February 9, 2009
Stupid Media Tricks
And so it continues. Per Selena Roberts and David Epstein of Sports Illustrated, Alex Rodriguez was one of 104 players to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs in 2003. In that year, every player in Major League Baseball was tested, presumably anonymously, in an effort to learn the depth of the PED problem in baseball and weigh the need for a program that would mix random testing with penalties for use.
This is a big story, in the sense that it involves a famous person, a bad act, and America's true favorite pastime of tearing down people of achievement. It allows the media to rend their garments over baseball's lack of purity on the issue of PEDs, substances which only began to affect the sport in the mid-1990s, which made a mockery of the record book all by themselves, and the rampant use of which makes baseball unique in American sports. It also provides a new way to pick on Alex Rodriguez, who-whatever he did in 2003-is probably the hardest-working baseball player to ever become a national punch line.
While it's a big story, however, it's not a big deal. See, we already know that baseball players great and small were using PEDs. That was the only thing of substance we learned from the Mitchell Book Report on Game of Shadows, Plus Assorted Information From Weasels the Government Shook Down For Us: the 89 players cited by name in the report as having been directly connected to PED usage were a cross-section of the baseball world, pitchers and hitters, stars and scrubs, "no!" and "who?" With a minimum of sources, and the players themselves refusing to participate, 89 players were reasonably connected to purchases, and presumably usage. We had the 2003 survey testing, which set a baseline number of "5-7 percent" of players, a figure we now know to be the high end. Throw in the players who may have stopped using prior to '03 due to attention paid to the issue, and those whose use went undetected because their drugs were just that good, and you can comfortably say that some double-digit percentage of players were using PEDs up through 2003. Great baseball players used PEDs to be better, and until 2004, no one tried very hard to stop them from doing so. Some people continue to be surprised that highly competitive young men fighting for fame, honor, and a cut of $6 billion would do everything they could to beat the guy next to them, which is a pretty good way to make the Olympic team in Naive.
The price tag on proving Barry Bonds' purported use, all in, is approaching nine figures when you account for the time and effort of a couple of intrepid reporters with little regard for the law, an IRS agent, and the combined resources of just about every governmental entity this side of the Department of the Interior. Mark McGwire was named in a book, called before Congress, and labeled a fraud for telling the truth-just not the truth the witch-hunters wanted to hear. Roger Clemens is living out the adage that you should never wrestle with a pig.
Knowing Alex Rodriguez used PEDs, in the context of those names, isn't information that changes anything. A great baseball player did bad things with the implicit approval-hell, arguably explicit approval-of his peers and his employers. It's cheating, yes, which would be a problem if we hadn't been celebrating cheating in baseball since the days when guys would go first to third over the pitcher's mound. You can argue that it's different in degree, though the widely accepted use of PEDs by peers and superiors, and the use of amphetamines before them, is a strong point against that case. What is clear is that it's not different enough, in degree, to warrant the kind of histrionics we're reading and hearing over this. It's not different enough to turn Alex Rodriguez into a pińata.
Of course, the screaming is about the screamers. The loudest voices on the evils of steroids in baseball are in the media, and there's probably a dissertation in that notion, because for all that we have to hear about how greedy, evil players have ruined baseball by taking these substances (and then playing well, according to this selective interpretation; no one's ripping Chris Donnels these days), the reason we're talking about this in 2009 is that so many "reporters"-scare quotes earned-went ostrich in 1999. We hear every year around awards time that the people closest to the game know the game better than anyone, because they're in the clubhouse every day, and they talk to everyone, and they have a perspective that outsiders can't possibly understand. For those same people to do a collective Captain Renault, which they've been doing since beating up players for this transgression became acceptable, is shameful. Take your pick: they missed the story, or they were too chicken-shit to report it. In either case, the piling-on now is disgusting.
