Saturday, February 9, 2008

Major League Demagogues

Sports and politics only occasionally intersect, and when they do, the result is rarely edifying. Every so often, usually after a match that ends tragically, some grandstanding statesman will mount the soapbox to wonder aloud whether boxing is too violent and in need of further government regulation. The discussion, of course, ultimately has nowhere to go; the objective of professional pugilism is to beat another man into unconsciousness, so one struggles to imagine a way of making it less violent without rendering the sport unrecognizable. Still, the objective of these hearings and press conferences is less to rein in the heavyweight division than to burnish some elected official's reputation for caring deeply about others. (Would that a critical mass of these same representatives occasionally take up the question of whether or not war is too violent.)

The endless scandal regarding the use of performance enhancing drugs by big league ballplayers is obviously tailor made for just this sort of political exhibitionism. Public outrage attracts politicians like pigs to slop, and the self-righteous ire of the average baseball fan long ago graduated from sensible to over-the-top to ohmygod-Janet-Jackson's-nipple-is-showing. Egged on by a sports media that abandoned all sense of proportion years ago, a generation of athletic supporters has taken to the talk radio airwaves to demand that players be banned, records be rescinded, and the national clock be reset to 1990. Barry Bonds, the greatest player anyone under forty has ever seen, generates the sort of hatred usually reserved only for Charles Manson and Dick Cheney.

It was only a matter of time before the demagogues would gather on Capitol Hill to demand an investigation of Major League Baseball, and nobody demagogues better than John McCain. In late 2004, just after the election, McCain bounded before the cameras to insist that baseball clean up its act or he would huff and puff and introduce legislation to blow their house down. Indeed, the senator's ostentatious embrace of the steroids issue can be seen, in retrospect, as the opening salvo in his 2008 campaign for president. Unctuous to the core, McCain insisted that "[w]hat I care about are high school athletes who are tempted to use steroids because they think that's the only way they can make it in the major leagues".

But it wasn't just McCain. Soon entire congressional committees convened to fire off subpoenas and insist that both sides, management and labor, attend kangaroo court in Washington. Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, still in deep and convenient denial, explained that he simply had no idea why all those horsehides kept flying out of ballparks, but he promised from now on to test the players so often that a new warehouse would be needed just to hold all the urine samples. Don Fehr, representing the players' union, mumbled something about renegotiating collective bargaining agreements and talked out of both sides of his mouth so effortlessly that several representatives must have wondered if he really belonged on their other side of the witness table.

But the real stars of the Star Chamber were the players themselves, the heroes of McCain's wide-eyed schoolboys, who came to the District to face their own "say it ain't so" moment. Rafael Palmeiro wagged the Clintonesque finger in making his denial. Sammy Sosa insisted on a Spanish-to-evasiveness translator. Mark McGwire wrapped himself in the Fifth Amendment. As often happens in these situations, reputations were ruined and very little else was accomplished.

Just when we thought we could all get on with our lives, former Senator George Mitchell, late of the Irish peace process, delivers a report on steroids and baseball that names names, though with something less than a legal standard of evidence. The biggest name, of course, was Roger Clemens, the premier pitcher of his era, and a man who, like Nolan Ryan before him, has come to embody all the manly Middle American values of hard work and determination that we glorify in our folk songs and beer commercials. No longer were we talking about a couple of surly Californians, i.e., Bonds and McGwire. Now the focus had shifted to an authentic Red State hero, the Dale Earnhardt of the diamond.

I have no idea whether or not Clemens' ageless excellence derives from injections of human growth hormone or cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon lager. If he swears under oath that he is, and always has been, clean, I will consider that a strong mark in his favor. By now, he has to understand the consequences of lying and must know that even a McGwire-like banishment and shunning beats spending spring training at a minimum security prison. So if he proclaims his innocence under penalty of perjury, I am inclined to believe him. Certainly, his accuser's stories (I saved bloody syringes for seven years; I shot up Clemens' wife so she could look good for a magazine cover) seem increasingly bizarre.

For now, however, my interest is more in the men and women of Congress who are once again revving up the indignation machine for another highly anticipated hearing. Maybe it's just me, but it sure seems like they're treating Clemens more gingerly than they did his predecessors on the hot seat. Yesterday, the seven-time Cy Young winner, with lawyer in tow, paid a visit to a number of congressional offices, a courtesy that was not, to my knowledge, afforded, for example, Mr. Sosa. I know that this is not a legal proceeding, but I remain surprised that at least one elected official didn't refuse Clemens' efforts to lobby on his own behalf.

This seems very simple to me. Either Roger Clemens used illegal substances or he didn't. If you must, put him under oath and ask him that question directly. Then go back to figuring out how to pull the country out of the ditch excavated by George Bush and Dick Cheney. But don't meet Clemens beforehand, ask for his autograph, or let him wow you with stories about the 1986 World Series. If you're going to play the role of people's champion, at least try to take it seriously. Eliot Ness, after all, wouldn't have shared a cup of espresso with Al Capone before bringing him to justice.

Better yet, just drop the whole thing. If it's a baseball matter, let Bud and Don and the feckless goofballs of Major League Baseball sort it out. If it's a legal matter, leave it to the prosecutors and judges. If it's a concern about the habits of high school ballplayers, insist on government-mandated steroid testing for sixteen year old athletes. (This, by the way, is a bad idea and, in my estimation, a likely violation of the Fourth Amendment. But it would address McCain's worries far more effectively than publicly humiliating Mark Gwire.)

Or better yet, introduce another law requiring prizefighters not to die in the ring.

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