Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Right Nickname, Wrong Reason

A few weeks ago, former New York Yankees manager Joe Torree caught some heat from the local New York newspapers for supposedly telling Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, in the context of a book Verducci just released about the Yankees that Alex Rodriguez’s teammates sometimes referred to him as A-Fraud.

It turns out that righteous indignation of those who disagreed with that characterization was a tad premature. Over this past weekend Sports Illustrated spilled the beans on Rodriguez’s use of steroids. On Monday, Rodriguez told ESPN it was true and that, in fact, his illegal drug use went on from 2001-2003. That means, at the very least, his MVP of 2003 was indeed a fraud along with any and all of his accomplishments during those years.

On some level, this “news” falls into the category of dog bites man. There have been too many of these same sad, pathetic stories about the sport’s pseudo superstars for this “news” to qualify as anything more than just another example of a once-decent reputation being tossed onto an ever-expanding scrap heap. But on other more significant levels, the revelation that the highest paid ballplayer did more than just dabble in steroids is more damaging to baseball’s flagging reputation than the Mitchell Report of a few years ago.

Maybe you can take all of this as a sign that the baseball season has officially begun. It used to commence with the pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training. Now it begins with the latest report of someone testing positive for steroids. But in truth, the Sports Illustrated report and the Rodriguez-come lately admissions have already rendered another baseball season as suspect. Explain to me again why baseball commissioner Bud Selig is worth $17.5 million a year?

It’s hard to know how much of a steroid abuser Rodriguez really was or still is. In the interview with ESPN, Rodriguez admitted he lied to Katie Couric and CBS when he claimed last year he never used the drugs. You don’t suddenly regain credibility by admitting you’re a liar. It may be that his drug use only covered the period 2001-2003, but we’ll never really know unless he’s forced, again, to face another outing of a positive drug test.

There is no question that Rodriguez hopes that the ESPN interview will help salvage what’s left of his reputation. He certainly tried his best to come across as contrite and sincere. But let’s not forget he also came across as sincere in the Couric interview with 60 Minutes. All that means is that he’s a 6-tool player, having established his latest skill, the ability to fake sincerity.

Besides, why should anyone believe that this time he’s telling the truth? It’s not as if he came clean of his own volition. He had no choice. Examine his words in his interview with ESPN. He claims he stopped using steroids in 2003 after he hurt his neck in spring training and had a chance to take a measure of his life. Where’s he been for the last six years then? At any point prior to Sunday he could have taken the brave step forward, admitted his wrongful conduct and pledged to work on eradicating steroids at every level of sports. That would have bought him some good will. The fact that he did not is the height of selfishness and not, as he suggested, the act of a person who has grown beyond the immaturity and selfishness of his youth.

Without giving Rodriguez any sort of a pass on this, it is true that he is far from the only responsible person here. Start with the $17.5 million man, Selig. The fact that this stench still lingers is all the proof anyone needs that he is abjectly unqualified to be the commissioner of anything more complicated than motorized bar stool racing. Selig’s inability to control this situation, to exercise the kind of leadership that a salary like he earns commands, is the major reason why this issue hangs around like an out of work brother-in-law. Selig simply refused to stand up to the union and his fellow owners and shut the game down for as long as necessary until his sport was not only clean but the model for every other spot.

And speaking of the union, they are every bit as complicit at soiling the game in their misguided effort to protect drug abusers. This issue has never been about due process or Constitutional rights. Hiding under the flimsy protection of a collective bargaining agreement that has been slanted in their favor for far to long, from the union’s perspective this has always been about allowing abusers like Rodriguez to enjoy the ill-gotten fruits of their talents in order to raise the salaries of everyone else in the sport. If that means sacrificing the long-term health of the players they claim to represent, so be it. If that means placing every game and every accomplishment under a skeptical eye, so be it. It’s not their job, after all, to care about the game only the players.

It’s almost laughable that the union, particularly Donald Fehr and Gene Orza, are coming under scrutiny now as a result of the Rodriguez matter. These two have been Exhibits A and B for all the wrong reasons for far too long. But like cockroaches scurrying under a newly shined light, the Rodriguez affair has turned into an every-man-for-himself exercise.

To understand this aspect, it is necessary to also understand how the Rodriguez test results came about in the first place.

In 2003, (yes, 2003 and not 1974) baseball still wasn’t punishing steroids users. An agreement was in place that if more than 5% of the active players tested positive for banned substances, then baseball could implement punitive measures against players testing positive in subsequent years.

