Monday, July 16, 2007

Spinning for Selig

Someone alert Mickey Kaus: Bill James makes what I feel to be an apt comparison between the steroids debate and the immigration debate:

Q: Final thoughts on the steroid

A: The steroid debate is, in a sense, very much like the immigration debate, in that at their essence is this problem: 1) Rules weren't enforced in the past; 2) What do we do now? Perhaps we could solve all of our problems by offering a general amnesty to steroid users but banning undocumented immigrants from the Hall of Fame. Baseball at least has figured out this much: That we can't solve the problem unless we start enforcing the rules going forward. It's really impractical to start punishing people after the fact for rules violations that were ignored at the time.

I tend to agree with this, and I believe that the prospective part of the picture -- implementing testing and assessing strict penalties for violations -- has been adequately addressed for the time being (let's revisit in a year or two to see if the testing regimen is missing something). Now it's time to look back and figure out what to do about the pre-testing time period.

While I don't love James' analogy to travelling never being called in basketball (unlike travelling, there was no rule against steroids and thus there was no lack of enforcement, as such), the overall notion -- what happened happened and there's not much we can do about it -- is right. So to is the notion that the problem, such as it was, was a problem of Major League Baseball's blindness -- willful or otherwise -- to PEDs, and failure to address it until BALCO and Jose Canseco forced its hand.

It strikes me that the only way to move beyond steroids is for Selig to make some sort of statement owning up to Major League Baseball's complicity in the abuse of PEDs, offering his opinion about what, if any, effect he believes PED use had on the integrity of the game and stating that it is now a problem that is being addressed going forward, he believes effectively.

He can release this statement with the imprimatur of George Mitchell's phony-baloney report or not. Doesn't matter really. What matters is that, if done properly, he would be offering a final word on steroids which will (a) get it out of the news every single day (and if you rock the Google like I do, you quickly realize that it is); and (b) will stop making the Hall of Fame electorate believe that it is the only sheriff in town, which is going to eventually lead to an absurd and irrelevant Hall.

Such a statement wouldn't have to praise or Barry Bonds or be accompanied by the renting of garments or the shedding of tears. It would simply have to deal honestly and frankly with what went on before -- including the fact that we are quite ignorant and always will be about most of what went on before -- in such a way as to prevent anyone from honestly suggesting that the Selig era is to be treated fundamentally differently than any other era. Spitballin', I came up with this:

For the past several years, the issue of both the prevalence in and impact of performance enhancing drugs on baseball has threatened to overshadow the unprecedented success the game has enjoyed, both on the field and off. And not, I should note, without reason. The use of illicit drugs -- of whatever kind -- is unacceptable, both in baseball and in society at large. The use of illicit drugs that have the effect of creating an unfair advantage for some players at the expense of others is simply intolerable.

And not only, I will quickly add, due to the advantage they provide for those who use them. More damaging than extra few feet on a batted ball or the extra few miles on hour on a pitch is the pressure placed on those who are not inclined to take performance enhancing drugs for ethical reasons, but feel compelled to do so for competitive reasons. It is my profound regret that neither I nor the baseball community as a whole came to appreciate the nature and extent of the problem of performance enhancing drugs until the events of the past several years forced the issue into the light.

I am proud, however, of the system Major League Baseball and the Players Association have devised in response to problem. It is my sincere belief that the testing regimen we have agreed upon is the toughest, and most transparent in organized sports. It is a program that, I feel, strikes the proper balance between punishment and mercy, allowing those who initially fall prey to substance abuse to obtain the help they need to clean up, while simultaneously providing no quarter to those who would deign to flout the rules and all semblances of good sportsmanship and fair play. Above all else, baseball's testing regimen ensures that the integrity of the product on the field will be inviolate which, as Commissioner, is my number one responsibility.

But while the game on the field is what makes baseball the greatest of all sports, it is its rich history that truly makes it Our National Pastime, and as Commissioner, I take my stewardship of baseball's historical legacy extremely seriously. I have heard the voices calling into question whether performance enhancing drugs have sullied or compromised baseball's recent history. Indeed, I have asked these questions myself, and it was partially for this reason that I commissioned Senator Mitchell to head the investigation into past steroid use by Major League Baseball players.

This, combined with the independent research of countless baseball analysts, indicates to me that while the use of performance enhancing drugs is regrettable and intolerable, it has not compromised the integrity of the game, its records, or the accomplishments of its players in any material way. Yes, it is true that offensive production increased dramatically during the 1990s, however it is obvious that (a) this variation is not out of line with other variations in offensive output across eras, and several factors -- not just steroids -- led to this increase.

