Friday, December 14, 2007

A Needle in the Vein of my Childhood Dreams

Today is quite likely the darkest day in the history of baseball, darker even than the Black Sox scandal or the 1994 strike - but I do believe the ever-resilient sport will survive.

Loyalty is a good thing and a value to be admired, but sometimes we value it a little too much. Communities have a tendency to circle the wagons when one of their members is criticized. This is a good thing when the member in question is innocent or repentant, but we do our friends no good when we let them languish in sin. Republicans were wrong to change their rules and let Rep. Tom DeLay remain party leader when he was first under investigation, and Louisianans were wrong to re-elect one of their own, Rep. Bill Jefferson (D), in the face of his corruption. Earlier today, one of my childhood heroes was accused of using steroids. I’m not about to make the same mistake as Louisianan voters or Republican House members. Guilty is guilty. I feel betrayed, and I am furious with him and the dozens of other tripped out players, but my love of and hopes for the game of baseball have not waned. I’d like to explore both that admiration and today’s release of the Mitchell Report.

Despite the fact that I that lettered in speech and debate and was always the Little Leaguer in right field catching butterflies and picking daisies (though in east Texas, it was actually moths and dandelions), I whole heartedly believe that sports are more than just a game, and that baseball, football, and basketball deserve the hallowed place they have long held in American culture.

(Photo courtesy Over in Brooklyn.) Jackie Robinson did far more than just integrate baseball – he helped integrate the country itself. In the 1950s, as Major League Baseball went, so went the nation. For me, the defining moment in baseball history, and perhaps the greatest story in all of sports, came when Pee Wee Reese refused to sign a team petition attacking Robinson, and later walked over to second base and put his arm around Robinson, silencing the taunting crowd. That’s courage. That’s moral fiber. The New York Times recounts that day:
Robinson played, and endured vicious abuse from opposing teams, from beanballs and spikings to racial epithets and spitting. Robinson had promised Branch Rickey, the owner and general manager of the Dodgers, that for at least his first two years in the major leagues, he would hold his tongue and his fists, no matter the provocation. And one day -- it was probably in Cincinnati, Reese recalled, in 1947 or 1948 -- the attack was so nasty that Reese walked over to Robinson and put his hand on the black man's shoulder.

"Pee Wee kind of sensed the sort of hopeless, dead feeling in me and came over and stood beside me for a while," Robinson recalled, as quoted in the forthcoming biography "Jackie Robinson," by Arnold Rampersad (Alfred A. Knopf). "He didn't say a word but he looked over at the chaps who were yelling at me through him and just stared. He was standing by me, I could tell you that." The hecklers ceased their attack. "I will never forget it," Robinson said.

Sports can give a community something to rally around during dark times. Just look what the 2001 AL Champion New York Yankees did for their city in the wake of 9-11, and the distraction that baseball provided for the country during World War II. The Commissioner asked President Roosevelt if baseball should suspend itself, and FDR said no way, people “ought to have a chance for recreation and for taking their minds off their work even more than before.” Even in more average, mundane times, sports can give communities something to cheer for and rally around – and I don’t just mean the intense baseball culture of Boston or St. Louis. In rural Texas, it’s high school football, and in Nebraska, it’s the Cornhuskers. Fans live and die with their boys, talking of nothing but the previous Friday or Saturday night, at least until the next game rolls around.

A good coach can make men out of boys, teaching them the values that make us whole. Yes, there’s Gene Hackman in Hoosiers and Denzel Washington in Remember the Titans, but there’s also Buddy Teevens of Dartmouth football. Teevens hangs out with the leader of the Navigators Christian Fellowship and makes his players attend forums on sexual assault. The players didn’t even take the field during their first practice; it was all discussion – yet if you speak with any of them, you’ll find a fierce loyalty to and admiration for Coach Teevens.

And just look at what sports does for the needy – at Roberto Clemente’s devotion to the poor children of Nicaragua, Puerto Rico, and beyond, or at Curt Schilling’s work on behalf of ALS patients and Boston’s Jimmy Fund. Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated, perhaps the classiest sports columnist out there, has raised millions from his readers for malaria victims through his ”Nothing but Nets” program (which, by the way, you should donate to). And who doesn’t find MLB’s Boys and Girls Clubs of America commercials inspirational?

(Photo of George Mitchell presser courtesy focus on Dartmouth sports and professional baseball because these are the games I am most familiar with, but these narratives can be true for all high-profile sports. Clemente, Robinson, and Reese were real men. We learned today that the same cannot be said of Roger Clemens, Eric Gagne, or 50-some-odd other pendejos professional baseball players. I speak, of course, about former Senator George Mitchell’s “REPORT TO THE COMMISSIONER OF BASEBALL OF AN INDEPENDENT INVESTIGATION INTO THE ILLEGAL USE OF STEROIDS AND OTHER PERFORMANCE ENHANCING SUBSTANCES BY PLAYERS IN MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL.”

