Monday, July 09, 2007

Bad for Baseball

I hope the stands are empty when Barry Bonds hits his 756th home run.

But if fans do show up, I hope that, when the ball lands among them in the bleachers, they avoid it like radioactive waste.

Of course, Barry's got his supporters, and they are more denial-ridden than a church basement full of alcoholics who can quit whenever they want. Their love of Bonds, or the team he plays for, blinds them to his desire to excel at any cost--to his health, to the kids who watch him, or to the game itself.

Bonds's defenders have heard the responses to the allegations, many from Bonds himself, and they repeat them dutifully. But they are either ignorant of the facts, or they hope that we are.

"Steroids don't improve hand-eye coordination," they tell us, "and steroids don't make you see the ball better or swing the bat faster." No, and robbing a bank doesn't improve your credit rating, either. But it does provide a pile of tax-free cash that any self-respecting criminal would drool over. Steroids provide major benefits for those stupid enough to use them; to pretend otherwise is disingenuous.

We can learn a lot from men like Lou Ferrigno and Lyle Alzado, who have spoken openly about their steroid use. Steroid users are so driven to win that they are willing to to break the law and the rules of their sport--and to pay with their long-term health--for an extra few pounds on a bench press, or 1/10th of a second in a footrace, or, yes, for another 30 feet on a fly ball.

They also speak of personality changes. Their confidence seems to grow along with their muscle mass, providing a mental edge to match the physical one. We've all seen that guy at the gym, the one whose biceps popped seemingly overnight, who suddenly had no problem hitting on the chick behind the counter, even though her six-foot-four, 265-pound husband owned the place.

Steroids aren't magic. They won't turn Peter Gammons into Pete Rose. What they will do is turn a long fly out into an easy home run. That little nudge was all it took: Suddenly, players who previously only had warning track power were approaching, or besting, the single-season home run totals of guys named Ruth and Maris.

Don't believe me? Think all these home run hitters were on the level? In that case, I guess it's just a coincidence that the Luis Gonzalezes and Sammy Sosas of the world were putting balls on the moon by the bucketload--until baseball outlawed steroids. Now, they're all mortal again, and they want me to believe that the spike in production was just random chance. I don't buy it.

Like any great outrage, there is more than one party at fault. The egotistical, hyper-competitive players could not have gotten away with this had it not been for teammates and managers who loved the stratospheric offense too much to object in any way.

The owners aren't blind either. They read the papers just like you do, they saw the bloated stats, and they drew the same conclusion that any half-witted twelve-year-old could have. And then they did nothing.

Voltaire said, "Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do." In the interest of fairness, and the health of its players, major league baseball leadership should have pushed hard for a comprehensive, all-encompassing steroid ban as soon as the problem became embarrassingly obvious. Sure, the MLB players' association, by many accounts the strongest union in American history, would have made that a difficult, if not impossible task. But the owners should have fought for it. They didn't.

I am asking for something unrealistic, you are saying. No sport would ever do such a thing. But you're wrong.

Funny, isn't it, how we never see NFL kickers booting 73-yard field goals or 90-yard punts. We don't see running backs vaulting into the end zone from the 7-yard line. We hardly ever hear NFL steroid allegations at all. That's because the game has cracked down on illegal drug use, and created a meaningful test program with harsh penalties. Todd Sauerbrun, a punter for the Denver Broncos, was suspended for four games - four - for taking a diet pill which was sold over-the-counter. We regularly hear of similar suspensions, for marijuana and other drugs, by the NFL, long suspensions which cut deeply into a player's paycheck. When's the last time a baseball player was suspended for a drug violation?

And the NFL is not alone. Immediately after competing, Olympic athletes are led to a room where an official watches them urinate into a cup, so they can be drug tested. Medals and world-records are routinely stripped from offenders. Think Bonds is in any similar danger?

I don't care that I am experiencing "baseball history". This is not a heartwarming story. This is the story of an already-great player, for whom mere greatness was no longer enough. I hate what Barry Bonds has done to baseball, and what baseball, in turn, has done to us.