Saturday, December 15, 2007

Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and HGH

If you detest hypocrisy and sanctimony, this might be a good month to steer clear of the sports pages. George Mitchell of Maine, former senator and peacemaker in Northern Ireland, has lent his abundant talents to the hypocritical, sanctimonious world of Major League Baseball, leading an investigation into just how many human beings might be tempted to inject themselves with potentially harmful drugs in exchange for lifelong fame and staggering fortune. The result of this unneeded inquiry into Human Nature 101 is a lengthy report that provides the obvious answer: a lot of people would, in fact, yield to that temptation.

Somehow, this unsurprising conclusion has rocked the world of baseball, that singular American sport still regarded as pristine even after generations of racism, gambling, and ruinously inept mismanagement. Professional weasel and current Major League Commissioner Bud Selig said of the Mitchell report that "it is a call to action and I will act". Selig, of course, rose from the ranks of ownership to lead his little money-grubbing fraternity and actually held the top job—and thus the power to act—throughout the period in which rumors of steroid use were as common as $7.50 cups of beer.

As bad as the owners and their marionette commissioner may be, baseball's fans may be even worse. Devotees of hardball maintain a bizarre relationship with the objects of their affection. They deeply resent ballplayers' salaries and yet they demand that their favorite teams shell out top dollar for premier talent. They vent their fury at the athletes whenever a labor dispute arises, and then they insist that their cities provide billionaire owners with taxpayer-financed stadiums. They worship every jackass, bigot, and cheater from the distant past who ever belted 500 home runs or hit safely 3,000 times. But they lustily boo the very best baseball player that they are ever likely to see in person.

And the reporters are the worst of all. Journalists, they call themselves, but it took them over a decade to track down the biggest story of their careers, one that would have required relatively simple detective work. Ballplayers don't talk; losers do. And the journey from druggist to athlete nearly always includes several jock-sniffing losers as middlemen. These are people desperate for reflected glory and some sense of personal significance. Target their unstable egos, make them heroic whistleblowers, and they will sing like Bette Midler: loudly, annoyingly, unstoppably. The writers failed to do this, however, so now they are left to denigrate the game and players of the past fifteen years, as if Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire had stolen our national innocence rather than a couple dozen home runs.

But the most ridiculous claim of all is that we owe it to the past to erase the period from 1990-2005 from our collective memories. Ah, baseball and its past. The Babe and the Iron Horse; Willie, Mickey, and the Duke; the Big Red Machine vs. the Green Monster. Do you ever hear a football fan drone on about our debt to Y.A. Tittle and Slingin' Sammy Baugh? Have you ever known a pro basketball writer to pen odes to his grandfather's heroes, George Mikan or Dolph Schayes? But baseball aficionados still revere the ghosts of the early 20th Century and make risible claims about the ability of eighty-year old segregated teams—the 1927 Yankees, for example—to be competitive in a modern era of taller, stronger, and darker men.

The past, of course, is just as tainted as the present. Early baseball excluded African Americans, allowing the best white players to dominate in a way they never would have in a fairer sport. Grandpa's players looked for an edge, too, legal or illegal, spitting on the baseball, stealing signs, and corking their bats. Jim Bouton's Ball Four revealed the prominence of amphetamine use during the 1960s, with players convinced of the performance-enhancing capabilities of what they called "Greenies". Nobody has yet asked that the records from these eras be expunged.

I have no idea how much of an impact steroids and human growth hormone (HGH) had on the records compiled during the past generation. I do know that drug use obviously didn't turn Josias Manzanillo into Barry Bonds, so it probably didn’t turn Bonds into Bonds, either. Maybe without the cream and the clear, Henry Aaron would still be the new home run king. Maybe without the power-friendly effects of Aaron's home park in Atlanta, Babe Ruth would own the title to this day. Or maybe in a society without such a dreadful racial history, the honor would belong to Negro Leaguer Josh Gibson.

Speaking of race, it will be fascinating to watch the current developments surrounding Bonds and Roger Clemens. Until now, fans and writers have insisted that their disgust with Barry has nothing to do with the color of his skin, punctuating that insistence with ostentatious praise of Aaron, the African American whose record Bonds obliterated. Now an equally talented white man has been labeled as a fellow cheater. Bonds is the greatest hitter of his era, Clemens the greatest pitcher. Many Americans, not only black, will be measuring the outcry from the press boxes and the sports talk shows to see what it reveals about us.

Kentucky Senator Jim Bunning, a Hall of Fame pitcher, had this to say about the latest revelations:

"[T]here is one glaring hole in the Mitchell report, and that is the failure to address how to handle the records of those players who not only cheated by using steroids, but also broke a federal law that has been on the books since 1991. The selfish acts of those individuals who tried to cheat the system have brought the integrity of the game to its knees. It brings into question the legitimacy of any records achieved while using performance enhancing drugs."

This from a man who, dealing with far more serious issues, has supported nearly every action taken by George W. Bush, whose administration could, if several words were changed, be perfectly described by Bunning's condemnation of baseball.

Is it any surprise, then, that Bush is himself the first president to have previously served as the owner of a Major League Baseball team? The corrupt just seem to find one another, don’t they?

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