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July 25, 2007

Prospectus Today

A Failure of Leadership

by Joe Sheehan

In a manner that can only be described as "grudging," Bud Selig did what he should have done three months ago, ending discussion of whether he would attend Barry Bonds' pursuit of the all-time home run mark with a press release and a flight to San Francisco. As is his wont, Selig put his personal feelings ahead of the game's best interest, choosing to issue a release that neither honored Bonds nor the moment, and put the controversy that surrounds Bonds-his alleged use of performance-enhancing substances-front and center.

I consider this to be a shame. While it's an unpopular viewpoint, I stand by my argument that Barry Bonds has not failed a test for PEDs in the four years that MLB has had a program. His testimony before a grand jury-subsequently leaked illegally, and to his detriment-was that he did take substances that were identified later as steroids, but he was told at the time that they were not. His testimony has been interpreted as parsing by some, perjury by others, although statements before the same grand jury by others have been granted full faith and credit. That grand jury inspired two reporters to write a book about Bonds, sourced largely by the illegally-obtained testimony, as well as the accounts of people around Bonds, at least one of whom, ex-mistress Kimberly Bell, can comfortably be described as "scorned."

Baseball now has a small underclass of players-real players, not anonymous minor leaguers or fringe guys-who have tested positive for performance-enhancing substances, been suspended for that use, and returned to play. In virtually every case, those players go about their business without anyone caring. They're cheered at home for their good deeds, and ignored on the road. The Indians benefit from the bullpen work of Rafael Betancourt, by far their best reliever this season, and a big reason for their contending status. He's not reviled in Detroit or Minnesota as a steroid user, not booed and forced to endure the taunts of "Cheater!" or worse. No one cares. The same can be said for Juan Rincon, who is essentially the Twins' version of Betancourt.

Need more evidence that the game is more than willing to forgive and forget? Ryan Franklin tested positive in 2005, serving a 10-game suspension for his guilt. Last month, the Cardinals signed him to a two-year contract worth $5 million. Last winter, the Mets' Guillermo Mota was suspended for the first 50 games of 2007 off a positive test; a month later, the Mets signed him to a two-year contract for, again, $5 million.

Add it up, and baseball has lavished more than $30 million on players who have been found guilty of steroid use after their use has come to light. These players don't occupy some gray area, don't inspire "did he or didn't he?" discussions on sports radio or the talking-head TV shows. They cheated, they got caught, served their penalties, and went on to earn millions playing baseball without being held up as examples of all that is wrong with America.

The central truth about the "steroid issue" is this: average people don't care about PED use. They care about tearing down those who they do not like, protecting those they do, and making themselves feel superior in the process.

I'm writing about all of this today because Bud Selig elected to give in to that urge, rather than do his utmost to create a positive moment for baseball. Were he the commissioner of baseball rather than the owners' representative in their ongoing leverage games with the MLBPA, Selig might have taken this opportunity to shift the focus from allegations to facts, from speculation to celebration, from off the field to on it. Barry Bonds may not be a sympathetic character, but he has done what Betancourt, Franklin, Rincon, and Mota haven't-urinated in a cup for four years and not been suspended.

Rather than issue a press release that effectively threw Bonds under the bus, and backed entirely by the available facts, Selig could have stood up and said, "We have the toughest testing program in professional sports, one that has not only caught a number of steroid users, but has also served to all but eradicate the use of PEDs in our game. Barry Bonds is one of baseball's greatest players. I can do nothing about the opinions of others, but I can stand by our testing program. I wish Bonds all the best as he pursues what may be our game's most cherished individual record, and I look forward to being in attendance when he makes history."

This would have changed the narrative. This would have put the nominal commissioner of baseball in a position as the game's cheerleader, its greatest fan, its biggest supporter. It's the kind of thing David Stern or Paul Tagliabue would have done. A true commissioner should be a source of positive public relations, but time and time again, Selig has shown that he will denigrate the game and its players in the interests of the 30 men for whom he works. His actions here are no different from his actions in the labor wars of 1994 and 2002, when the man who inspired the term "anti-marketing" tore down baseball and baseball players as part of a labor relations strategy.

