Tom Verducci's cover story on steroids in this week's Sports Illustrated is award-winning stuff -- not because of what it reveals, but because of what it forces us to acknowledge that we already knew. You can't even call steroid use a dirty "secret"; the secret has been out in the open so long that no one regards it as a secret anymore. What we didn't know was how prevalent steroid use is. Now that we know the problem is worse than we thought, it's going to dominate our view of sports until it's eradicated.
Make no mistake -- the use of steroids in baseball is, in the long run, a more important issue than the phony revenue-sharing war currently being waged between the owners and the players' union. Not that the problem is confined by any means to baseball. Far from it. Basketball and football players have bulked up far more over the last two decades than baseball players. And might there not be a boxer here and there whose physique and temperament suggests unrestricted steroid use?
But the average fan regards steroid use in baseball as different. He doesn't so much care if hundreds of anonymous offensive linemen whom he wouldn't recognize if they took off their helmets in front of him are inflating their bodies and shrinking their testicles with drugs. He cares very much if it's a baseball player whose performance he follows every day.
It may seem trivial to pursue the argument from this perspective, but let me ask the question anyway: What happens when the average fan's faith in the integrity of baseball records is shattered? I mean, what happens to the game in the long run? The lifeblood of baseball is statistics, numbers and records, which fans must take on faith since they will only see an infinitesimal fraction of the actual games. What happens when fans no longer accept the numbers as a true reflection of the players' on-field performances? What if the breaking of a new record is simply written off to the belief that "Oh, he's just on steroids"? Do you think that baseball is on the verge of that kind of reaction right now? I do.
Scrutiny has naturally fallen on the three record-shattering sluggers: Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Some Texas baseball writers have raised questions about Sosa, remembering him as a 165-pound Texas Ranger with modest power. After making my own inquiries, I do not believe that Sammy Sosa's amazing home run totals from the last few years can be written off to steroids, although it's impossible to say for sure. I am fairly certain that at least most of what Mark McGwire was taking during his record-breaking years would not fall under the heading of steroids in the harmful sense discussed in Verducci's article, but again, I really can't be sure.
I don't know what in hell has gone on with Barry Bonds, and I'm absolutely amazed that there hasn't been more serious investigation into the Bonds phenomenon. There is absolutely no precedent in baseball history for anything like a 35-year-old ballplayer who had just hit 34 home runs (and who had hit a career high of 46 six years earlier) to suddenly jump to a total of 122 home runs over two seasons at ages 36 and 37. It simply makes no sense, and I can't find any rational explanation for it.
This doesn't mean that Bonds was on steroids. The truth is I'm not even implying it. Bonds has flatly denied using steroids in some interviews, but in others he's come across as angry and evasive. The point is that I don't know -- we don't know, and when too many questions are asked about too many strange phenomena and no credible answers given, a cloud of skepticism starts to poison the atmosphere.
Of course steroid use is bad, and of course performance-enhancing steroids need to be eliminated from sports. Let's not pretend we don't understand why they haven't been eliminated from baseball. Unlike cocaine, which devalues the baseball owners' property, steroids have actually benefited the owners in the form of extra ticket sales and more media attention when records are pursued and broken. The owners have no reason to stamp out steroid use. The harmful effects of steroids take years to show up, by which time the owners have lost interest in aging hunks of meat and found new beef to replace the old.
Let's stop blaming the Players Association, which on numerous occasions has submitted what it believes to be highly effective drug control plans only to see management cynically exploit the drug issue by asking players to step forward voluntarily for drug tests in defiance of union agreements. (The union has never denied the necessity for drug testing, but it has resisted and will resist random drug testing programs under the control of management as a means of overriding agreements with the union.)
There are those who are saying that Verducci's article couldn't have come at a worse time for baseball. I disagree. Steroids is a cancer eating at the core of the game's integrity, and as such is far more important than whether or not George Steinbrenner or Ted Turner gives up 10 percent or 20 percent of his team's revenue to Minnesota or whoever. This is an issue fans have a right to be cynical about.
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This past January my editor called and told me that Salon was counting on me for a really strong Super Bowl story. "It's up to you," he said. "You're the best man we've got, and this is the big one." I said no. "I don't feel comfortable picking it up at this time, not being used to their moves. Get another guy to do it." Well, we all know what happened: Readership took an enormous dip, the magazine wavered on the edge of destruction and the horrible slump in the publishing industry followed. I'm not saying these things were definitely related, but, well, who can say?
Please, save your e-mails about how I shirked my responsibility. I know I screwed up. Worse, I left the door open for others to use the same kind of lame excuse. A few months ago there were rumors that an air traffic controller refused to pick up on a particular incoming flight because, he said, "I don't quite feel comfortable picking him up at this time, not being used to his moves." Disaster was narrowly averted.
Now, the pox has spread to the NBA where, last Tuesday night, in the biggest play of the biggest game of the year, Kobe Bryant, who would like to be regarded as the best player in basketball, was asked by his coach, Phil Jackson, with mere seconds left in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals, to guard the other team's best clutch shooter, Mike Bibby. Kobe didn't actually say no; it was more like he politely declined, saying, "I don't feel quite comfortable in picking him up at this time, not being used to his moves." Phil Jackson, had he been thinking more like Kobe's coach and less like his friend and partner, might have countered with, "But isn't the reverse equally true, that he is also unfamiliar with your moves? And aren't you Kobe Bryant, and doesn't that give you an advantage over him under any circumstances?" But then NBA stars aren't really coached anymore, they're just kind of counseled.
Kobe wants to be like Mike? Can you imagine Michael Jordan turning down an assignment to guard the other team's most dangerous shooter in the final seconds of a big game because he was "unfamiliar" with his moves?