Monday, August 3, 2009

On cheating and such

All right. David Ortiz has been found out. Exposed. He's a fraud. He cheats.

Just like Doyle Lonnigan in "The Sting," Big Papi has been pulling the wool over our eyes at the high stakes poker game called baseball by injecting himself full of performance-enhancing drugs, hitting home runs far into the night, and, well, crafting a legend based on a lie.

Either that, or David Ortiz is a victim of an era when just about everyone with the potential to earn more money by busting down fences did pretty much the same thing, everybody knew about it, and nobody with the power or influence to prohibit it, or penalize people for doing it, seemed to think it was all that terrible.

Those are the two extremes. The true story, and, perhaps, the true perspective, obviously lies somewhere in between.

There's a lot of truth to both viewpoints, but the problem with the steroid era in baseball -- as with a lot of things -- is that the total picture is shrouded in Jerry Garcia's touch of gray as opposed to simple black and white. To use a word that nobody seems to like or appreciate, there are nuances upon nuances to this story.

First, drugs and baseball go back a long way. It's just a question of which drug was prevalent in which era. If we penalize Manny Ramirez for testing positive for steroids, do we also frown on all the players who battled the fatigue of a 162-game season -- and all the sleepless nights that go with it (for various reasons) -- by popping amphetamines? How about all the athletes who have fought their way through pain via analgesics or Novocain? Aren't they, in effect, cheating by falsifying their bodies' reaction to injury?

And let's forget about drugs for a moment, and let's talk about all the other ways baseball players have cheated through the ages. Gaylord Perry once wrote a book about how he doctored up the baseball. Some of what he wrote may have been apocryphal, and some of it might have been nothing more than good-natured leg-pulling, designed to infuriate all the purists who used to rail endlessly about his pitching tactics.

But I'll bet some of it was true. And Gaylord wasn't the only one. Legend has it that Yogi Berra, and then Elston Howard, used to use the buckles of their shinguards to scuff up the ball for Whitey Ford. Supposedly, the reason Bob Stanley threw the wild pitch (or should I say Rich Gedman allowed that passed ball) that proved to be so disastrous in the 1986 World Series is that he'd doctored up the ball so much he lost control of it.

(Though, if that IS the case, score one for poetic justice, not to mention the childhood schoolyard chant, "cheat, cheat, never beat.")

So, looking at it from this perspective, steroids are just a chemically sophisticated method of a time-honored baseball tradition of increasing your edge any way you can. No different, let's say, than using a telescope and hand signals to steal signs (the way the New York Giants allegedly did in in that famous 1951 "shot heard 'round the world" playoff win over Brooklyn Dodgers). AND, no different, let's say, than growing the infield grass long and deadening the baseballs by storing them in a cold, damp place so that your punchless team, long on speed and short on offensive talent, has a distinct home field advantage (as the 1967 White Sox, under Eddie Stanky, were accused of doing).

How about teams that move the fences in so that their power hitters have an easier time hitting home runs, which is what the Red Sox did when they built new bullpens in right field, shortening the home run distance for Ted Williams; or like the Yankees did when they BUILT a stadium with a short porch in right field to take advantage of Babe Ruth's power?

That last one COULD be considered a stretch. After all, one of the great things about baseball is both the timelessness of the game, and the total lack of conformity of the stadia. Yet there's no denying that teams often tailor their venues to the specifications of their talent (though, curiously enough, that's not the case with the left-field wall at Fenway, which has more to do with cramming the stadium in the available space allotted than anything else).

And is baseball the only sport where cheating has become an issue? And is it the only sport where the penalties for doing so don't come close to matching the seriousness of the infraction? Hardly. The Patriots violated NFL rules by filming their opponents' defensive signals and got caught. They forfeited a draft choice for it, which may have hurt them in the distant future. But they didn't forfeit any games, and their coach (Bill Belichick) didn't miss any either. In fact, his boss (Robert Kraft) rewarded him for disgracing the honor of the franchise by extending his contract. How's that for a double standard?

So, for all the bitching and moaning that people do about the scourge of cheating, whenever we see examples of it, it always seems to be either explained away, swept under the rug, or dealt with by slapping the offender on the wrist and admonishing him to "go and sin no more."

