Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Has the Shadow Been Lifted?

The LAT's Bill Shaikin thinks so:
Barry Bonds is back home in Los Angeles, unemployed and unwanted in the sport he dominated for two decades. Baseball is throwing itself a party here, a coming-out party for a new wave of stars, a huge and happy step away from the steroid shadows that dogged the sport last year . . .

. . . "You've got great stories -- Josh Hamilton, Ryan Braun -- going into their first All-Star experience," New York Mets third baseman David Wright said. "I see the new generation of players coming through as pretty special. There's no negatives surrounding the All-Star game. All the stories are positive. The baseball purists can just sit down and enjoy the baseball."

The Mitchell Report linked 21 active players with the use of performance-enhancing substances. The rosters for tonight's All-Star game at Yankee Stadium include just one of those 21 -- Miguel Tejada of the Houston Astros. An All-Star game with rosters dotted with Mitchell Report alumni would be "like when Amy Winehouse won the Grammys after getting arrested," Hall of Famer Paul Molitor said.
I think it's interesting that part of this renewal, or whatever you want to call it, is led by Josh Hamilton -- a guy with a serious drug history -- and the article's money quote comes from Paul Molitor -- another guy with a serious drug history. Interesting in that it shows that baseball is a sport that gives guys second, or third, or in Hamilton's case eighth chances. I like that about baseball because, to me anyway, it implies that the sport considers the individual in ways that the larger War on Drugs does not. There's a basic humanity at work in letting a guy like Josh Hamilton work his way back when it would have been so much easier to install a mindless zero tolerance or three strikes rule and be done with it. As last night's fireworks indicate, it's an approach that has resulted in good things for both Hamilton and the game.

Will we ever see this kind of rapprochement with respect to players linked to performance enhancing drugs? I seriously doubt it, and I think the whole shaming, pariah-creating dynamic of the past couple of years may be one of the hardest things for me about the whole steroids business. It's just not what has been done historically, and I have a hard time casting the vast majority of the George Mitchell All-Stars into the dustbin the way we seem to be doing.

23 comments:

Rob said...

Unfortunately, the humanity that has allowed Hamilton back into the game beings and ends with his ability to hit a MLB fastball. If he weren't able to produce, he'd be cast aside just like the rest.

I understand that it's good that baseball recognizes this production over comparatively irrelevant personal problems, but I point this out because it's obviously not altruistic in any sense.

Craig Calcaterra said...

Excellent point, Rob.

tadthebad said...

Do the circumstances of Hamilton's drug use versus Bonds alleged drug use impact our perceptions? Hamilton has escaped drug use, perhaps partly b/c of baseball. Bonds began using drugs to be more competetive at baseball. Does that make sense? Does it matter? Plenty of gray there, but I believe that it does matter.

Anonymous said...

Hey, we apparently still love Jason Giambi and Andy Pettite. If only there were a way to distinguish those guys from Barry Bonds. Hmmmm. Must be some difference.

DCThrowback said...

What were the details of Molitor's history with drug abuse? First I've heard of that. Linky?

Tom said...

I don't agree that "the humanity that has allowed Hamilton back into the game begins and ends with his ability to hit a MLB fastball."

He's a media darling and a sensation because he's been an excellent hitter. But he's playing baseball at all because the game gives second chances. When he was reinstated (remember, he was banned), nobody knew if he could hit a fastball anymore - baseball was just giving him a chance. His talent has allowed him to make the most of it.

The opportunity wasn't given to him on the condition that he be a great hitter and provide MLB with a great story. Baseball just allowed a recovering addict to come back and give it a shot.

If he weren't able to produce, yes, he would be cast aside like the rest, but that's the nature of competition. The fact that he's here to be cast aside is testament to the second chances that baseball gives.

Peter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Craig Calcaterra said...

dcthrowback: Here is an excerpt from an artcile about Molitor from around the time he went into the Hall of Fame:

It was in the early, injury-riddled years of his career that Molitor began using cocaine and marijuana, which came to public light in 1984, after drug dealer Tony Peters testified in court he had sold cocaine to five Brewers players, including Molitor. Peters eventually was sentenced to 22 years in prison; Molitor faced no legal consequences

Molitor, who has said he stopped using drugs in 1981 without any rehabilitation, has since visited dozens of schools to preach about the dangers of drug use. His long-time agent, Ron Simon, detailed Molitor's drug use in his 1993 book, "The Game Behind the Game: Negotiating in the Big Leagues."

A chapter entitled, "Paul Molitor, My First $4 Million Man," begins: "The police were called to my house on Christmas Day 1980. They had to break in to see if Paul Molitor was inside, dead or alive."

Simon writes in his book how Molitor, while house-sitting for the agent, was "sleeping off a wild night of cocaine abuse. ... On Christmas Eve, Paul invited some friends to my house for a cocaine party. After the revelers left, long after midnight, Paul was unable to sleep. High on cocaine, he stayed up all night. He unplugged all the telephones, then finally fell asleep somewhere between 6 and 7 a.m.

