Thursday, February 10, 2011

An Unenlightened Materialism And the Quest That Doesn’t Satisfy

Sports is the last unscripted form of entertainment in America –Jim Bouton

Ronald Blum’s headline registered an almost mild indignation “Steroids different from other cheating in baseball”. It’s a syndicated piece that’s long on statistics but short on heart. Blum’s minor effort was prompted by the 50 game suspension of Los Angeles Dodger superstar Manny Ramirez - guess Manny just being Manny doesn’t work anymore. Seems that Ramirez was caught using HCG during compulsory testing in spring training. Oops…this is a multi-million dollar mistake for Manny. He is truly a modern superstar and it seemed possible that he could match or surpass some of the records established by Bonds. This flagrant error in judgment just may cost him an otherwise well-deserved spot in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.

But what does it say about professional baseball, or even more importantly, what does it mean to you and me. For the baseball establishment, the epidemic of “juicing” is a voice it swallowed fifteen years ago and it made them choke and sputter and genuflect solemnly about a return to values. Commissioner Bud Selig and Players Association head Marvin Miller (and others) vowed to rid MLB from the scourge of steroids and performance enhancing drugs. Both sides rode the fence yet presented the illusion of having control and understanding of the problem - and following some vague set of rules. Though this attempt at self-regulation seemed almost sincere it soon became clear that it was clearly disingenuous. There was more at stake…money, lots of money. For me – as a fan – it felt like I was the proverbial prodigal son wishing to come back home and smell the air of the house he was born into. But the house is in disrepair and the air is stale from decay. Baseball had changed. It wasn’t the new stadiums or modern uniforms, it was something intangible –the integrity and character of the game itself.

It just doesn’t hold up that juicing, engineered excellence and multi-million dollar salaries could be more than a footnote in the history of Major League baseball. It seems cut against the grain of my understanding of baseball and my experiences playing the game…the smell, the feel, the voices that once resonated brilliantly no longer seem real. There was humor – irreverence. Baseball was actually FUN. Like Casey Stengel falling asleep in the dugout and waking up in time for the 7th inning stretch and charming the press afterwards with pearls of wisdom such as, “I never make predictions, especially about the future.” Yogi Berra was always quotable. During a game when the Yankees were taking a beating, he exclaimed, “It gets late early out there”. After a particularly tough losing streak, Yogi told the press, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” Political correctness had not yet subdued Mickey Mantle’s drinking, Jimmy Piersall’s jumping into the stands for a donnybrook. In 1962 a Detroit Newspaper published a photo of Reno Bertoia standing just outside the dugout – GASP – smoking a cigarette!!!

In 1971 Detroit Tiger superstar and future Hall-of-Famer Al Kaline turned down a $100,000 contract citing that he didn’t have a very good year in 1970 and didn’t deserve the raise. I remember professional baseball players like Vic Wertz coming into White’s Bar on the off season making a few bucks stumping for the hospitality industry. Baseball was the bread and butter of the workingman athlete – but nobody got rich (except for a few of the owners). Today’s professional athletes are the new centurions, modern gladiators that fulfill the promise of a consumer society and keep us happy and distracted - except when things go wrong - and for Major League Baseball things have been wrong for a long time…

I recently read Howard Bryant’s Juicing The Game, a brilliant treatise on drugs and power in professional baseball. It was published in 2005 but it reads like it was released yesterday. Bryant links Professional Baseball’s ongoing struggle with juicing to the malaise that overtook our national pastime in 1994 and the role of Marvin Miller, the head of the Player’s Association since 1966. Miller had changed the playing field of professional baseball by his skilful negotiation strategies and hard won labor disputes that put player and owner as equal partners for the past 25 years. But in 1994, the owners’ goal was to break the union and regain control of professional baseball. It is important to note that when Miller began representing baseball players in 1966, the minimum salary was $6000. From 1947 to 1966 the minimum had been $5000 - twenty years without a significant pay raise. With Miller’s arrival and ascendance all that changed and he became known as one of the most powerful men in baseball history, heading up the most powerful union on earth. In 2009, the minimum salary for a major league ball player is $400,000; the average salary is $3,240,206. These are impressive numbers that represent not just Miller’s successful negotiation strategies but the growing animosity between the owners and the union. Miller was riding the crest of a wave, that is, until the strike of 1994. His greatest strength was also his Achilles heel.

This proved to be Major League Baseball’s sentinel event, arguably more destructive than the 1919 Black Sox scandal and the cocaine scandal of 1985. The baseball strikes of 1972, 1976, 1980, 1981, and 1985 registered only minor blips on the radar screen of public opinion. But the 1994 debacle shook baseball to its very core – no playoffs and no World Series. The public, already growing bored with the pace of the game, were changing allegiances to the more fast-paced sports such as football, hockey and basketball. Baseball was old and tired and the younger generations no longer saw it as our National Pastime. To them it was just another sport – and a rather boring sport as well. The Major League Baseball establishment realized that they would have to do something to get fans back into the ballparks. So things happened, new hitter-friendly ballparks were constructed, the bats were made of harder wood, the size of strike zone was reduced. It was felt that home runs and high scoring games would be more exciting for the fans. So, the owners seemed to tacitly approve the juicing era, avoiding regulation of performance enhancing drugs yet making public statements to the contrary. As all hope for a 1994 World Series faded, President Clinton signed the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act (DSHEA), a bill that would offer consumers greater choice of medicinal products and shifted the burden of proving product safety from the manufacturer to the FDA. This resulted in the growth of an almost unregulated multi-billion dollar supplement industry that produces muscle building products that would soon become popular with athletes across the globe.

