King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Baseball gets one right with a new steroid-testing plan with actual teeth. Plus: What would you rather read than Marv Levy's memoir?


Salon Staff
January 14, 2005 1:00AM (UTC)

Major League Baseball is finally getting one right by revising its steroid-testing policy in such a way that it will actually have one, if early reports are correct.

Commissioner Bud Selig was scheduled to announce the new policy Thursday at his news conference wrapping up the winter owners meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz.

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The other big announcement expected to be made was the unanimous approval of the sale of the Milwaukee Brewers from the Selig family to Los Angeles businessman Mark Attanasio, meaning baseball is getting two things right in one day, surely a record. The sale of the Brewers ends the decade-long conflict of interest of the commissioner of baseball, who is supposed to act in the best interests of the game itself, owning one of the clubs.

So how about baseball, suddenly on a one-day roll. These are the people, remember, who brought you the cancellation of the 1994 postseason, the tied All-Star Game, surly players, World Series games ending and Opening Day games starting in the wee hours, contraction, Spider-Man on the bases and Selig's years-long marketing campaign featuring the catchy slogans "Our product stinks!" and "Your team has no chance!"

Representatives of the players union and owners have been negotiating to strengthen baseball's three-year-old joke of a testing program since last spring. The old program, agreed to in collective bargaining in 2002, was so toothless it led Rangers pitcher Kenny Rogers to famously remark, "You'd have to be a complete moron to get suspended."

The new program reportedly has actual penalties starting with the first positive test. Selig has been pushing for a while for players to accept a program like the one adopted for the minor leagues in 2001, which entails year-round testing for a variety of drugs, both performance enhancing and recreational, and punishment for the first offense. The major league program will reportedly test for a wide variety of performance-enhancing drugs but not amphetamines.

The talks had been reported as lagging late in the year, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who likes to grandstand on this issue, had renewed his threat to introduce legislation mandating drug testing across professional sports if baseball didn't get a deal done. Ballplayers using steroids is evidently a matter of national import in McCain's mind. Either that or he likes seeing his name in the papers.

But what got the owners and players serious about revising the testing program was the leaked grand jury testimony in the BALCO trial last month, in which Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi admitted using steroids, though Bonds claims he didn't know the substances he was using contained them.

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That was the tipping point, the moment at which the positives of any steroid-fueled enhanced performances no longer outweighed the negatives of fan displeasure over the taint of cheating. As long as the jacked-up power game was putting customers in the terraces, steroids were a problem that could be dealt with through lip service. But when grumbling fans and circling senators threatened to affect the bottom line, something had to be done.

I don't mean this as a criticism. It's exactly how I would have handled the situation. Health problems for the players, of course, are another negative of steroid use, but it was the players themselves, through their union, who were resisting real testing. From their point of view, the BALCO revelations represented the tipping point too, but not for health reasons. The BALCO testimony merely gave pro-testing players the political upper hand within the union.

My only real beef with baseball's handling of the steroids issue is the timing. Baseball didn't get serious about getting its act together on steroid testing until nearly a year after even I, an anti-drug-testing zealot, had concluded that such a thing was necessary. But late is better than never.

It's sad that an announcement like this one is necessary. This isn't a happy day for baseball. Just an inevitable one.

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A good read: Marv Levy's memoir [PERMALINK]

Marv Levy was always one of my favorite NFL coaches because he didn't feel he had to play the part, refused to pretend to be just a dumb ol' lineman made good or something. This was years before Patriots coach Bill Belichick made it fashionable to be all cerebral and geniuslike while at the helm of a football team.

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Levy earned a master's degree in English history from Harvard and was given to lecturing his players about World War II even though he writes that by a show of hands they once demonstrated that not a man among them had ever heard of Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goering, Heinrich Himmler or Joseph Goebbels. He coached the Buffalo Bills to four straight Super Bowls in the early '90s, the first and last team to reach four straight, a significant achievement even though the Bills lost all four.

The first of those seasons was 1990, and in his new autobiography, "Where Else Would You Rather Be?" it doesn't dawn until Page 338 out of 414. But you won't get bored waiting for it, even after Levy whets your appetite with a prologue about the most famous of those games, the one Scott Norwood could have won with a field goal at the gun.

Levy, who wrote the book without a coauthor or ghostwriter, is a good, witty storyteller. I particularly liked the tale -- Levy admits in the introduction that some of his yarns are embellished a bit -- of his telling the Harvard placement office that he'd be looking for a job as a football coach and being told that the last such request had been fulfilled by that office in 1889.

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The book -- debuting this week at No. 11 on the New York Times bestseller list -- is a professional autobiography, not a personal one. You'll read a lot about how Levy approached building a roster, created a game plan, dealt with difficult brass or stars and motivated his players. You won't get much about, say, his home life. At one point his first wife, mentioned a few times briefly when they meet, marry and move a couple of times for new jobs, disappears for several hundred pages before he mentions their divorce following more than 30 years of marriage.

Levy was an assistant coach at a St. Louis high school, then at his alma mater, Coe College in Iowa, and the University of New Mexico. Then he was the head coach at New Mexico, California and William and Mary before moving to the NFL, where he was an assistant for George Allen with the Rams and Redskins.

He took the Montreal Allouettes of the CFL to two Grey Cups, had not-very-successful stints coaching the Kansas City Chiefs and the USFL's Chicago Blitz, and worked in broadcasting briefly before taking the Bills job during the '86 season.

The title refers to the question he would ask his players on the sidelines just before the opening kickoff of every game he coached: "Where else would you rather be than right here, right now?!" It's a good indicator of the kind of optimism -- more fervent than sunny -- that Levy exudes and that comes through in this book. Once you get to the last chapters, when the Bills are marching to those four straight Super Bowls, you know what's going to happen to them, but it's not a downer.

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"Where Else Would You Rather Be?" was published by Sports Publishing LLC, a Champaign, Ill., house that specializes in regional niche titles of the "Tales From the Dallas Cowboys Sideline" ilk, as well as lesser-figure memoirs such as "My Life" by NBA journeyman John Starks. The company seems to have taken a step up in class with Levy's book and "Oh My!" Dick Enberg's autobiography, written with Jim Perry, which is also a pretty good read, though I don't know if it would be if you didn't grow up listening to Enberg as a local announcer. I did. Enberg's book comes with a highlights DVD too.

A quibble: Both the Levy and Enberg books suffer badly from the lack of an index. Here's hoping the publisher rectifies that for any future titles by or about names as big as these two.

Previous column: IOC debate, baseball Hall of Fame

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