Friday, December 14, 2007

"A laundry bin full of jock straps at Shea"

I’ve been meaning to finish a couple of posts on politics and media and other serious respectable topics, but here’s an easy post to write: reaction to the George Mitchell report on steroids in baseball.

It bugs me a little bit, the increasingly undeniable evidence that a lot of top-flight players were juicing. Which makes me examine my assumptions: Why at this late date do I expect fine athletes to be persons of fine character? Why care about the purity of baseball statistics, when I don’t care about the purity of the exchange value of the dollar or anything else measured with numbers? To be shocked by Mitchell’s report is a sucker’s response. Ballplayers have always cheated one way or another, and if anything the incentives to cheat are rising as the amount of money at stake is rising. The margin between being an average player and a slightly above-average player, between being a bench player and a starter, or a setup reliever and a closer—these distinctions of apparent quality are not large; they are well within the margin of luck. But they also might be worth $10 million at contract time.

One thing that strikes me about the list of players is how many journeyman players there are on it. The typical steroid-taking player isn’t Barry Bonds, on a Promethean quest for immortality. It’s more someone like Todd Hundley, trying to manage injuries, trying for one breakout 40-homer season that will boost his status in the sport.

Another thing that strikes me: Without doing a rigorous analysis, a lot of players on the list are the sons of former big league players: Bonds, Hundley, Jerry Hairston Jr., David and Mike Bell, David Segui, Gary Matthews Jr. Bret Boone isn’t on the Mitchell list but has been named in steroid rumors. Jeremy Giambi has an older brother, Jason, also on the list, and Gary Sheffield has an older cousin, Dwight Gooden, who was a big league star. Maybe this doesn’t mean anything, but it might mean that the better connected a player was, the more exposure he’d had to the culture of pro baseball from an early age, the more likely he was to seek a strategic advantage through chemistry. In other words, the drugs work. Savvier players were more likely to use them.

I sure would feel better about baseball’s future if George Mitchell was in charge of the sport full-time, instead of Bud Selig. The wisest thing George Mitchell said yesterday was that he hoped the commissioner would not seek to punish every player named in the report. If anything, I wish Mitchell had said it more emphatically. The best use of this report (and Mitchell's vision for it, I'm sure) would be as part of a South Africa style truth and reconciliation process, speaking the truth and clearing the air, without meting penalties for infractions committed perhaps nine years ago and which were effectively condoned at the time. For his part, Selig immediately asserted his authority to punish them all, saying they would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

So one wonders whether the point of the exercise is to address the steroid problem or to make a show of toughness and improve public relations. I feel a sense of resignation about the problem, because of the incentives to dope, and because the doping athletes and trainers are always two steps ahead of the enforcers. Human growth hormone is a drug of current choice, largely because there is no effective test to detect it. Selig touted a plan for baseball to partner with pro football to develop a test of HGH. Of course, as I heard a radio host point out last night, this was a way for Selig to spread the blame—to remind people that other sports have this issue too. The NFL is probably seething to have its name read out at the press conference.

I don’t want this controversy to linger. I want MLB to put up a duly diligent and unbiased detection system, as a roadblock, but recognize that the problem won’t disappear overnight. Give amnesty to players who doped in the past. Sanction but don’t ban or demonize future violators.

And put Bonds, McGwire, and Clemens in the Hall of Fame. The 90s and early 2000s were the steroid era; let’s face it, perhaps regret it, but let’s don’t willfully forget those who excelled according to the standards and conditions of their era.

Ezra Klein posted briefly yesterday about this story, expressing bemusement that, in light of a long distinguished career, George Mitchell is getting so much attention for digging dirt about baseball players. A commenter at Ezra’s wrote:

George Mitchell is Exhibit A in why you should never stay in your current job out of loyalty to your co-workers when you are offered a promotion.

Bill Clinton was going to make Mitchell a Supreme Court justice and instead he stayed in the Senate to shepherd throught the Clinton health care plan.

Fast forward a few years, Steven Breyer is a Supreme Court justice and George Mitchell is poking around in a laundry bin full of jock straps at Shea. And I still don't have health care.

Nicely played Mr. Breyer. D'oh, Mr. Mitchell.

(Bringing it back around to policy and law at the end. Yay me!)

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