With the publication of Ball Four in 1970, former Yankee Jim Bouton gave the world an honest look at the inside world of baseball including the womanizing, drinking and pill-popping. The MLB was not pleased.
Interview by John DeSio
Village Voice: What are your first impressions of the Mitchell Report? Are you somewhat surprised that there’s a lack of bigger names on the report?
Jim Bouton: Those are the only names they’ve got for sure. You’re talking about one guy [who cooperated with the Mitchell investigation], evidently. This probably represents a fraction of the total, actual people that are doing it, that have been doing it. This is not comprehensive by any means.
VV: Where do you think baseball moves forward from this report? Is this the beginning of the issue or is this the final chapter on steroids in baseball?
JB: I have no idea. I don’t know how these guys are going to respond to it, I don’t know what they’re going to do. They’ll probably come up with some halfway measure that doesn’t really do the job, or they’ll come up and they’ll say, “Now you can’t take human growth hormones [HGH] and you can’t take steroids anymore.” But then some chemist will come up with something next month, next year, two years from now, some other performance enhancing procedure or drug.
That’s why what baseball needs to do, what all the major sports need to do, is take blood tests of these guys now and tell them they’re going to save the blood tests. And if it turns out down the road that there’s any performance enhancing drugs that currently exist or are created in the future you’re going to be responsible for having taken those drugs, even though we have no rules against them. Otherwise this is just a race against the chemists, who are going to come up with masking devices. But if you’ve got the blood and you’re holding on to it, that’s going to serve as the baseline for future tests.
I think that’s what they need to do, because now they’ve got a real problem. They could have done something about it a long time ago, and they wouldn’t have had to go through this. But because they’ve waited so long they’re now in a situation where they have to do something like this.
VV: The Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run chase of 1998, and the overall increase in home runs between then and now, have played a major role in baseball’s increased popularity following the 1994 strike. Do you think baseball knowingly turned a blind eye to steroids at that time because it was good for business?
JB: They knowingly turned a blind eye to almost everything. It’s not just baseball. It’s in politics, it’s in business. You’re sitting around the White House, or you’re sitting around a Congressional staffing meeting, “we’ve got this big problem, what are we going to do about it?” We’re going to keep it secret and not tell anybody about it and maybe we’ll be out of here by the time it gets discovered. It’s a failure of leadership, we’re really lacking in leadership in this country. Not just baseball executives and union executives but business executives and major politicians, presidents, congressmen, senators. It’s a shame. Nobody wants to come out and give people the bad news.
VV:When you wrote Ball Four you we’re really blackballed for telling the truth, and not about anything quite as damning as steroid use. A few former players and at least one current player [Jason Giambi] cooperated in creating the Mitchell Report. Do you think they’ll ever be able to show their face in the clubhouse again?
JB: They shouldn’t. The players are partly responsible too. Why weren’t they going to their union and pounding their fist on the table and saying, “Look, I’m not taking steroids and I don’t want to be competing for a job here on my ball club with guys who are taking steroids, and as a team we don’t want to be competing against guys on other teams who are taking steroids. And as our union, I demand that you protect us.” But ballplayers are not like that. They don’t demand anything, they don’t pound on the table, they don’t want to get involved in politics. They turned their back on it also. And when it blows up, they get angry.
VV: So in your mind the clean players should be the ones pushing back here?
JB: I don’t know how many clean players are naming the dirty ones. I don’t know if clean players even know which guys are taking and which guys are not taking. Usually, if a bunch of guys are taking steroids on a ball club they probably know about it among each other. They probably exchange notes, they probably talk about best ways to do it, how to avoid getting caught, etc. I’m sure there are small clubs on the team and if one of those guys betrays they other guys, it’s like the mafia.
VV: Senator Mitchell said it is a minority of players who use steroids. Do you agree with that?
JB: How does he know? He didn’t have any subpoena power, he hardly talked to any players at all, how can he say it is a minority of players? All we know is that one guy with a handful of witnesses, none of whom were compelled to testify except one guy, and they got all of these names. What kind of number would you get if every player came forward, or if you had subpoena power? It might be five times this amount. So I don’t know how you can come to the conclusion that this is it?
