A prediction: 2007 will not be remembered as the year baseball finally came clean about its steroid problem. It will merely be remembered as the year our schizophrenia about baseball’s steroid problem reached its pinnacle.
Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell’s report took the cloud of disapproval that had settled over the heads of a few less careful individuals and dispersed it in all directions, naming 86 big leaguers who had been accused — some on strong evidence, some on the slenderest hearsay — of using performance-enhancing substances.
“The list” rapidly became a monolithic, undifferentiated object. It seemed reporters and fans had been capable of understanding and denouncing individual “bad guys” when there was evidence against only a few, but were incapable of intelligent handling of an itemized mass indictment that was almost immediately confirmed as being partly true by several of the named players. (It has even persuaded some obscure bit players who had been left off the list to come forward and confess, as if through some neurotic wish to appear on history’s stage next to greats like Roger Clemens and Miguel Tejada.)
Mitchell has been accused by some of engaging in “McCarthyism” for “naming names” in his report. This is somewhat curious, since Mitchell himself had no special power to compel anyone’s testimony. Nearly every ballplayer he sought to interview refused to cooperate. His report is no more and no less than a work of investigative journalism, and he would indeed be in line for a Pulitzer right now if he had been a mere journalist.
Naming names and presenting evidence in detail is exactly the opposite of Joseph McCarthy’s usual procedure. The main respect in which the whole episode resembles McCarthy’s pursuit of communists is that the fifth estate is doing most of the essential reputation-blackening work, lumping together the potentially blameless objects of rumor with those who, like Clemens, are facing documented evidence of guilt against which their rhetorical defense is incomplete and unconvincing.
But of course McCarthy was closer to being right about the degree of Soviet penetration of government institutions than many of his critics, and this is another thing the two former senators have in common. Mitchell has offered unrebutted evidence of the culture of secrecy and apathy that allowed performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) to flourish in baseball, despite the knowledge of managers and owners. By itself, the players’ refusal to cooperate with Mitchell is telling.
MITCHELL HAS ALSO changed our understanding of illicit performance enhancement in other ways. He has shown what the early results of formal steroid testing suggested: that the use of PEDs has been as common amongst pitchers as it is amongst batters, and that many users were marginal role-players merely seeking to hold on to big-league jobs or fight the effects of age.
That finding should ultimately silence claims that the drugs have been responsible for a one-sided explosion in offense, and dispel self-satisfied claims that they have been confined to the lockers of a few heavy-hitting superstars. Nor will we be sowing the record books with asterisks, unless we want the actual accounting of events to be washed away in a sea of them.
Few of those named in the report ever broke any specific rule of baseball, and some can even produce legally legitimate prescriptions for the substances they were taking. The sport did not introduce serious randomized screening for performance enhancers until 2004.
Some writers responding to the Mitchell Report have been lauding the National Football League as a moral exemplar for introducing steroid tests in 1989. Yet the NFL’s tests have caught fewer than two players a year after an initial purge, have rarely managed to bust so much as a quality starter (let alone a superstar), and have evidently done nothing to delay an age of fast, superhuman 300-pound grotesques on the offensive and defensive lines.
One would have to be awfully starry-eyed to believe that the drug culture is healthier in football than in baseball, yet baseball is attacked for being slow to follow football’s lead. No one has praised baseball for imposing what are now tougher steroid penalties that the NFL’s, and no one seems to hold much of a grudge against NFL greats like Shawne Merriman who make the mistake of getting caught.
Weirder still, most of the blame for baseball’s belated policy response tends to fall on baseball commissioner Bud Selig, even though the real difference between the schemes of competitive stewardship in the two supreme American sports is that football, for reasons resulting entirely from its talent structure, managed to domesticate its players’ union much more effectively in the 1980s.
The 1987 NFL strike and the use of replacement players in nationally televised games, which broke the back of the NFLPA, was at the time considered one of the most ignominious events in the history of professional sport. Yet the NFL continues to reap the benefit from that single act of titanic arrogance, and the fans play along unthinkingly.
A CLEAR DOUBLE standard is at work, and it doesn’t have much to do with any sort of sensible doctrine about human health or drug abuse. As the Baltimore Sun‘s Peter Schmuck wisely observed, it seems that “We treat baseball players like knights and football players like gladiators.”
The real truth is that our fear of steroids in baseball has little to do with our care for baseball players as such. The most important reason baseball remains special to Americans, although it is less popular in every way than football, is that the players are still generally human-scaled and physiologically diverse. (And after Jackie Robinson, the game’s racial diversity has become crucial to its mythic status, too.)
Baseball has room for the tall and the short, the thin and the fat, the fast and the slow. Those guys out there are still recognizably us, performing perfected versions of the feats we ourselves once might have achieved at a sandlot or public park.
It doesn’t offend us too much to think of the monsters who play football making themselves more monstrous, but when a baseball player takes steroids we feel more like we had been swindled by a neighbor or a relative.