Your cheating stars

Is there a double standard in the way Barry Bonds has been persecuted for steroid use, while baseball ignored abuse by other major leaguers? You betcha.

By Joan Walsh

Published December 21, 2007 1:29PM (EST)

I think another genteel tiff just broke out between New York Times columnists, this one featuring sportswriters Murray Chass and William C. Rhoden over Barry Bonds and the steroid scandal. And though I admire Chass, count me firmly on Rhoden's side.

On Saturday, in the wake of George Mitchell's report detailing the widespread use of steroids and other banned substances, Rhoden wrote that "Baseball, specifically Bud Selig, owes Bonds an apology ... for allowing the news media and the public to make [Bonds] the vilified face of baseball's steroid era," given the glaring evidence that Bonds was just one of many steroid users, and that Major League Baseball knew it. Today, in a column criticizing three-time Cy Young award-winner Roger Clemens, the biggest star besides Bonds accused in the Mitchell Report, Chass veered off strangely at the end to attack Bonds and disagree with Rhoden (though in the well-bred way that Times folk do their fighting, he didn't mention his colleague by name).

"It has been suggested that baseball owes Bonds an apology, but baseball owes Bonds nothing," wrote Chass. "He owes baseball an apology, for sullying the game and its most hallowed record." Chass also insisted that "contrary to the views of some people, Bonds's case was never about race. It was about the actions of the game's most prominent player, and whether he had been black or white or Asian or Latino he would have rightfully invited the scorn that has been heaped on Bonds." While Rhoden, who is black, never mentioned race in his Saturday column, he has discussed the role of race in the crusade against Bonds in other pieces. The new Times spat provoked me to break my silence about the latest Bonds and steroids news events.

I've been quiet about all developments on the Barry Bonds front since he broke Hank Aaron's home run record Aug. 7. I've tried to write about the big milestones -- the Giants' announcement they wouldn't re-sign him, his sad last game in orange and black, his indictment on federal perjury charges and, most recently, last week's release of the Mitchell Report. But I've felt like I have nothing new to say. I've defended Bonds for years, from charges of being a singular asshole before the steroid allegations became news, and then from charges of being a singular asshole cheater once they did. After reading Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada's disturbing "Game of Shadows," I confessed my mixed feelings in a piece titled "The Scapegoat" -- and that still serves as my best assessment of Bonds and the steroid scandal. Yes, he's almost certainly a cheater, but he's one of many, and he's been made a scapegoat for a lot of complicated, vexing reasons I don't entirely understand (in my view, one of them likely being race). Maybe most important, he's my cheater: His years in a Giants uniform were my best years as a lifelong baseball fan. I can't trust myself to be objective about his alleged misdeeds. But since the story isn't going away -- in fact, it's only getting more interesting -- and readers continue to ask what I think about it, here's what I'm thinking.

The Mitchell Report might have been the most depressing reading since the Starr Report 10 years ago. It was tawdry, and it drained the joy and magic out of something wonderful -- in Mitchell's case, baseball; in Starr's case, sex. I think Starr's work represented a partisan witch hunt; I have more sympathy for the motivation behind Mitchell's. But in both reports I was surprised to be struck by the pathos of the subjects, when the reader is supposed to think they're scoundrels. The Oval Office affair between President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky was bad behavior and bad judgment on both their parts, especially Clinton's, but I remember mostly just feeling sorry for them, caught by their own need and want and then stalked by Starr and his investigators for page after merciless, eventually tedious page.

Likewise, many if not most of the 89 ballplayers Mitchell accuses of using banned substances seemed pathetic to me, marginal major leaguers or aging stars still trying to play through injuries, writing big checks for substances of dubious help, getting said substances injected in their naked asses in order to gain or hold on to an edge over their competitors. For some reason I got caught up in the Larry Bigbie saga; Mitchell goes on for pages about his injuries, his efforts to come back from them, and battle to keep a roster position using steroids and HGH as his weapons. Then there's that other Giants hero, Benito Santiago, who almost died in a car crash but wound up reviving his career and being the MVP of the 2002 National League Championship series. Other people may see a despicable cheater; I saw a guy who played with pain every day, who worked in a catcher's crouch into his 40s. I'm not defending Santiago, but I can't be unsympathetic to the forces that allegedly led him to use banned substances to hold on to his career. And he was relatively lucky; Mitchell's report is studded with names of guys you've never heard of unless you're a rotisserie-league-level baseball fan.

On the other hand, there were also guys at the top of their game who Mitchell says cheated, too, from Bonds to Kevin Brown, Eric Gagne, Miguel Tejada, Jason Giambi, Andy Pettitte, and Roger Clemens. Of course I loved the Clemens revelation. I hated the George Bush-supporting, bat-flinging Texas prima donna, even before I heard the steroid rumors. That revelation, in particular (with the ones about former Dodgers stars like Brown and Gagne close behind), confirmed my conviction that Bonds has been unfairly singled out. But I have to check myself, because Clemens denies Mitchell's allegation, as Bonds has repeatedly. Why am I so quick to believe a charge against someone I hate when I made excuses for a player I love? (I should also say here that Mitchell's case against many players is not definitive; there's a lot of hearsay in there along with the cancelled checks to steroids-dealing trainer Kirk Radomski, who copied those checks and saved them, and quickly used them to save himself when he got caught.)