In an effort to provide a more comfortable and more intimate game going experience, teams have constructed a host of wonderful new ballparks, many of which have shorter outfield dimensions and less foul territory than the stadiums and coliseums they replaced. Technology -- including everything from thinner-handled bats to hitters' use of video in studying pitchers -- has impacted the game as well, and for the better, I might add. Added to all of this is a new breed of executives, coaches, and scouts who have taken to focusing on certain skills that, it just so happens, tends to promote greater offensive production. At the same time, given our lack of knowledge of who used performance enhancing drugs, when, and in what quantities -- and given the virtual certainty that pitchers, as well as hitters, used them -- there is no way to know how much of a factor steroids were, even though we concede that they were a factor.

So what is to be said about the past? While, ultimately this is for historians to decide, there are a few things that can be said now. First -- and it seems ridiculous to have to say this, but given the passion some commentators have felt about this issue, I feel it needs to be said -- the records, statistics, and accomplishments of the men who played this game over the past two decades have, do, and always will stand alongside that which has preceded them and that which is to come. Only one record in the history of American sport has ever officially been given a "distinctive mark", as then-commissioner Ford Frick called the notation next to Roger Maris’s 1961 home run record. We step perilously onto a slippery slope when we start saying that some records are valid and others are not, and baseball’s disservice to Roger Maris in 1961 is a disgrace we should do our best to avoid in the future.

While some say such an approach rewards players who illegally sought an unfair advantage, I believe it is a far greater benefit to the vast majority of ballplayers who played the game right, played the game clean, and who don't deserve to be tarred alongside a handful of wrongdoers simply because we are unable to identify with any precision who, exactly, those wrongdoers were.

Retrospectively speaking, this is all we can offer. For those who still contend that the integrity of the game has been compromised, I submit to you that baseball has suffered -- and persevered over -- far greater threats in the past. Yes, the use of performance enhancing drugs casts a shadow over the game's recent history, but it doesn't compare to the utter pall that violence by and between players, fans, and umpires cast in baseball's earliest days; that gambling wrought on the game before 1919, and that segregation fomented before Jackie Robinson took the field in April 1947. All of these things altered the game's competitive landscape, and all of them, thanks to the leadership of my predecessors and the fine example set by players and owners, were overcome.

So too are we overcoming the shadow of performance enhancing drugs. Not by turning a blind eye to the abuses we know to have occurred, but by learning from it and keeping the lessons of the past in mind as we constantly work to refine what I feel to be the most stringent and effective drug testing regimen in all of professional sports. I will now take any questions you may have.

Setting aside the fact that the first question would be "who wrote that claptrap for you," it strikes me that as Commissioner, Selig owes it to the game to say something along these lines. If he doesn't, he will be remembered -- wrongfully I believe, but that's neither here nor there -- as a hypocrite who was fine with steroids as long as it wasn't in the papers, and then wished the whole thing would go away.

Fact is, absent the mass administration of truth serum to every player between 1988 and 2004, we pretty much now know all that is knowable about past steroid use, and unless I've missed something, are pretty much happy with the testing system currently in place. All that is left to manage is the constant ripping of everyone who ever hit a double off the wall during the Clinton years and the ignorant broadside attacks by columnists who hated guys like Barry Bonds even before the PED allegations.

Shut them up, Bud. Stop the twice annual barrage (Hall of Fame voting results and Hall of Fame inductions) of major stories about steroids in baseball and the near daily assault of minor ones. Stop the cheap jokes and the questions about the game's integrity. The critics won't cease their assault if you do, but rather than have it directed at the guys whose play makes the turnstiles turn, make it go through you. My sense is that after an initial round of nitpicking -- a lot of it in good faith based on the fact that I half-assed this thing in about 20 minutes -- it would die down quickly, because there wouldn't be as many allegedly open questions on which critics could hang their criticism. To do so, they'd have to call you a liar, or at the very least back up their view that steroids have ruined the game with data as opposed to innuendo one liners.

Not that I need to invite anyone to do so, but tell me, is this nuts?

1 comment:

Dan said...

Slight nitpick: Faye Vincent made steroids illegal in 1991 (?) but the strength of the players union made testing impossible. Ostensibly it is just like traveling, in that it was on the books but not in any enforced.