On the December 5 Sports Reporters on ESPN, in the wake of Jason Giambi’s admission to a federal grand jury that he used performance-enhancing steroids, William Rhoden stopped the show dead. “This,” he said, “does not change how I see Barry Bonds at all. I think that the gap between Barry Bonds as a baseball player and whoever is second is so wide . . . ” Although Rhoden’s remark makes you want to call for drug testing of sports reporters, there are in fact quite a fewpeople out there who agree with him. To their credit, his colleagues on the show, including John Saunders and Mike Lupica, emphatically disagreed. The fans would seem to agree; over the past few years, they have flocked to the stadiums and watched the games on television in record numbers. The players don’t seem to care too much—most of them, anyway—though there are mixed signals. And baseball’s ownership really doesn’t seem to give a damn, despite the high moral grandstanding of commissioner Bud Selig.
As evidence for the latter point, says Marvin Miller, founder of the players’ union, “No owner has exercised the ‘probable cause’ provision in the Basic Agreement. How exactly are you going to determine probable cause? Are you going to say, ‘Well, so-and-so only hit 34 home runs last year and this season he hit 70, so we’re going to take that as probable cause that he’s taking something and have him tested’? I don’t think so. Could you see the Giants calling for testing on Barry Bonds on the basis of probable cause because he hit 70 home runs?”
Bingo. In previous decades, baseball owners have been touchy on the subject of drugs, but only certain types of drugs—recreational drugs. Yes, we all know Doc Ellis claimed to have thrown a no-hitter while on acid, but rightly or wrongly, the owners viewed marijuana and LSD—and to a greater degree, cocaine—as substances that devalued their property. Steroids were (and are) another matter altogether. Steroids are designed to enhance performance, and enhanced performance may be a large part of what has fueled the baseball boom that began in the late ’90s.
“Every major-league owner would like to see steroids removed from every team except his own,” a former major-league manager once told me. This is probably true, as evidenced by the fact that although steroid use is said to be widespread, no team owner has ever raised an outcry against it.
So what, exactly, can any major-league owner—or even commissioner Selig—do about steroids? Right now, nothing, or at least nothing that isn’t already specified in the Basic Agreement with the players. (Every other columnist in New York is clamoring for George Steinbrenner to make an example of Jason Giambi. The Yankees, of course, would love to dump Giambi, not to make a moral statement, but to use the remainder of Giambi’s $120 million contract to sign a younger, healthier Carlos Beltran.)
Despite the huffing and puffing from Senator John McCain, the federal government can’t do anything either. The idea that lawmakers are going to suspend the Constitution and Bill of Rights for a handful of professional athletes is absurd, to say nothing of dangerous, and McCain and Selig know it. That the commissioner has the power to do anything within the existing structure without the cooperation of the players is equally absurd, though the myth of the commissioner as some kind of a czar is one that dies hard with a large portion of the sports press.
For instance, it’s still bought into by USA Today‘s Ian O’Connor, who wrote on December 7 that to clean up the mess, Selig will “need to pull his lumber from that best-interests-of-the-game rack.” The “best-interests-of-the-game rack” extends to the owners’ clubhouse, not the players; the players have their own best interests looked after by their union. Selig’s power doesn’t even extend to the owners, unless they choose to allow it. The commissioner is hired under a personal-services contract, and any time in the past a commissioner has failed to understand this, he has found his contract bought out and the lock on his office door changed. Selig, a former owner, is the first commissioner to understand this and can be counted on to make no move his bosses don’t approve of.
So, if ownership and the union are at a stalemate and the fans don’t care, is there a problem? Yes, a very big one, though one not likely to manifest itself right away. First, about the players: If recent comments from players are any indication, most of them do not want to pollute their bodies with potentially harmful steroids and do not want to compete against players who get an artificial advantage from steroids. The rank and file of the union has every reason to cooperate with a sensible drug prevention program. It also has every reason to be suspicious of a baseball ownership that is both bullying and hypocritical, as exemplified by commissioner Peter Ueberroth’s 1985 publicity stunt in which he went on national television and announced that the existing drug program that had been negotiated with the union wasn’t strong enough and that he had plans to institute a new one. Predictably, Ueberroth’s big talk got nowhere. As for the fans, I’m not buying the argument that they don’t care. Many of them do, and many more are going to start caring as soon as Barry Bonds approaches the most hallowed record in baseball—Hank Aaron’s 755 home runs. Baseball fans aren’t stupid; they know, if William Rhoden does not, that before his late-thirties surge, the gap between Barry Bonds and whoever was second was not so great that Bonds seemed like a good bet to become baseball’s all-time home run king. Fans are going to hang the asterisk on Bonds that everyone mistakenly thought commissioner Ford Frick put on Roger Maris.
Contrary to the sunny health report given by the National Football League to the media, many experts, including Professor Charles Yesalis of Penn State University (co-author of The Steroids Game), think that steroid use is more rampant in pro football than in baseball. “It’s just that we don’t care as much about it,” says Yesalis, “because we don’t see cherished records being threatened in football.” Exactly. Faith in statistics is the lifeblood of fan interest in baseball. What happens when the average man’s faith in the integrity of baseball statistics is shattered? What happens when fans no longer accept the numbers as a true reflection of the players’ abilities?
In truth, we don’t have any real evidence that the current drug policy doesn’t work—it came into full effect only after Bonds and Giambi hooked up with trainer Greg Anderson. If there’s one thing that owners, players, fans, and press can all agree on, it’s that there’s going to be a horrendously ugly PR disaster for baseball as Bonds draws closer to Aaron’s record. Surely Major League Baseball can begin doing damage control right now by working with the union to come up with a drug policy that doesn’t violate their employees’ rights.
Allen Barra is the author of Brushbacks and Knockdowns: The Greatest Baseball Debates of Two Centuries and Big Play: Barra on Football.