To what should be no one’s surprise, well in excess of 5% did indeed test positive in 2003. Let’s remember, too, that the penalties that went into effect were hardly much of a deterrent. It wasn’t until Congress got involved in the wake of the Mitchell Report that baseball and the union, under the pointed threat of losing their precious anti-trust exemption, toughened their program. Once the 2003 season ended and the number of positive tests confirmed, Orza, the union’s chief administrator, had no reason to save the test results. But before he could destroy them, the federal government, investigating BALCO and Barry Bonds, had them subpoenaed. The union had no choice but to turn them over or risk even bigger problems. From there, eventually, the Rodriguez revelations were borne.

Interestingly, though, major league baseball doesn’t seem all that concerned that their number one marquee player got that way in part through steroids. They seem far more concerned that the union didn’t destroy the results in the first place. It’s akin to Tony Soprano yelling at Silvio Dante because a police officer found a body he disposed of. Focus not on the underlying crime but on the shoddy job you did covering it up.

Baseball officials also seem a little ticked that Orza allegedly was tipping off players, including Rodriguez, weeks in advance of drug tests back then. Orza denies the claim, as he’s done before, but really in context how is that denial even credible? All of this is just noise drowning out the real problem anyway. At some point someone will step out of self-protection mode and actually take not just responsibility but ownership for solving this problem.

Beyond the players, Selig and the Union, let us also not forget about the complicit owners like George Steinbrenner and his idiot son Hank as well as the Texas Rangers’ chief windbag, Tom Hicks. It was Hicks who gave Rodriguez the outrageous salary in the first place that supposedly put so much pressure on poor Rodriguez that he felt a need to turned to illegal drugs in order to live up to the demands of his new found riches. It was George Steinbrenner who then traded for Rodriguez after his fraudulent 2003 season and Hank who then re-upped with team Rodriguez for another 10 years at the modest sum of $27.5 million a season.

Its owners like the Steinbrenners and Hicks who helped create this culture in the first place by sending a message that other-worldly accomplishments, by however means achieved, were worth outlandish salaries. If it had only impacted their teams that would have at least contained the problem. But it didn’t. It’s a culture that took hold throughout the league and has created the economic disparities that exist today between teams.

It’s instructive that the Yankees official word on this is only that they are disappointed in Rodriguez. That’s a pretty muted response considering they were essentially defrauded not once but twice by Rodriguez and are still on the hook to him for well over $225 million over the next 8 years or so. It’s as if they had just lost millions to Bernie Madoff and just shrugged their shoulders. As a franchise, the Yankees have no convictions so wagging a public finger and scooting this under the rug seems appropriate for them.

But if the Yankees really were disappointed, they’d part ways with Rodriguez irrespective of the cost and without fear that any other team would sign him. Until the owners, collectively, take a stand against this, it will continue. They need to understand that as caretakers of the game, players like Rodriguez, Clemens and Bonds, have lost the privilege of the major leagues. They have abused the gifts they were born with and shown nothing but disdain for the fans and the sport itself.

Because this is America, however, Rodriguez will get his second, third, fourth and fifth chances and maybe a dozen more until he demonstrates that he can no longer hit home runs. But if fans really want to give Rodriguez the chances he doesn’t deserve, they ought to at least first demand something in return. Rodriguez admitted his drug use basically covered three seasons. Forfeiting his salary for the next three years and instead directing the money be placed in a foundation dedicated to the sole proposition of educating and training the youth of America on the pitfalls of drug use would be a good start.


Anonymous said...

Three cheers for George Mitchell, whose indepth investigation into steroid use in baseball somehow overlooked everything other than previously published gossip about the 2003 drug audit. Did his investigation miss this because the cracker jack investigators he used (recent law school graduates) didn't search "2003 drug testing" on google?

Anonymous said...

I think George Mitchell should have used Sports Illustrated reporters instead of junior associates.

Gary Benz said...

The Mitchell Report was far from perfect and it took far too long to complete. but on the other hand, the players, almost to a person, refused to cooperate on the urging of the union. The SI reporters got access to a list of positive tests that the government had subpoenaed from the union.

Anonymous said...

You're making my point, Gary. The feds seized the results of the 2003 player survey in April 2004. George Mitchell issued his report, based almost entirely on information available from internet searches, in December 2007. His crack investigative team did little or no investigation. Players refused to talk to him? Yes, in the sense that no player responded to his form letter asking for information, but who replies to form letters? And, what investigator conducting an investigaton by mail? Experienced investigators at SI learned what the feds have known since 2004: A-Rod was juiced. Mitchell didn't have a clue. Based on the investigative techniques his young lawyers used, the only way they would ever have known about this is if it was published information before December 2007, as such information is the sum total of what is contained in the report.

Gary Benz said...

I'm not defending the Mitchell Report or the underlying investigation necessarily, but on a macro level it did its job. It focused enough attention on the subject to force the union and the owners to finally address the issue in a far more meaningful way. If not for that report, I doubt there would be any change in the drug testing program. As it is, it's still too weak but it is an improvement.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Have a great weekend.