King Kaufman’s Sports Daily

Victor Conte's light sentence isn't a disaster. The BALCO case changed the sports landscape even if its founder won't rot in prison. Plus: Letters From Lost Fans.


Wow, the dudgeon has been flying high and hard these last few days since Victor Conte and two others at the center of the BALCO steroids scandal copped pleas for short jail terms without having to sing about who they distributed the drugs to.

So, no criminal trial with Barry Bonds, Marion Jones, Jason Giambi and other big-ticket athletes on the witness stand. The loss of that page-view-generating, newspaper-selling, ratings-generating event has caused a lot of outrage in the media. All of it on strictly altruistic, justice-seeking grounds, of course.

Conte will get four months in jail and four more of house arrest after pleading guilty to one charge each of conspiracy to distribute steroids and money laundering. He even gets to keep his cheesy mustache.

Greg Anderson, Bonds’ childhood friend and personal trainer, will serve up to six months on the same charges, and BALCO vice president James Valente will likely get two years’ probation for one count of steroid distribution. Another defendant, track coach Remi Korchemny, was reportedly negotiating a similar agreement. All of the deals will be accepted formally in October.

“Who negotiated this plea deal,” asked Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News, “the Major League Baseball Players Association?” Lupica wrote that prosecutors “quit on their stools like Tyson.”

“Somewhere this morning, Victor Conte Jr. must be having a quiet cup of coffee and suppressing a chortle,” wrote Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News. “This is what the government wanted?”

“BALCO prosecutors fumbled the ball,” reads a headline on a column by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Gwen Knapp in which she pounded the feds for conducting a case in which the only name that got named in open court was that of a 72-year-old grandmother who worked as Anderson’s part-time bookkeeper and was what prosecutors called an unwitting accomplice.

The whole thing seems like a big fizzle, but every lawyer who’s been quoted, those on either side and neutral observers alike, has said the deals are in line with sentencing guidelines for what’s essentially a small-potatoes case.

The connection to big-league sports and to hugely famous figures like Bonds, Jones, Giambi and former football player Bill Romanowski made BALCO seem like the crime of the century, but Conte was accused of distributing drugs to about 30 people. He was hardly Pablo Escobar. The money-laundering charge involved a check for about two grand.

Even if Conte had been found guilty on all 42 counts of the indictment, experts have said, he’d have been looking at about a year in prison.

Various worldwide anti-doping officials have criticized the deals for not requiring the defendants to name names, which they see as a missed opportunity to do some real work in cleaning up the sports landscape.

Maybe it was, though this case may not be finished in court. Bonds is still looking at possible money-laundering and perjury charges, and Jones has sued Conte for defamation over statements he’s made about her.

But just because Conte and co. got small-time sentences for relatively small-time crimes doesn’t mean BALCO was small-time outside the courtroom. It was a third-rate burglary, after all, that brought down a president.

BALCO has changed the sports landscape. It changed public perception of performance-enhancing drugs from general denial that they’re that big a deal to a sort of automatic assumption that anybody who does anything out of the ordinary on a field of play must be on the dope.

That’s probably as far away from the truth as the denial was, but it’s an exaggeration that makes it a lot harder to get away with doping than it was a few years ago.

The professional sports leagues, Congress and the bestseller lists — meaning you all — have taken note of the steroids issue in the last two years with varying degrees of seriousness.

Performance-enhancing drugs aren’t going to go away. As long as anybody keeps score, somebody’s going to cheat. The narcs got lucky this time because someone handed them a dirty syringe that allowed them to figure out that THG, a synthetic steroid that had been undetectable, existed.

But there are other undetectable drugs either already here or in the pipeline. Has it turned your perception about who dopes and who doesn’t that those caught in the major league testing so far have all been low-level players, not superstars? Do you now think only the journeyman dope? Or do you believe the big stars can afford the top-shelf stuff that doesn’t show up in tests?

Same here.

Throwing Victor Conte away and locking up the key weren’t going to change any of that. He helped bring steroids to the forefront of the sports conversation. We don’t need to thank him for that because he didn’t mean to do it. But we also don’t need to pretend he’s a bigger criminal than he is.

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Letters From Lost Fans: Philadelphia [PERMALINK]

I’m starting to get over the fan ennui I told you I’d been struggling with a couple of weeks ago. I spent much of the last four days watching the Yankees play the Red Sox and enjoying myself quite a bit.

I especially got a kick out of the first game of that four-game series at Fenway Thursday, when Alex Rodriguez, of all people, hit a game-winning home run to spoil the return from the disabled list of his sniping partner, Curt Schilling, who was pitching in relief.

I don’t think I’ve ever in my life been happy to see the Yankees win a baseball game, but it was fun to see that made-for-TV story line — Courageous Curt’s Comeback! — get blown away. So yeah, I had a good time.

I seem to recall an age when the major leagues consisted of more than just the Yankees and Red Sox, but I’m getting on in years and may be remembering it wrong.

Anyway, I asked you all if you had a story about your fan light dimming, and a lot of you did. And I don’t know what to make of this, but a disproportionate number of letters came from Philadelphia.

Rather than run a long string of such letters on one day, I’m going to run the best of them one at a time. It’ll be a recurring feature that I’m calling “Letters From Lost Fans.”

The first one pretty much has to come from the land of cheese steaks and no professional championships since 1983, and so it does:

Kevin King: I’ve actually had a very similar thing happen to me. I grew up a huge Philly sports fan. Then, starting gradually in about 1997-1998, I stopped paying attention. I mean, I still rooted for the Philly teams, and I watched them from time to time, but I didn’t really follow them.

It’s interesting that this was during the time of the McGwire/Sosa homerun chase, etc. The ’99 and ’00 Series were a bore to me. I hardly watched any football or hockey. And I don’t think it was because the Philly teams generally sucked during this time. They had sucked before and I still followed them closely.

What I think happened is that I lost my childhood wonder at the games.

Back in the day, the grass at the stadiums was so green, even the Astroturf made heat waves during hot summer days. The crowd at the Metrodome was so loud during the World Series that it broke the noise meter. Mike Schmidt was the best third baseman in the game. He and all the players were almost bigger than life.

The players seemed bigger than life; it seemed so insulated a world that I used to wonder what all those people were doing driving around during the World Series or the Super Bowl when they showed blimp shots — shouldn’t they be at the game or watching it on TV?!?

Then, perhaps because my life was changing and maybe I was growing up, I lost that wonder. My baseball cards were put in the attic, and I lost touch with the sporting world.

After my life settled down a little bit, the Sixers made the 2001 NBA Finals. My interest was piqued. Then, the Diamondbacks beat the Yankees in the World Series and I started to pay attention more. Slowly, my interest arose such that I am once again following all the Philly sports teams closely again.

But you know what? The wonder has never come back. If the Phillies win the World Series or the Eagles win the Super Bowl, I don’t think I will have that joy I would have once had. I’m a huge fan, but it is of a different character now. It is more analytical and experienced now. I know more of what’s really going on.

Sometimes I still catch that childhood wonder, but it’s always fleeting. I think some people get this way, and they grow embittered because it will never be the way it was when they were little. I think those people are foolish because even if it will never be the same again, it can still be a lot of fun to watch and follow your teams and sports. The memories are still there.

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