I take drugs in baseball very seriously, for two reasons. The first is that drugs stain the game – which, for all the reasons outlined above, deeply offends me. Gagne shocked the sports world a few years ago when he saved 84 straight games for the Los Angeles Dodgers – how, fans asked, could a relief pitcher win the Cy Young Award??? Well, now we know that a relief pitcher DIDN’T win the Cy Young Award: a bottle of drugs and a needle did. Barry Bonds: how could one man hit 73 home runs, when for 100 years only two men could even manage 60??? Well, now we know, one man didn’t: a bottle of drugs and a needle did. None of these men deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, or to even take the field. When they stain the game and its history, when they tarnish its record, and when they MOCK THE FANS, they show their true character.

The second reason I take professional cheating seriously are the two effects it has on America’s children. The first impact can be found in an old quote. I believe it was from Lou Gehrig when asked why he never sat out a game. Whoever it was said that every day, somewhere in the stands there would be a kid with his dad who had never been to a game before and would probably never attend another one, and Gehrig didn’t want to disappoint that kid. The last game I myself attended was a Red Sox – Twins match at Boston’s Fenway Park this past September. About 100 feet to my right sat around a large group of inner city children. They had to be about seven years old, and were as excited as all get out. They spent 15 or so minutes trying to start The Wave, but it always fizzled about a quarter of the way around the stadium – the grumpy Canadian sitting next to me said that must be the rich section. Once the wave finally broke through that section, it circled the park not once, but six full times. Every fan in the outfield cheered for those kids, and I swear you’ve never seen smiles quite that big or heard shrieks quite that loud. Now I’ve heard sports stars claim they never asked to be role models, but the fact is they signed their contracts knowing full well what expectations society would put on them. Professional sports are a business, and the most important thing in business is customer service. In sports, your customers are your fans, and baseball’s littlest fans are its most important. The pushers lost sight of that.

The second impact is not on the seven-year olds, but the 17 year olds. In 2005, USA Today wrote, “According to a survey by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, steroid use among high school students more than doubled between 1991 and 2003. More than 6% of 15,000 students surveyed admitted trying steroid pills or injections… Independent surveys estimate 1.5%-2% of Florida's high school athletes might be using steroids. ‘But against a student base of 215,000 athletes, it's kind of scary to think that possibly 4,000 are at risk out there,’ [Florida official John] Stewart says.” Furthermore, the Mitchell report states that, as a result of Mark McGwire’s fame, “According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, by 2001, 8% of male high school seniors had used andro within the prior year.”

Does this really surprise anyone? These boys and girls aren’t doing it just because they want to emulate their heroes – they do it because they don’t realize they have a choice. Everyone wants a level playing field, so when some Major Leaguers take drugs to get ahead, others join to keep up. Minor leaguers then realize the only way to break into the Show is to use the drugs themselves. College and high school athletes follow. I could care less what an immature thirty year old man with his priorities out of whack does to his own body, but when he holds this kind of influence on our children, he may as well be pushing that needle in Big Bird’s butt instead of his own veins. Players who take steroids and HGH without admitting, quitting, and apologizing are quite literally the serpent in the tree, demanding Eve take the forbidden fruit. This is why I didn’t mind when Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) and the House Oversight Committee got involved with baseball back in 2005 – they were protecting our children, one of Congress’ most sacred duties.

(Accompanying photo courtesy ESPN.) But children aren’t the only reason I’m mad. Roger Clemens was one of my childhood heroes. When my dad told me a few years back that, after years of trying, my Houston Astros had finally signed him, I literally bounced off the walls, shouting and hollering. I was high for a week, but now I feel betrayed. There have been rumors about Clemens before, but given the long-standing intensity of his workout, I always discounted them. It made sense to me that his body would be that big, and after so many years, still that strong. He took good care of himself! I’ve also just always been in denial that pitchers use drugs the same as hitters, but that’s all it was – denial. As a fan of good pitching, I allowed the sanganos to pull the wool over my eyes. Gagne and Clemens have made a fool out of me. My disappointment in Gagne is the same as it is Paul LoDuca or Jeremy Giambi – just the generic anger described above – but with Roger Clemens, it’s personal. There’s no baseball analyst I like less than ESPN’s John Kruk, but he said something today that really hit home: If these allegations are true, Clemens is no different than Barry Bonds. Yahoo’s Dan Wetzel says the same thing, adding, “His seven Cy Youngs and 354 career victories [are] lost to history under a pile of lies and syringes… Baseball has its white Barry Bonds… Anyone who spent years spewing contempt at Bonds needs to do the same to Clemens, because there is no difference between them.”