All of which brings us back to steroids and David Ortiz. And here again, there are some twists and turns to this particular story that make digesting it a bit more difficult. First, and foremost, this business of releasing the names on this alleged "list" of 104 people who tested positive in 2003 in dribs and drabs is just crazy. It is violating every confidentially law known to man ... not to mention the fact that it's just a little bit unsettling that one person -- presuming it IS one person -- can hold such sway in arbitrarily ruining reputations.

What we're seeing here is a witch hunt reminiscent of Joe McCarthy in the 1950s in that we're taking information that even the dumbest person on earth should be able to conclude is sketchy -- at best -- and using it arbitrarily to hurt people. And we're seeing a media so petrified of looking bad for having totally missed the ball a decade ago hop on every allegation as if it's a truth etched in stone.

I'm no fan of Roger Clemens for a variety of reasons, but I'm not sure he deserves to be branded for the rest of his life because some trainer of his rolled over to George Mitchell upon the threat of incarceration if he didn't cooperate. While I'm not suggesting that Brian McNamee made it all up, I am suggesting that his word alone -- considering his reputation -- shouldn't carry the day.

I'm also suggesting that some anonymous lawyer whispering in the ear of a New York Times reporter, without any evidence more concrete than that, shouldn't be sufficient enough to destroy David Ortiz's reputation, or Manny Ramirez's, or Sammy Sosa's, or even Barry Bonds'. This isn't to say I'm in total denial. I'm just saying the standards for throwing these names around should be a lot higher than they are at the moment.

Also: all the list says is that that the players named tested positive for banned substances. Which ones? What are they?

Now, I'm no expert on this stuff, but I'm guessing you can ingest a lot of nutritional supplements without having the slightest idea about what's in them. Is that the case here? Have we reached the point with this steroid issue where we seize information without the proper vetting and just run with it?

There's also what I call the "a-hole factor," which factors heavily here. Many of the previously-outed "cheaters," most notably Bonds, were not that likable to begin with, so it was easy to turn this into a black and white moral issue.

But Ortiz's presence on this list creates that gray area, because, by all accounts, he's not like that. He doesn't fit the profile (except when he gets called out on strikes ... then he becomes a totally different person). It's harder to put him in the "despicable cheater" box because, well, he's not all that despicable. He's more like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa -- ordinary guys who got caught up in all if it.

You can almost see this whole thing developing into something akin to Joe Hardy in "Damn Yankees," the player who sold his soul to the devil so that, just once, the lowly Washington Senators would beat the New York Yankees and win the pennant. He got his wish, and, from there, events just spiraled beyond anyone's control.

So call this whole steroid thing a Faustian contract, if it makes you feel better. Perhaps, if David Ortiz knowingly cheated (and you know what? the lines were so blurry back in those days it's questionable whether that's even true), he was merely doing what he saw everyone else doing. Sort of a "kill or be killed" mindset.

Yet at the same time, Ortiz was so adamant, when A-Rod was outed by Selena Roberts, that he who gets caught should be suspended for an entire season that he's set himself up for what he's going through now.

Finally, before we throw Ortiz, or any of the others, under the bus, let's save room for Donald Fehr and Bud Selig. If you want to talk about despicable, these two lead the parade. First, Fehr, and his union, put up every roadblock they could use to block implemention of a meaningful steroid policy in the Major Leagues. They did it because they knew where the big money was, and -- after all -- the International Brotherhood of Baseball Players is all about making the richest richer.

Selig, as commissioner, has a long history of being a total shill for the owners AND for being as pusillanimous as a man can be on thorny issues. You have to conclude, then, that not only did Fehr recoil in horror at the idea of a chemical-free baseball, the owners did too.

This is why I consider it the height of hypocrisy for MLB, now, to go after these players who tested positive six years ago, to expose them in the manner in which they're being exposed, and to cluck their tongues in horror over it.

If you're bagged in 2009, the way Manny Ramirez was, then fine. Because we're operating under an existing framework that, while it took forever to implement, is, at least, in place. You violate it at your own risk.

Not so in 2003. The water was a lot murkier back then.

Let's be clear. I'm a purist. I think ALL of it is cheating ... the spitballs, the growing the grass longer, the stealing of signals, the filming of the other team ... I think any chemical, or technologically, method of gaining edge takes the purity out of competitive sport.

But the only way any of that changes, and the only way we can truly hold the doers accountable, is to come down HARD on it the first time you see it ... not years after it becomes evident, and not after so much consternation and foot-dragging that you send out signals so mixed that nobody can possibly interpret them correctly.

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