"While he was sleeping, his parents, six sisters, and brother were gathering for a family Christmas dinner at his parents' St. Paul home. When Paul didn't show by 11:30 a.m., his family became concerned.

The police were eventually called, and Molitor was jolted into breaking his addiction, Simon wrote.

"He later told me, 'Although I didn't seek treatment, I was actually desperate, crying out for God's help. I would literally pray to God on my hands and knees each day for forgiveness and to help me overcome the problem. I believe that God answered my prayers and gave me the strength to fight the addiction and finally to stop using cocaine."

Simon theorizes that Molitor succumbed to drugs partly because they were prevalent among ballplayers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and partly "to escape temporarily from his image. It isn't easy being Mr. Squeaky Clean 24 hours a day, and Paul was burdened with the unrealistic expectations of family, friends and baseball fans."

Today, Molitor buys into that theory, while adding "I don't go there (discussing his drug use) too much anymore. It doesn't seem like there's a lot of benefit at this point.

Link:

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/sports/2001987767_molitor25.html

Drew said...

It still bothers me that a guy can be a darling in the public eye after he took the $4 million that the Devil Rays gave him, pissed it away on a truly deplorable lifestyle, then came back to baseball to play for a different team, leaving the Rays with nothing. I guess the whole prodigal son thing has never really appealed to me, but it's even worse since the Devil Rays got totally boned in the deal. It's just not fair. Perhaps the Rule 5 draft needs to be amended in some way to account for deadbeats who piss away their draft money and don't play baseball. It's not like he was stuck in the Rays minor league system all that time (which is the purpose of the Rule 5 draft as I understand it).

And I don't even LIKE the Rays.

Rob said...

Tom - Yes, baseball has given Hamilton a second (or third, fourth, and fifth) chance to redeem himself. However, it's his potential as a hitter that made it worth the Reds' Rule 5 pick (and subsequent ML roster spot).

Like I said, it's good that baseball teams recognize the potential value someone like Hamilton could provide, and that they don't exile it because of the scarlet 'H' he wears next to the track marks on his arms.

It's good that baseball can do this, and it's too bad the rest of the world doesn't do the same. But let's not pretend that this isn't driven by the self-interest of having an MVP candidate on your roster at the minimum salary.

Nick said...

Shyster, I agree with the anonymous poster.. We do have a handful of guys who have been linked to PEDs who are still loved. A perfect example is Rick Ankiel, last year's feel-good story.

Peter said...

Teams get screwed out of value all of the time, so I don't really feel sorry for the Rays any more than I would if Hamilton kept getting injured.


The real point of telling the Josh Hamilton story isn't to glorify him. He would likely tell you that his recovery has just given him a chance to live a decent life. As Peter Gammons said last night, this isn't Nancy Reagan's America. There are millions of Americans destroying their lives through drugs and alcohol, and Hamilton's success might be able to help them.

Tom said...

Rob,

You're absolutely right that Hamilton's relationship with the Rangers (or any other team) is contingent upon his ability to hit a baseball - that's the way it works for everybody.

My point was merely that MLB's decision (or humanity, if you prefer) to give him second or fifth chance was not due to his playing ability. It was because it is baseball's policy to give fifth chances.

The humanity was in the reinstatement itself, rather than what happens after that. If he had come back, been terrible, and never made the majors, does that make MLB any less forgiving of his past? No. If he's cut now, it's because he's not helping his team, which is true of anybody - recovering addict, or not.

I think the rest of the world does the same on a pretty regular basis. Marion Barry was reelected. If you write a good song or a good book, nobody really cares what drugs you're on. For the most part, somebody will always give you a second chance.

Jake said...

I hate to say it's only a race issue... especially when Tejada (who is not exactly a US African-American, but still) seems to be mostly forgiven. But the animosity against Bonds is still really frustrating to me.

I just wish some team, ANY team, would give him the second chance we all claim each person deserves...

Anonymous said...

APBA Guy-

I think a lot of Bonds' problems in playing this year derive from him individually, and are exacerbated by the race issue.

And we can't-and don't-know what he was asking for money-wise at the beginning of the season, and now.

He can no longer play the outfield, running at all is problematic, so he truly is a DH type player. That said, he would seem to project as no worse a player than Frank Thomas who still commands a wary respect at the plate, when playing.

But Frank is by all accounts an excellent teammate. Would any contending AL team risk the potential team and clubhouse disruption for a performance question mark? The downside risk is much too great.

Craig Calcaterra said...

All -- I've been enjoying this conversation, but I would like to interject something:

My thinking when I wrote this this morning wasn't really about formal second chances in the form of roster spots and eligibility as much as it was about that amorphous kind of acceptance both in baseball and around baseball, which includes (but is not limited to) the media.

