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March 18, 2005 [LINK]

Clash of titans (70*, 66*, 73*, ...)

Wow! Yesterday's eleven-hour hearings on the baseball steroid problem more than lived up to expectations of high drama. What a memorable scene: the titans of the political world versus the (formerly) pumped-up titans of the sports world, in a fierce contest to determine who is more righteous, or perhaps less corrupt. Not having C-SPAN3 where we live, I only saw the last three hours of the hearings live after regular C-SPAN switched from the House floor to the committee chambers, and I stayed glued to the tube as the earlier highlights of the day were rebroadcast later in the evening. There weren't many surprises in terms of what was said, since the principal figures had already let their positions be known. What I found intriguing was the wide array of emotions and attitudes displayed by the inquisitors and the witnesses. Curt Schilling was on top of his game, making a long, thoughtful statement and answering questions in a forthright, sincere manner. He is right that the drug problem and the attitude of winning at all costs is society-wide, not restricted to baseball or the sports world. Baseball's new black sheep Jose Canseco, in contrast, was subdued and apologetic. Inconsistencies in his story undermined his credibility somewhat, but not many people seriously doubt the general thrust of the charges made in his book. As for one of the most off-the-wall particular misdeeds he alleged, ABC later replayed a recent Jimmy Kimmel show with an extremely tacky skit reenacting the supposed Canseco-McGwire buttocks injection, while the hapless guest Canseco watched, quite red-faced. (No such thing as bad publicity?) Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, now Orioles teammates, issued flat, grim denials reminiscent of Bill Clinton.

But it was Big Mac himself who made the biggest scene, getting teary eyed as he lamented the problem and straining to explain why he could not answer the question. This recalls the memorable line by Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own: "There's no crying in baseball!" (David Pinto cited that line in regard to weeping by Canseco.) It was embarrassing to hear McGwire rehash ad nauseam the trite cliche of wanting to focus on the positive and not worry about the past. I really think he was sincere, though I'm not sure exactly which aspect of this tragedy troubles him the most: The teenage boys who committed suicide or ruined their health because of steroid abuse, the disappointment felt by his family and fans, or the mortal peril to his legacy this scandal has wrought? His predicament is eerily similar to that of Pete Rose: whatever he says or does from now on, he is damned. Selig's position that the batting records of recent years will stand without asterisks or other qualifications is not convincing. There has to be some kind of accounting for artificially enhanced performance. Fallen heroes are tragic.

Since I had low expectations of the publicity-seeking politicians on Capitol Hill to begin with, I was prepared for all the crowd-pleasing rhetoric they spouted. Amidst all the hoopla and pious cacaphony, however, a lot of good points were actually made. For example, Rep. Charles Dent (R-PA) rose to the occasion by pointing out what I have long insisted is the basic structural problem with baseball: The way franchise owners exploit baseball's exemption from anti-trust statutes to blackmail their host cities into funding new stadiums, the "field of schemes" problem. (Did D.C. have any other choice? No.) This huge unwarranted subsidy works against the public interest by facilitating unchecked inflation of players' salaries and ticket prices. Rep. Chris Shays (R-CT) and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) harshly attacked Commissioner Selig and other MLB officials for allowing the problem to get out of control. Some of that criticism is fitting, I think, but as at least one member noted, hindsight is 20-20. Thus, I came away from the hearings with a slightly more sympathetic view of Rep. Tom Davis and his House subcommittee than I originally had. Baseball needed to be chastened if there is to be any hope for "self-policing." There are serious loopholes in the drug testing procedures, and the "graduated" penalties so strongly defended by Players' Assocation head Donald Fehr seem pretty lame. Five strikes and you're out? Much was made of the Commissioner's new powers of discretion to enforce the doping rules during the hearings, but it is precisely the low-key, consensus-seeking style of Mr. Selig that raises questions about having his office shoulder such a big share of the burden.

In the end, the doping problem will not be fixed by tighter rules, tougher penalties, greater scrutiny, or more appropriate mechanisms so much as by a renewed spirit of sportsmanship. No legislation or collective bargaining agreement can accomplish that; it will require leadership on the part of the star players. How many of our beloved overpaid egomaniacs will "step up to the plate" and do what must be done?

Many thanks to David Pinto (Mr. Baseball Musings) for plugging this site, which is perpetually "under construction." I've just made a thorough revamping of the links to blogs and other Web sites on throughout this site, aiming for consistent format and functionality. Through my bleary eyes I think I see the light of an actual guestbook at the end of the tunnel...

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 18 Mar 2005, 11: 16 PM

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