VV: There are ways to cheat in baseball beyond steroids, like throwing a spitball or corking a bat. What makes them different from using steroids? Why is steroids worse?
JB: There are different levels of cheating, but steroids is a totally different magnitude, and so is human growth hormone, because it changes the body’s chemistry, and it makes you able to perform at beyond your normal different level. That’s how it differs, for example, from pep pills, from “greenies” [a common baseball term for amphetamines], which allowed players to perform maybe up to their ability if they weren’t feeling well, if they had a hangover from the night before, or if they were just tired. The pep pill would allow them to play up to their ability, but it didn’t change their muscle structure, it didn’t make them different people.
How it differs from scuffing a ball, that is cheating but it’s a much different magnitude. First of all, there as always been sort of an unwritten rule that if you’re clever enough you can get away with it. But you have to do it out there in front of everybody, you have to develop a skill that allows you to do something in public. And if you can get away with it then you can.
You can’t lump them all together and say, “Well, it’s all cheating and what’s the difference?” There is a difference. None of those other levels of cheating have anything to do with allowing a player to perform beyond the level of a normal human being.
JB: Do you think that this is going to keep Roger Clemens out of the Hall of Fame?
VV: He’ll have to be rejected on a character level, because he certainly had enough statistics to qualify for the Hall of Fame, and so did Barry Bonds, before steroids even came on the scene. So he’d have to be rejected on a character level. But on the other hand, how do you keep someone out on a character level once Bowie Kuhn is in there? I think the Hall of Fame has lost a little bit of its luster recently already anyway. It’s going to have to do something to restore that. Pete Rose is not in the Hall of Fame, but I would wager that more games have been unfairly affected by the use of steroids than any games have been affected by Pete Rose’s gambling. Not even close.
VV: What about Andy Pettitte? I think the average Yankee fan probably has a better feeling for him than Clemens and is more likely to consider him a “true Yankee.”
JB: If you’re a true Yankee then you should be allowed to use steroids and get away with it (laughing). If you’re not a true Yankee then you shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it.
VV: What I meant was if you thought Andy Pettitte could recover from this with the fans?
JB: As far as the fans are concerned, they’ll forgive anything. They will absolutely forgive anything. I don’t think they’re a barometer of a person’s legacy. If Charles Manson could hit .300 he’d be playing third base today for the Yankees. And the fans would love him. And so would the sportswriters, and so would the broadcasters. (Imitating a sportswriter’s voice) “Charlie, Chucky, Chucky, come over here. You had a great game today, three doubles, wonderful catch in left field, winning hit in the ninth with runners on base. I know you had some problems in your life before but that’s all behind you now Chuck. You’re hitting .366 and, you know, it’s great to have you back.”
The fans would love him. (Imitating a crowd chant) “Chucky!, Chucky!” (Imitating a fan) “Charlie, Charlie, could you sign these photos over here, I’ve got a couple of shots of you in prison, would you sign those? Put your prison number down there too, thanks Charlie.”
VV: If you had your way here, if you’re in the commissioner’s chair, where do you take baseball from here?
JB: I think that baseball needs to understand, the players’ association too, that…they’ve been treating this as a legal problem. These are lawyers, they think this is a legal problem. “Players have a right to privacy,” is the position of the players association. They have far more than a legal problem. They’ve got a historical problem, they’ve got a national health problem, they’ve got a credibility problem. So they’re going to have to come up with some really, really tough rules. I think baseball needs to go further than any of the other sports. Statistics matter a lot to [baseball fans], so they’re going to have to really clean it up. And one thing they can do is have mandatory blood tests.
They can’t just say, “OK, we’re going to ban human growth hormone now and we’re going to ban steroids.” They’ve got to do more than that. They’ve got to take blood tests and ban anything new that comes up, so that a player knows if you can’t buy it in a grocery store don’t put it in your body.
VV: Can baseball recover from this?
JB: The beauty of baseball, the beauty of the game, will bail them out every single time, no matter how they try to kill it. No matter what they do, they can’t ruin the game. There can be strikes for two years, it’s a beautiful game. They can’t take that away from it.