Sunday, February 22, 2009

My Steroid Confession-Guaranteed Less Bathos Than A-Rod's

I didn't take steroids, mind you. How would they enhance a sportswriter's performance? Make it easier to take the laptop out of the bag at the airport security station?

But I was a sportswriter who more than occasionally covered baseball in the 1990s, in the midst of what everyone acknowledged was an explosion of home run totals bordering on the ridiculous. To the best of my recollection, Senator, I didn't write anything about steroids in baseball at that time, and didn't write too much about it after the BALCO case and Jose Canseco brought some fact/charges into the public domain after 2000. If, as I believe, the Steroid Era was a systemic failure on the part of the society of baseball, I failed, too. I was part of the system, albeit a teeny tiny part, more of a nanoparticle.

But how did I feel? And, more importantly, why?

I did not, I believe, willfully ignore signs of steroid use among major league players. Yes, they more muscles than in the early 1980s. So did all other athletes. Watched TV yesterday, and Phil Mickelson has muscle tone for God's sake. I have been watching British sports news of Fox Soccer Channel, and cricket players had better be peeing in cups. They're all ripped like linebackers.

As a reporter, I did something almost as bad as ignoring news. I missed it.

I had covered the NFL in the 1980s, and college football, when steroid use was not rare, and I arrogantly felt I knew the tells, acne on the back and all the rest of it. Silly me. Didn't I know science marches on? When steroids came to baseball, there had been progress. Their use was more scientifically (not the right word, but I can't think of a better) employed. It probably helped that big stars making big dough were involved. Those chaps could hire, or refer to, the personal trainers who souped up sprinters like Formula One racing cars.

Then again, suppose I had had my suspicions in the summer of 1998, when the glorious pursuit of Roger Maris' record was making all of baseball feel young again, and according to that prize chump Mark McGwire, making all America forget Monica Lewinsky. A columnist is supposed to offer opinions, but ideally, those opinions are based on at least one fact. In 1998, accusing baseball of rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs would have come to this fact: Some reporter found a legal, over-the-counter diet supplement in McGwire's locker that had been banned by the International Olympic Committee.

Good enough for me! Print it on page one, boss! Had I extrapolated what is known today from that one fact, I would have had no credibility, and should not have had any, either.

Should I have investigated Jose Canseco's charges more carefully? Yes. I did not find him credible, because on our brief acquaintance when he was a Red Sox, Canseco struck me as a cheerful, attention-craving knucklehead. I did not find him credible. My bad. Less than credible witnesses make up the bulk of many a criminal case, and just because somebody's kind of from outer space doesn't mean they're lying.

Finally, of course, Barry Bonds. It was taken for granted Bonds was doing extremely weird science in his megalomaniacal pursuit of baseball accomplishment. San Francisco is far away, and in Boston most days, the National League might as well be in another galaxy as far as baseball fans are concerned. More to the point, the collective bargaining agreement of 2002 pretty much ended my interest in the steroid era. Baseball's warring parties, players and owners, had mutually recognized steroids were something they wished to address and come up with a plan for doing so, one that is still in place. The plan can be faulted for this reason or another, but there it is.

Since there is a plan, I treat baseball the same as I do all the other sports. If a player gets caught breaking a rule and is punished, that's news. If some nasty piece of work leaks sealed court documents that some player failed a drug test in 2003, that's not news. It's voyeurism mixed with our society's massive hypocrisy about drug use, and baseball's mass self-reverence as a cornerstone of the American Way of Life equal if not superior to the Constitution.

Both of those sentiments are hooey that make me gag. Banning performance-enhancing drugs is a good idea, because the evidence shows they are unfair. The better the player who uses them (Bonds is Exhibit A), the more advantage he receives. It's like an upper-class tax cut for slugging percentage.

But there is a major difference between making rules in the interest of fair play and conducting a post-facto witch hunt for players who sought an unfair competitive advantage when the system was set up to reward them for doing so. However nice it is to think that ballplayers took steroids because they were morally weak, the truth is, baseball made it easy for 'em. That includes me.

Now, it's not easy. We either have to assume that the system will detect performance-enhancers, or treat the entire sport with pointless suspicion. Here's the double-whammy created by that attitude. You can hear it on any talk show. Player A is old and never gets hurt. That means he's on the juice. Player B gets hurt a lot. Proves he's on the juice, too.

We have to move on. Otherwise, baseball fandom and commentary will consist of bear-baiting any player whose accomplishments rise above the norm. There's plenty of other human activities which offer more fun than that.

Missing a big story hurts. I haven't been a sportswriter for going on four years now, and missing the steroid era still gnaws. Always will. But I can't bring back the '90s, nor would I want to. Nor should anyone want to. Accept our mistake, and move on.

Use the Google. Read carefully. Some of the most ferocious criticism of A-Rod and drug use in baseball today comes from sportswriters who composed some of the most horribly overwrought would-be prose poems during the McGwire-Sosa home run duel.

Overcompensation is flawed human nature, just like looking for the competitive edge.


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