Blame Commish and Media

by
Samori Benjamin

Baseball commissioner Bud Selig likes to displace blame for the steroids era.

With the allegation, and then, the admittance of steroid use from New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriquez, major league baseball has officially been tarnished, and to a certain degree ruined.  None of the other major professional sports leagues in the United States have damaged their brand more than the protectors of the national pastime.  The commissioner of Major League Baseball, Bud Selig, has to take the biggest responsibility in what we now know as the steroids era.  An era that has contaminated and tainted the baseball record book.  A record book that’s always been the most sacred among all the rest, in a sport that’s largely about the numbers.  

 Major League Baseball never had an official steroids test until 2004.  The idea of no steroids testing was a joke.  Professional sports is an arena where it’s the survival of the fittest.  If you are not testing for a drug that enhances athletic performance, you have to expect players to use.  Baseball players have to provide for their families like everyone else.  The sport is the means by which they earn their living, and it’s a business.  Baseball team executives want to win, and the best way to judge whether a player will help you win is by looking at their numbers.  Numbers that are pulled out at the bargaining table when an athlete states his case for a contract.  The bigger the numbers the more millions a ball player can command.   Steroids enhance the numbers.  We all grew up as kids hearing and seeing steroids testing at the Olympics and knew it was a drug that would turn you into superman.  A magical poison injected into your rear that would give you an unfair advantage.  So what did the governing body of major league baseball and the commissioner think was going to happen?

The duties of the commissioner clearly states he must defend what is in “the best interest of baseball.” The commissioner and the governing body of major league baseball are the police of the sport.  They are supposed to uphold the tradition and integrity of the game, and there is no way the commissioner’s office could not have known or at least had a high degree of suspicion that ball players were using the juice.  To think anything else would be extremely naïve, and there is no way people who are around the game the way the commissioner and his officials are, could be that naïve.  It starts at the top, and the commissioner and his executives presided over an era that’s now made the league look like a joke.

The biggest dynamic in the entire steroids conversation are the baseball fans.  Baseball fans are the reason major league baseball has a steroids test in place today.  For many years, it was not public knowledge that baseball players were not being tested for steroids.  Baseball fans just always assumed major leaguers were being tested for steroids.  Then everything changed with the Balco laboratory bust in the California bay area in 2003, where major leaguers from Barry Bonds to Jason Giambi were linked to steroids use, and more specifically a designer steroid, that was undetectable on a steroids test, which were being created and distributed to athletes by the company.

The Balco case was the first episode that revealed to the public that major league baseball had neither a steroids policy nor a test.  If the public knew this before 2003, the suspicion level towards ball players would have been significant way before 03’, and the public would have demanded credibility and steroids testing in the sport.  Which is what happened when the feds busted Balco in the 2nd half of 2003, and players were therefore linked to steroids, the evidence went to a grand jury, there was an indictment, grand jury testimony of New York Yankee Jason Giambi was leaked, which immediately caused the public to question every homerun hit in the major leagues over the preceding 10 to 15 years.

The public was outraged and wanted answers, and that is what got congress involved.  In early 2005, America’s elected officials marched baseball commissioner Bud Selig and the director of MLB’s players association, Donald Fehr, up to Capitol Hill to explain why there had never been steroids testing in the sport.  A few weeks later, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Rafael Palmeiro, Curt Schilling, and Sammy Sosa were called to the capital to discuss the degree of steroids use in baseball.  After that embarrassment major league baseball and the players association agreed to enact a steroids policy in which a first positive test immediately resulted in suspension without pay.  There is no doubt had the public known there was no steroids testing in the sport in 1998 when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa had their dramatic pursuit of Roger Marris’ single season homerun record, the whole thing  would have been played under heavy suspicion, and whether these guys were cheating or not would have been a big part of the daily conversation.  But that wasn’t the case, and there wasn’t a thought on anyone’s mind that these guys possibly could have been using.

So we watched the homerun chase day after day in that summer of 98’ like it was something magical.   Something that was saving the sport which had crippled itself with a mid-season strike in the summer of 1994.  Then three years later, after McGwire set a new single season homerun record finishing with 70 homeruns, Barry Bonds comes along and shatters the record that had previously been held for 36 years before McGwire captured it, finishing the 2001 season with 73 homers.  And still, during the whole time, both homerun chases were looked upon with amazement and as being great for the sport.  There was no public outcry from anyone, that, maybe, possibly, it could have all been aided by steroids.  Because the public was not aware that zero percent of major baseball players were tested for steroids.

Another critical aspect of the steroids discussion is the role or non role the baseball writers played.  The baseball writers cannot go unscathed, they deserve blame for this era as well.  The baseball writers of America are the ones who vote for the hall of fame.  On the hall of fame ballot there is an integrity clause which a lot of writers like to point to whenever they give reasoning for why they left someone off their ballot who is worthy of induction.  It is the baseball writers role to be the watchful eye over the game, to call out nonsense, to expose the truth, and to make the figures inside the sport accountable.  If at any time during the steroids era the baseball writers would have written and informed the public that major league ball players were not being tested for steroids, they would have drawn a lot of attention to the subject which would have set the forces in motion that would have led to steroids testing in baseball.  But instead it took the Balco scandal to begin to shed light on the entire issue.  Did the baseball writers not know major leaguers were not being tested for steroids?  Or did they know and decided to not make an issue of it?  We cannot forget the influence and the power of persuasion that the media has over the public. As much as baseball writers and other members of the media love to get into everyone’s business and break bombshell stories, we didn’t hear a word from anyone in the media about the possibility of steroids use in the game.   The baseball writers let the entire era take place right under their noses, and missed the story.

The baseball players association did everything they possibly could to avoid their players to being subjected to steroids testing.  But that’s what union’s do, they protect their players.  Yes, this makes the players association very guilty as well for what took place over the last 15 years in the sport.  The baseball owners knew what was going on as well, but they are about making money, and power and homeruns draw fans and their dollars to the game.  No one can seriously expect the players and the owners to blow the whistle on something that was profitable for them both.  This is why the baseball commissioner and those inside the major league offices are the ones who must take most of the blame for what went on in the steroids era.  He likes to say that he was really unaware of the rampant steroids inside the game, and he likes to say that he wanted a steroids test in place a long time ago but that he never happened because the players union would not agree to it during negotiations of a new collective bargaining agreement.  If the latter is true, then again, he could have used the baseball writers and the rest of the media to drive home the fact that his players were cheating.  It’s as simple as that.  Instead, the commissioner turned a blind eye, while those in the media slept the story entirely.

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