The Bonds stuff may be applicable, but one of the reasons I used the word "most" was because I understand that both he and Clemens now have additional baggage. But what about someone like McGwire? I know he's not formally banned in any way, and recently there was a lot of talk about how he may want to come back and be a hitting coach or something. If that happens there will be outrage and moralism of the highest order, the type we never see as it relates to guys like Hamilton or Molitor, or Dimitri Young or anyone else who has ever been linked with recreational drugs or alcohol problems or whatever.

I acknowledge the point (made above) about there being a difference between performance enhancing drugs vs. recreational drugs, but I don't know if that gets us all the way there. Partially because someone like a McGwire wouldn't be back playing again, so it's not like he'd be harming competition, but also because so much of the writerly outrage out there is based in appeals to childred as role models, and for those purposes I can't see a difference between coke and steroids.

I'm rambling now so I'll stop.

Tom said...

With respect to general acceptance by fans, media, etc., I think it's all about the records and context.

Hamilton didn't break any hallowed baseball records as a result of his drug use, and he was never in our minds as an all-time great. I think that we had McGwire, Bonds, and Clemens in our minds as great players, and we later felt like we were fooled - which made us angry. Also, we liked 61 and 755, and we get angry when they're knocked down under circumstances we may not like.

I think this is where Tejada, Giambi, Pettitte, and Ankiel come in. They weren't in our minds as all-time greats, so we don't feel as hurt by them. I know three of those four apologized, and that some people would point to that as the distinction between them and the big three, but I'm not sure we would have accepted an apology from the other three. They were too good, and they hurt us too much.

Also, and maybe more to the point, I think we generally feel like Hamilton's drug use was a personal issue, while the steroid use somehow is more relevant to us, as baseball fans. Since we don't really know any of these guys, we don't really care if they do things that harm themselves (Hamilton, Molitor, etc.), but we don't want them besmerching something we do care about...baseball records. Would we really have cared if Barry, Roger, or McGwire were a cokehead? I don't think so.

Vida Blue said...

A little OT, but is anyone else a little tired of the Hamilton story? Especially the "Jesus" aspect of it? I mean, we're really going to swallow the "Jesus showed me in a dream that I'd be in Yankee Stadium" story unquestioningly?

Peter said...

What does anyone have to gain by questioning his dream story?

I'm interested when he talks about his faith because it's interesting to hear how he sees his path to sobriety, but beyond that, I find any discussion of God's involvement pretty bland. Nobody's opinion is going anywhere on that subject.

Vida Blue said...

Exactly...lame story...tired of its kind.

tadthebad said...

Well written, Tom. While I disagree that no one was hurt by the PED use of Giambi, Pettite, Tejada, etc. (I'm assuming their fans were somewhat hurt), the real problem we have (or, perhaps more accurately, the problem I have) is that many of the greats of the "Steriod Era" cannot blindly be accepted as all-time greats. From my perspective, I can't put Bonds up there with Williams or Ruth, and that diminishes the clout of the era.

To Craig's point on Performance v. recreational drugs: I think it all comes down to cheating, as mentioned above.

Peter said...

While steroids may have put an end to the perception that one could make a 1:1 comparison between eras, shouldn't we admit that comparing Babe Ruth's 60 homers in 1927 to Roger Maris's 61 in 1961 to Mark McGwire's 70 in 1998 was a bit silly to begin with?

With all the advancements in nutrition, conditioning, medical treatment, playing conditions, travel distances, travel amenities, internationalization, expansion, length of schedule, etc, I think it's a lot more difficult to compare eras than people generally thought, even if you disregard steroids. (Yes, I know about the + statistics, but in my experience most of the anger towards McGwire and Bonds "ruining" something comes from people who liked to compare the raw home run totals.)

I prefer to look at steroids as simply another part of the context of the era, the same way we consider (or at least should consider) racial segregation and amphetamines to have effected the level of play in previous eras.

Daniel said...

Here comes an OT response to Vida: I, for one, am not tired of the Jesus story. It's not my place to question his dream, but I enjoyed his testimony of faith after the derby last night.

Of course, I say that as a Christian hoping others hear that and are influenced by it. But I don't understand why others are bothered by it. He attributes his recovery to Jesus. Why does his choice bother you? If he said that his recovery was due to a close friend who never gave up on him, would that still be lame? It's a great story no matter how you slice it, and Hamilton is using it as a way to help others who have followed that path. How is that not a good thing?

Ok on topic now, sorry Craig. Tom, I think you were right on in your analysis. Now that athlete's lives are such public knowledge, the whole "athletes as role models" paradigm is not nearly as prevalent. So the personal life stuff bothers us on the surface, but doesn't really affect our fan-athlete relationship with them. But the PED stuff does, and even moreso with the guys who "matter." Anyway, I'm just paraphrasing Tom now - that was very well put.