In the same way that the reporters who vote for the Hall of Fame are going to take their embarrassment out on Mark McGwire, and probably Barry Bonds and Rafael Palmeiro behind him, and god knows who to follow, they should punish themselves as well. I propose that for as long as a clearly qualified Hall of Famer remains on the ballot solely because of steroid allegations-or for that matter, proven use-there should be no J.G. Taylor Spink Award given out to writers. If we're going to allow failures during the "Steroid Era" to affect eligibility for honors, let's make sure we catch everyone who acted shamefully.
We shouldn't know that Rodriguez tested positive. Flash back to 2002, and the negotiations over a Collective Bargaining Agreement in which the MLBPA was beaten to a pulp in the public eye. It was management's first win in a long time, and in that win, they got the players to agree to a plan that would determine the extent of PED use within the game, and trigger a testing program if a problem showed itself. The 2003 testing was designed as a survey-test every single player in the game, and if at least five percent of the tests turn up positive, switch to a program of random testing that would include counseling and then punishments for failing tests. (This program, which seemed to deter use immediately, was later modified for no good reason when Congress again decided to grandstand on the issue.)
The players agreed to be tested in 2003 on the condition that the testing be anonymous and no individual results would be tabulated. This was the necessary step to determine the breadth of the game's PED problem, and the solution was one of the few elegant elements of that 2003 CBA. However-and this is the crucial issue of this story-the 2003 testing was not anonymous. For reasons that the MLBPA and the testers have yet to explain, the samples were labeled in a manner that allowed the results to be traced to individuals. It wasn't anything like "TEX13," but whatever the method, there was a link from the sample to the player for the lab's use. When federal agents raided two labs (Quest and Comprehensive Drug Testing) in November of 2004 as part of the BALCO investigation, they collected enough information to connect the positive tests to the players involved.
The failure was in not destroying the materials involved-samples, results, and documentation-once they'd served their purpose. Once the survey testing showed more than five percent positives, the new testing regime was put into place for 2004, and the 2003 tests were no longer needed. Destroying the materials does require a specific request to the labs, and it appears that no one at MLB or the MLBPA made that request, which is where they failed. It does appear that those entities were unaware that the tests weren't anonymous; the mistake was in allowing the materials to exist long after they were needed, long enough for them to be discovered. Once the government had the information, of course, it was just a matter of time before that information would be leaked. It is inevitable that we'll have the other 103 names in time, and just as inevitable that while all 104 will have done the same thing, only the successful ones will be treated harshly.
I don't really care that Alex Rodriguez used steroids. There was a time, not very long ago, that I thought the issue of PEDs in baseball was overblown because use was overstated. Now, I think that use was common, with some significant number of players regularly using steroids in an effort to become better at that craft, and a larger number at least trying them out for a period of time. I remain skeptical that PED use is connected to performance in a way that warps the game, a conclusion supported by the evidence that proven use is mixed among hitters and pitchers, among good players and fringe ones, among the strong and the skinny. The establishment of a testing program with penalties does appear to have been a deterrent, as evidenced by the drop from 104 positives in 2003 to fewer than that number in total in the five years since.
What interests me is the process, and the abuses we've seen. In 2002, the players agreed to anonymous testing in an effort to eradicate a problem, part of a process that created the first CBA arrived at without a work stoppage in decades. This should have been an absolute good. Instead, because of a failure of the MLBPA to tend to details, an out-of-control investigation and prosecution led by an IRS agent, and the government's inability to protect the sanctity of information, 104 players will have their promised anonymity taken away with nothing given in return.
It's not enough to say, "Tough, they cheated." Even cheaters have rights to see their agreements honored, and these 104 men have been violated by their representatives and their government, complicit with a media that repeatedly asks the easy questions and takes on the soft targets while avoiding the real work of uncovering not just names, but truth. The story is bigger than Alex Rodriguez. It's more interesting than Alex Rodriguez. It has more depth and more nuance than the failure of one man to play by the rules.
Tell that story, in a measured voice that embraces complexity, and I'll listen. Until then, it's all just screaming.