But I've talked about that before, too. I know that in the end, my protective reaction to Bonds stems from my fandom -- as well as from my limited personal dealings with him, in which he's always been nice to me, never the monster other writers portray. That's why I more or less decided to stop writing about the Bonds controversy: I'm not a journalist when I approach the topic; I'm a fan. The Mitchell Report made me even more confused on that score. I have a passing acquaintance with most of the Giants players and all of the team staff mentioned: players I loved like Santiago and Marvin Benard and Armando Rios; trainers I admired like Barney Nugent and Stan Conte, the heroes of the report, trying to get management to notice what was going on with Bonds and his mysterious personal trainers; general manager Brian Sabean and owner Peter Magowan, who come off terribly, ignoring Nugent and Conte's warnings about Bonds, and in the end, telling contradictory stories to Mitchell, with Magowan claiming he asked Sabean about Bonds' rumored steroid use, and Sabean vehemently denying Magowan ever made such an inquiry. (It could be a rough year in the executive suites over at Willie Mays Plaza.)

I'm inclined to believe Sabean rather than Magowan because I've already decided Magowan is a bad guy -- he and Clemens are Republicans! He fired Dusty Baker! -- but I've had to face the fact that I no longer know who's telling the truth. (Even Baker, my all-time baseball hero, admitted to Mitchell he knew Benard, at least, had used steroids, but didn't tell anyone.) I've worried that all of my biases might keep me from seeing the facts clearly, so for a time I just thought I would keep my mouth shut.

Still, I'm not sure anyone's seeing the facts clearly. I think one obvious fact is that the glaring focus on Bonds was unfair, given what we now know (and baseball insiders have long known) about the prevalence of steroids in the game. And though it was not mainly motivated by racism, I still believe race played a role. When I wrote my first piece about Bonds and race, "If Jeff Kent Were Black," I got private e-mails from several well-known African-American sportswriters and sportscasters, thanking me for pointing out the double standard in white writers savaging Bonds and lionizing Kent, though they are both, on balance, talented, churlish jerks a lot of the time -- one key difference being that Kent always cultivated the media.

Can anyone really say that Bonds' race plays absolutely no role in the way he's loathed by the overwhelmingly white sportswriting fraternity? Hilariously (or not), one of the reasons IRS agent Jeff Novitzky, who led the crusade against BALCO and Bonds, said he hated Bonds? "He's such an asshole to the press." We'll never know why the dumpster-diving zealot Novitzky chose to chase Bonds, and no Texas IRS agents went after Clemens, despite rumors about his steroid use. I'll never be able to prove that one controversial, arrogant superstar was targeted because he was black, while the other was ignored because he was white. But it's crazy to assert conclusively that race didn't play a role.

Now it's Rhoden, one of the few major black sports columnists in the country, who also happens to be one of the few talking about the role of race in Bonds' persecution. Coincidence? Probably not. In a column last month asking why prosecutors pursued Bonds, Michael Vick and Marion Jones with so much zeal, Rhoden quoted a defense attorney saying, "Black faces in high places get serious scrutiny." Or as I wrote when I reviewed "Game of Shadows," it's just a fact that "life is harder for black superstars, from Jackie Robinson to Willie Mays to Curt Flood to, yes, Barry Bonds in 2006." I can't believe we have to argue about that in 2007, but it seems that we do.

It's probably also no coincidence that one of the few white leaders who's spoken out against baseball's steroids hypocrisy is former President Clinton. When I began thinking about how much the Mitchell Report reminded me of the Starr Report, I'd forgotten that two years ago, when asked about the steroids crackdown by Larry King, Clinton denounced baseball's singular focus on a few high-profile cheating stars, when it had failed to clean up a much wider scandal. It's worth reading again:

First of all, keep in mind that, as I understand it, Major League Baseball did not adopt a clear, unequivocal ban on steroid use with consequences, like the Olympics has had for years, until recently ... Well, my experience is, in politics and everything else, if you're in a great contest with high stakes, people will do what it takes to win within the framework of the rules ... It's clear now that there is an overwhelming, perhaps unanimous consensus among the owners and the players and the representatives and the media that steroid use is not only bad for the players, it's bad for the game and it's wrong, and it should be banned, and there should be consequences for violating the ban ...

But I think we have to be careful looking back before that was the rule and even before that was the consensus ... We need to remember that baseball itself was highly ambivalent about doing anything about this, facing the truth and having strict rules for years and years and years. So now we have the rules. Let's go forward and enforce them. But I think ... looking back and looking down on people and trying to claim that, you know, things that happened five, 10 years ago in their careers weren't real because they did this -- I think that's a little hypocritical. Where were we then and why didn't we ban it then if that's the way we feel?

Leave it to Clinton to see the fundamental unfairness of the way the Bonds steroids scandal has played out. Maybe if we had more black sportswriters, we could take a representative sample and see whether they tend to agree with Rhoden that race mattered in the pursuit of Bonds, or with Chass that it didn't. But if we had more black sportswriters, maybe we wouldn't have seen Bonds demonized for traits that tend to be ignored in white superstars. If Bonds turns out to be the only one of hundreds of steroids-era players who gets punished for his "crime," we will have witnessed a great injustice. And like so many others in this country, race will have played a role.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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