Seeing Kettmann lay into the increasingly cautious Caminiti, you might think that the way to get into Kettmann’s good graces would be to make unsubstantiated accusations about steroid use in the major leagues. That is, unless you’re Jose Canseco, whom Kettmann labels a cynical money-grubber and irredeemable traitor if he goes ahead with his plan to out the infamous 50 percent. But then, having it both ways, Kettman suggests that Canseco's probably too damn lazy to do it in the first place. And if Canseco decides to steer clear entirely of what Kettmann calls the "unsavory debates" about steroid use, look for him to be handed honorary membership in Caminiti’s weasel club.
Canseco can rest easy on one score, however, because Kettmann has volunteered to do all the unsavory work himself. He comes right out and accuses Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens of juicing, despite acknowledging that both McGwire and Bonds have repeatedly denied steroid use, and that Clemens has never been accused of taking steroids at all. (For extra measure, Kettmann suggests that Clemens was taking amphetamines and steroids during the 2000 World Series. Attaboy, Steve; in for a penny, in for a pound!) Kettmann’s evidence: the scuttlebutt he’s heard in the press box over the years.
But Kettmann's litany of abuse doesn't end with baseball’s greatest active hitter, greatest active pitcher, and most storied home run hitter of the past twenty-five years. According to Kettmann, "[i]f baseball fans are determined to point fingers, they'd better be prepared to point one at themselves," because they don’t believe that "the beauty of a hit-and-run single poked through the right side of the infield easily matches that of many home runs." Setting aside for a moment that Kettmann is the only one pointing fingers, what makes him think that if baseball once again found itself in an era where hit-and-run singles were the order of the day that cheating wouldn’t be a problem? Has he never heard of the spitball? Spiking? The Black Sox scandal? Were fans to blame for those things too?
After reaming the players and fans, Kettmann moves on to the rotogeeks and sabermetricians, stating that "[a] lot of the blame for [steroid abuse] goes to the Bill James school of sports analysis..." It would be nice if Kettmann offered some evidence to support this charge, but in its absence, I can only wonder what, exactly, James’s use of objective methodology to analyze baseball has to do with steroid abuse. Yes, James and his disciples have concluded that home runs are more valuable than hit-and-run singles, but to suggest that such an obvious observation encourages steroid abuse is like saying a criminologist encourages crime.
Look, I’m not saying that McGwire, Bonds, and Clemens don’t take steroids, because I have no idea whether they do or not. Still, I would think that Kettmann would likewise hold his fire, given that his claims that they do appear to be supported by nothing other than gossip. That said, Kettmann has leavened his baseless accusations, unfounded conclusions, and out-and-out insults with enough Caminitiesque language to allow him and The New Republic to weasel their way out of any libel lawsuits stemming from his irresponsible bomb-throwing. But then I suspect that libel is a risk Kettmann is willing to take if it ensures his place as the doyen of the anti-steroid brigade.
Competitive Balance Fallacy of the Week
While I’m picking on the media, I should point out that Salon’s usually reliable King Kaufman got suckered by some erroneous conventional wisdom last week. In seeking an expert opinion about why there have been so many managerial firings this season, Kaufman spoke to current Reds’ hitting coach and former major league manager Jim Lefebvre. Lefebvre’s explanation -- which Kaufman appears to buy hook, line, and sinker -- is that because of players’ high salaries, some teams simply can’t "stay up with the Joneses," forcing them to fire managers more quickly in order to placate grumpy fans. As evidence that economic disparity causes competitive disparity, Kaufman points out that "[t]hrough Tuesday's games, a little past the one-third mark of the season, eight of the 30 teams were [ten games or more out of first place]."
I guess that’s one way to look at it. Another is that through last Thursday’s games, there were sixteen teams either in first place or within four games (i.e. one long weekend series) of being in first. And while we’re talking about competitive balance or the seeming lack thereof, it’s probably a pretty good time to point out that since baseball went to divisional play in 1969, sixteen different teams have won 32 World Series. When you consider that only thirteen NBA teams have won championships over that same span of time, and only 16 teams have won the 36 Super Bowls dating back to 1967, it seems pretty clear that even though there is economic disparity in baseball, there really isn’t a competitive balance problem at all.
Nepotism Watch: The Atlanta Braves
Baseball’s amateur draft took place last Tuesday, and Atlanta Braves’ General Manager John Schuerholz made a bold pick in selecting his own son, Auburn University shortstop Jonathan Schuerholz, in the eighth round.
Now, before you go accusing Schuerholz of nepotism, you should know that Roy Clark, the Braves’ director of scouting, said that Schuerholz-the-younger "has outstanding talent. It doesn't really matter what his last name is." See? Family had nothing to do with it. The kid is preternaturally talented, and the mere fact that the Braves took him in the eighth round when every other team in the game had him scouted as a 15th rounder merely speaks to the keen eyes in the Braves’ scouting department. "I would have recommended that we take the kid even if my employment did not depend on staying in the good graces of his father," Clark did not add.
Signs and Portents
I can’t get too worked up about nepotism in baseball. After all, unlike law firms, advertising agencies, and various other family businesses, it’s difficult to hide incompetence on the diamond, and just because your dad’s the boss doesn’t mean you won’t get benched. Just ask Cincinnati Reds’ third baseman Aaron Boone (son of manager Bob Boone) who, on Friday, found out that his father’s team traded first base prospect Ben Broussard to the Cleveland Indians for third baseman/outfielder Russell Branyan. Sure, Branyan has been something of a disappointment in his first season as an everyday player for the Indians, but, if he ever manages to lower his strikeout rate from horrific to merely wretched, he stands a very good chance of displacing Boone and his sub-.650 OPS in the Reds’ starting lineup.
But while this trade is mildly interesting when viewed in the context of Boone family harmony, it’s more interesting as it relates to what I believe to be Cleveland’s impending fire sale. The Indians’ booty in this trade -- Broussard -- is a ready-to-go first base prospect who could start for lots of teams. He is not, however, anything near as good as current Tribe first baseman Jim Thome, nor will he ever hope to be. While I would like to think that the Indians acquired Broussard in order to flip him to someone else for someone they actually need, my gut tells me that he’s being kept around until the Indians fall a few more games out of first place, declare the season a loss, trade Thome for spare parts and insert him into the starting lineup at a fraction of Thome’s cost.
I caught some flak last week for suggesting that the Indians were unnecessarily paring payroll. Upon reflection I have to concede that yes, some of the Indians’ offseason moves were at least marginally defensible (Roberto Alomar isn’t doing anything special this year, though there was no reason for the Tribe to expect that when they dumped him). That said, even a team that is rebuilding needs to keep one or two of its superstars, and Jim Thome is The Man in Cleveland. If the Indians trade him or Bartolo Colon (who, by the way, was AL’s Pitcher of the Month for May), you can take it as proof that Indians’ management is far more interested in the bottom line than in putting the best product on the field.