I think that hurts me even more than it does Clemens.

I can be forgiving. When asked about their drug use, Clemens and Bonds deny, deny, deny. Rafael Palmeiro even wagged his finger and clucked his tongue at Congress, the hypocrite. But Jason Giambi came clean when confronted, and has continued to play the game without the illegal boost. He confronted and defeated his demon, and that’s something to be admired. I’m also not quite so angry with Andy Pettitte. From what I can tell, Pettitte is not accused of using drugs to boost his numbers, just to speed his recovery from the disabled list. That was against the rules, so he was wrong and I do condemn his actions, but they were understandable. Healing the body is the reason steroids exist in the first place, as many cancer patients can attest. Pettitte used the drugs in this fashion. They put him on the field, but they did not boost his numbers. I am disappointed in him, but still consider him a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate worth taking your kid to see pitch.

The saddest fact is that this is just the tip of the iceberg. Mitchell only had two sources, but since there are dozens of drugs sellers out there, it is likely that hundreds more players than the 50 or so named also use steroids and HGH. I am confident, for instance, that Sammy Sosa took drugs. Mitchell said that it would be impossible to learn every name, but that there would be no point in trying anyway. What is important, he said, is unmasking the overall culture of the locker room (in an even more dramatic fashion, I might add, than Jim Bouton) and turning our eyes to the future so we can fix that culture. He’s right. Dwelling on the past will do no good, so there’s no point punishing the past users we know of and routing out the ones we don’t. Commissioner Bud Selig doesn’t see it that way, and implied in his own press conference that the accused players would be summarily investigated and punished. This is, sadly, what we’ve come to expect from Selig. Wetzel writes, “If there is one thing we know about Commissioner Bud Selig's sorry era, it's that if something seems too good to be true, it is.” Selig needs to make up for years of imposing half-hearted measures and at times even looking the other way. He needs to rise above his past mistakes – not just presiding over the explosion of the drug culture, but also expansion, interleague play, the All Star tie – and take Mitchell’s recommendations and hire an outside, independent steroid tester. I am pleased that MLB is currently searching for a way to test for HGH, but it’s going to take more than that. Selig has never been the strongest of commissioners, but he has the opportunity to change that and cement himself as the greatest. The players themselves have an even larger responsibility. The clean ones need to stand up to their teammates, set an example, and demand accountability. The users need to apologize and set an example by overcoming their demons, like Giambi. I, and countless other fans, will embrace those who do.

I haven’t lost my faith in sports, or even in Major League Baseball. I’ve turned my Clemens and McGwire bobbleheads around to face the wall, but I see no reason to rip down my Bagwell, Biggio, Ryan, Maddux, Glavine, Olerud, or Jeter posters. Before writing this article, I reread an old essay by Bob Batz called, “Get Lost, Kid!” He writes about how a minor leaguer rudely denied him an autograph as a child, but apologized and signed the ball fifty years later. It, like so many other sports memories, is a touching story. There are still Pee Wee Reeses out there, and the glory of the high school gridiron hasn’t faded. And Jayson Stark’s column makes it clear that the accusations in the Mitchell Report probably aren’t solid enough to hold up in court – even those against Clemens. It’s not that the game has lost its worth, only that we’ve learned that some of its stars aren’t role models after all. It’s a hard reality to accept, but we can adjust our expectations and we can be forgiving, just as Selig, DuPoy, Fehr, and the players can still prove their worth.


James said...

I think that you are too quick to assume that everything on the report is true. Too many people accept as truth everything that the media says and the media is eager to print anything that slanders important media figures regardless of the accuracy of the information.
I have read both the Mitchell report's allegations against Clemens and the reponse that Clemen's gave in his answer. Clemen's response makes a lot more sense to me than does the ramblings of a trainer who was threatened to go to jail if he didn't tell prosecutors EXACTLY what they wanted to hear. That kind of coercion is not going to give you truth and I doubt that it gave the prosecutors truth this time. It just gave them fodder to slander big name athletes.
I would be more quick to evaluate and question the accuracy of the information and demand proof and less quick to just jump on the "Guilty until proven innocent" bandwagon that modern America loves so much!

Nathan Empsall said...

James, you do raise a good point. I wrote, "Jayson Stark’s column makes it clear that the accusations in the Mitchell Report probably aren’t solid enough to hold up in court – even those against Clemens." I admit I could have put that higher in the post and elaborated on it a bit. Stark is certainly one of the better columnists out there.

I want to add, though, that I don't believe the claims merely because, as you suggest, they were reported in the media, but rather because of my long-standing respect for Senator Mitchell.

nic said...

Welcom back Nathan. (to both the blogging world and the NW) Looking forward to the wider range in topics.

I've finally got you added into my blogroll. Been meaning to do that for the last... um... year.