The seeds of the juicing scandal were planted.

Baseball was always known as a skill sport. When I played baseball for Arthur Hill High School in 1969 and 1970, weight training was strictly forbidden. It was the culture at the time that posited weight training would make you less flexible, impair coordination and reduce bat speed. This was the mantra handed down from professional players to college campuses and then to high school athletes. However, in the late sixties and early seventies professional players began to embrace weight training and strength building even though it was forbidden by club policy. You may remember Detroit Tiger catcher Lance Parrish in the 1980’s. He was strong and he lifted weights openly. He was considered the exception to the rule. Generally, baseball never considered that muscle-building supplements would be useful to ball players, that, in fact, they felt it would not enhance a player’s skills.

Brady Anderson would change that perception dramatically. He was one of the first players to use creatine, a dietary supplement that had been used for years in power sports such as football and weightlifting. It became an ideal aide for baseball as it enhanced adenosine triphosphate or ATP that is produced naturally in our body and is responsible for quickness, going from inaction to action. This was especially important in enhancing speed and strength, elements essential to a good hitter. Anderson was a relative unknown until his astonishing performances that stretched unabated from 1992 to 1996. In his first year using creatine, Anderson raised his batting average by 40 points, hit 21 home runs and scored 100 runs (he hit only ten homers in the previous four seasons). He was an anomaly, a leadoff hitter who hit home runs and struck out a lot. He was no Maury Wills. He was an out-of-phase template for later leadoff hitters such as Ricky Henderson. This was Oakland A’s Billy Beane’s inspiration for his Moneyball Philosophy, in which you focus on a player’s undervalued traits (e.g., strength) in order to gain a competitive edge when most organizations favored the five-tool player (run, throw, catch, hit and hit for power – these types of players were rare and very expensive).

But for a moment let’s step back to 1983, Jose Canseco was a skinny 185 pound 19 year-old going nowhere in Class A ball. He wasn’t even on anyone’s radar for being a potential major leaguer let alone the swaggering rookie of the year phenomenon in 1986. Canseco’s life-altering sentinel event was his demotion to a lowly farm team in Modesto Oregon. It was here that he embraced steroids. By 1985, he weighed 230lbs and could run like a deer and hit for power. He was what some pundits called a 40-40 player – 40 home runs; 40 stolen bases. Canseco became a superstar celebrity, shaking the moneymaker with Madonna and hangin’ tough and loose in Manhattan.

The Juicing era had taken legs and as Canseco later reported, most everyone was doing it to some extent. Sure, he may have been exaggerating. After all, he fell hard from his self-proclaimed pedestal as his abilities declined too quickly. He was reduced to a limited role in baseball and he grieved the loss of his glory days. He was ridiculed and shunned by his former teammates and the press especially after the 2005 release of his incendiary and vindictive book Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant Roids, Smash Hits and How baseball Got Big. He blew the whistle and named names – big names. By now you’ve heard them all.

The markers for what was once attributed to baseball’s renaissance are now symbols of its rot
• Barry Bonds 762 home runs, 7 time MVP. Bonds is facing criminal perjury charges.
• Roger Clemens 354 wins, seven-time Cy Young winner. Clemens is being investigated for perjury.
• Mark McGwire 583 home runs. His evasive testimony during a House of Representatives subcommittee investigation forever tarnished his reputation.
• Alex Rodriguez, one of baseball’s greatest players tested positive for steroids in 2003. A recent book claims that Rodriguez is a long term user and has lied about the extent of his drug use.

Sports broadcaster Bob Costas was quoted in a syndicated piece shortly after Manny Rodriguez suspension. “Everyone sees what happens with steroids. Great players became superhuman. Good players became great. Marginal players became very good. It’s a huge difference maker. It’s a career changer. It’s a career extender, and in the era of big money, many players see it is worth the risk because there were tens of millions of dollars to be made.” So is that what it all comes down to…greed? What about MLB’s fascination with the record books or the Hall of Fame? Does juicing diminish the accomplishments of these great athletes? Does it require a footnote next to their record performances?

Perhaps it just points out what we already know. Playing baseball does not necessarily build character. And if you accept the premise that baseball is merely unscripted entertainment then maybe those wonderful accomplishments listed in the record books don’t really matter. We can still marvel at the excellence of these incredible athletes. We can thank them for the memories and the good times. We might just as well enjoy professional sports for what they really are… Bread and Circuses.

Bo White

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