March 24, 2005

Pumped Up About the Steroid Hearings

I was going to write about something else today, but I make a point of responding to my readers, and loyal reader PG wants my take on a hot topic of, um, a week ago:

Waiting for your input on the steroid hearings. I saw The Crucible last Saturday and there's a faint McCarthyism in Congress on this topic, I think. Jose Canseco as Elia Kazan?

This is, naturally, not the first time I've been requested to comment about this. When you are a very public and reasonably prominent lover of baseball, and a major baseball-related story sucks up all the media oxygen, naturally people want to know what you think.

The truth is, I didn't really want to talk about the steroid hearings, despite the fact that they were such a big deal. (In fact, they'd probably still be all the rage were it not for the Terri Schiavo case, which is even more depressing and which I want to talk about even less.)

Part of the reason I didn't want to say anything is that it was so widely talked about that I didn't think there was much left to say. The hearings were analyzed and chatted up in all media, each witness deconstructed and skewered, each politician's motives scrutinized, each minute endlessly replayed. I try to avoid beating dead horses, and adding my thoughts to the public torrent struck me as the equivalent of spitting into a hurricane.

Also, I didn't watch any of the hearings themselves. This may come as a shock to some of you, but the reality is that as president of the Nats Fan Club, at least in the formative stages, I have very little time to focus on baseball-related issues outside of the Nationals. Besides, I didn't think the hearings would reveal anything I didn't already know, and based on what I've read since, it seems I was right.

But there's no denying that steroids are an important issue in baseball today, and since PG wants to know what I think (and probably some of the rest of you as well), I'll say a few words. (Veteran readers know that "a few words" is a relative term with me, especially given that I've already chewed up seven paragraphs on the preamble.)

You'll forgive me, I hope, if I skip the winners-and-losers-type analysis of the witnesses at the trial. I don't care and, besides, it would be kind of silly given that I didn't actually watch the hearings myself. In fact, I intend to skip over discussion of the individual witnesses entirely (except McGwire, whom I'll get to in a minute). Instead, I'd like to discuss the broader significance of the hearing, particularly PG's reference to McCarthyism.

I'm already on the record as saying that steroids are a real problem, and one that baseball needs to deal with. I've never been in the laissez-faire camp on this. It's reached the point where the clean guys are justifiably pissed off at having to compete with the wonders of chemistry. Baseball can't afford to turn a blind eye to this issue, and it's better that we start dealing with this now, rather than a few years down the road when a wave of ex-players are dying at 45 and 50.

That said, I'm somewhat ambivalent about Congressional involvement on the issue. On the one hand, politically speaking, crusading against steroids is a textbook example of shooting the big target. It's a risk-free stance for even the most careful politician: there's no pro-steroid voting bloc to worry about offending, no partisan issue at stake, and no risk of being nailed for hypocrisy (I don't imagine there are any roided-up members of Congress). It should come as no surprise to anyone that two of the leading anti-steroid voices in Congress (John McCain in the Senate and Tom Davis in the House) have higher ambitions. Davis wants to be a senator, and McCain... well, we've known about him for a while now, haven't we? The idea that grandstanding is involved here isn't going to come as a galloping shock to anyone.

On the other hand... sometimes you need to shine a public spotlight on an issue before anything gets done about it. And it's become quite clear that baseball, owners and players alike, was quite content to sit on their hands and do as little as possible. The greatest service these hearings performed was to expose the appalling chicanery of the much-ballyhooed recent steroid agreement, with the allowance of a monetary fine as a substitute for suspension and the agreement that governmental scrutiny would curtail the testing program altogether. (That must have been a great relief to Don Fehr, who's no longer forced to stand alone in defending the indefensible. No wonder he was always so testy.) Public scrutiny can be a virtue, despite the show-trial aspect of it.

Besides holding shady back-room bargains up to the light of day, the Congressional hearings also made the steroid issue a matter of wide public debate. Prior to the hearing, steroid use in baseball was primarily a discussion for those in the game: owners, players, sportswriters and fans. We've already seen how deeply the owners and players cared about the problem. And the sporting press, by and large, is alarmingly indifferent to steroid use. Maybe they're jaded, maybe they're anti-testing zealots, maybe they're reflexively anti-owner. Whatever the reason, an awful lot of writers seemed to have become apathetic to the issue in recent years. And, perhaps following the writers' lead, fans became somewhat dulled to it as well. Apart from using the issue to pick on people (like Barry Bonds) that sportswriters don't like anyway, steroids were, if not a dead issue, largely shrugged at.

By making it a national issue, rather than a baseball issue, suddenly Congress had placed the steroid mess in front of people who were not familiar with it, and hadn't been dulled into apathy by years of fruitless discussion. For instance, the Gamer Girl. At dinner the other night, she said, "Why don't they just shut down baseball until they figure out how to make sure no one's doing steroids?" While this suggestion is perhaps a tad impractical, it reflects the sense of outrage that this provokes in non-fans. While veteran baseball observers are so sick of the issue that they'd just as soon crawl under the table when the word "steroids" is uttered, the non-fan on the street is still capable of being disgusted by the flagrant cheating at work here.

Therefore, on balance, I think the Congressional hearings are good for the game. I think the McCarthy parallel is largely unfair, since steroid abuse is a real problem, whereas the alleged Communist infiltration of the government (Ann Coulter's opinions aside) largely amounted to boxing at shadows.

The only thing that bothers me is the potential for this to dissolve into a parade of finger-pointing and personal potshots. If all we accomplish is tarring the reputations of a few individuals without creating any change in the system, then we've failed. This is where McGwire comes in, and where the parallel to McCarthyism might hold up.

Let's get one thing straight: If anyone thought before now that McGwire hadn't done steroids, you haven't been paying attention. The difference between McGwire's body shape during his playing days and afterward was quite striking. I noticed it the first time I saw McGwire on the field during the All-Star Game after his retirement. He's quite noticably slimmer. We may not have wanted to believe he was juicing (lest it spoil the memories of the magical Summer of '98), but it wasn't exactly hard to figure out. In fact, the shock that so many expressed at his non-denials at the hearing suggests a sort of willful blindness on our part.

So now we're all pissed at McGwire, labeling him a pariah, because he shattered our illusion. But what was he supposed to do? Lie about it, angrily? Admit it and face criminal culpability on top of public scorn? The poor guy was in a Catch-22. If you gave McGwire truth serum, he'd probably tell you that he did steroids because of the public pressure. Steroid use, as we're finding out, wasn't exactly uncommon, and the testing program was a joke. And everyone wanted him to break the record. Fans wanted to see history. The owners wanted a quick attendance fix after the debacle of the '94 strike. And everyone wanted to put the uneasy ghost of Roger Maris and the asterisk to bed at last. Given the degree to which everyone's hopes rested on McGwire (especially after his near-miss in '97), it's hardly fair to ask how he could possibly juice up. It might be fairer, and more compassionate, to ask: How could he not?

Posted by Mediocre Fred at March 24, 2005 07:54 PM

It's a risk-free stance for even the most careful politician: there's no pro-steroid voting bloc to worry about offending, no partisan issue at stake, and no risk of being nailed for hypocrisy (I don't imagine there are any roided-up members of Congress).

Au contraire.

Posted by: PG at March 28, 2005 10:56 AM
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