In this case, however, I think there's something deeper at work, something that's more personal for Selig, and which creates a significant historical parallel that has nothing at all to do with Bonds or his backstory. Selig's deep ties to Milwaukee and baseball intersect in the person of Hank Aaron, who starred for the Milwaukee Braves during a time when Selig was under the thrall of the game. Selig reveres Aaron as a player and respects him as a man, and were Aaron's record under attack by anyone, under any circumstances, Selig would be conflicted over it. Selig isn't haunted by what Barry Bonds may have done so much as he's disappointed that a friend, and a one-time hero, is being supplanted atop a list of numbers.

In this way, Selig is much like Ford Frick, commissioner of baseball in 1961. It was Frick who decreed, deep into the first season of a 162-game schedule, that should a player take more than 154 scheduled games to hit more than 60 home runs, his record would be noted as occurring in the longer season. In this way, Babe Ruth would retain his place in the record books as a home run champion in the shorter season. This decision-shortened by history to "the asterisk"-served to diminish Roger Maris' 61-homer campaign, delegitimizing him as the single-season home run champion, as if he'd found a way to beat the system and steal Ruth's rightful place in history.

Frick was as attached to Ruth as Selig is to Aaron, perhaps more so. He'd covered the Babe during the legend's playing days, and ghostwritten a biography for Ruth. In creating an atmosphere for Maris' accomplishment to be discredited, he was acting out of personal affection for a friend, and protecting the memory of a man he considered legendary. He was wrong, just as Selig is now, not because the impulse is a bad one, but because he put his personal feelings ahead of the best interests of baseball.

Of course, time has a way of correcting the mistakes that people make. Over time, the discrediting of Maris' mark came to be seen as capricious and unwarranted, and by the time a new set of sluggers took aim at the single-season home run mark in the 1990s, Maris was regarded as the single-season home run champion, without qualification. Over time, I expect that the current raised eyebrows that accompany Barry Bonds' achievements will lower, and that, like Maris, he will be seen as the legitimate holder of the all-time home run record. Well, for the seven or eight years until he's caught by Alex Rodriguez, anyway.

Selig and Frick acted out of personal affection for men they considered heroic, motivated by a desire to protect the legacy of those men. What neither Selig nor Frick understood is that being atop a list of numbers is a vanishingly small part of any man's legacy, even a baseball player's. That Babe Ruth was no longer the single-season home run king meant nothing, because Babe Ruth's impact on the game went so far beyond any number as to render that number irrelevant. Roger Maris hit more home runs in a season than Babe Ruth ever did. That didn't make him greater than Babe Ruth. Ruth wasn't about "60"; he was about changing the way baseball was played, living life to the fullest, and being a grown-up kid in a world of grown-ups-for better and worse-becoming an icon in the process.

Should Bonds get to 756 home runs, it will mean only that he hit more home runs than anyone else in the game's history. Doing so doesn't make him a better person than Hank Aaron-it is irrelevant to that question entirely-nor does his superiority in one statistic necessarily make him a better baseball player. Hank Aaron's legacy as a player is not diminished one whit by the fact that his name is no longer atop a list of names and numbers. His greatness isn't defined by a number, and his accomplishments remain just as impressive-overcoming racism in the South in he 1950s, being a player who could do everything on a baseball field, his amazing consistency stretching across two decades of play, and his grace under pressure, surrounded by hatred, as he set the all-time home run record.

Statistics are a record of what happened in baseball games. We make lists, but those lists don't rank men, they rank their doings. All statistics, however, need to be put into context. That applies when comparing two pitchers who work in disparate run environments, two prospects who play three levels apart, or two Hall of Fame outfielders who find themselves next to each other on a list. Beyond statistical context, however, there's historical context. The narratives of Ruth and Maris, of Aaron and Bonds, will be written and rewritten, and their places in the history of baseball will be determined not by any statistic, but by the body of their work and their impact on the game.

Selig should recognize that endorsing the reordering of a particular list of numbers doesn't diminish his friend's legacy. By not doing so, however, he diminishes his own.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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