Excess and Access

National Baseball Hall Of Fame, Cooperstown New York
National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, NY

.A warning before we start. This is going to be a sports essay. If you are not into sports, hang on till the end, I promise I’ll bring this around to current affairs.

You may have heard the gnashing of teeth and grinding of axes over the non-induction of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens to the baseball Hall of Fame. This was their tenth year of eligibility and I don’t have the time or desire to explain the ins and outs of HOF voting but suffice it to say the two most dominant players of their era were told by the voters “so sad, too bad, you juice you lose”.

The Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) are the folks who vote for or against induction into the Hall. Enough of them have taken the stand that anyone who used performance enhancing drugs is a cheater and should thus be banned from induction. So far major names from the steroid era, Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, McGwire, A-Rod, et al have failed to win election and either have or will soon fall from the ballot without induction.

Except for the guys they really liked and who, in the voters minds, might have used PEDs, might not, we’re not sure so we’re gonna just take a pass and pass them into the Hall or in other words, give them a hall pass. Like the one player who did get elected this year, David Ortiz. He was only tangentially mentioned in the Mitchell Report, MLB’s investigation into PED use that was released in 2007.

There are two things I think that are important to remember about the Steroid Era ™. The first is that it indeed was an era. It lasted from the late 1980’s or thereabouts until 2003 or thereabouts. In 1991 Major League Baseball banned the use of any PEDs, but they had no testing for it until 2003. Think about that for a moment. For twelve years players could use PEDs pretty much without fear of retribution because without testing there was no way to prove players were using. It was during that period that the record for most home runs in a season was broken twice and the Mark McGwire vs. Sammy Sosa “Long Gone Summer” took place.

While I think it’s absurd to think every major leaguer was using, I don’t think it’s absurd to think most major leaguers were using. In fact I think there were so many who were using that the level playing field moralists are always arguing steroids upended was actually level. If enough players were using then they were all back on even ground. Should they have been using? It’s easy now to say they shouldn’t have, but back in an age when there was no mechanism to see who was and who wasn’t, the pressure to use must have been acute. I’m not talking about pressure from teammates alone. I think the pressure to use came in subtle forms from managers, coaches, and even owners.

“Gee, we’re really looking for a shortstop who can give us 25-30 dingers a year and you’re only popping 10-15. What do you think you can do to get those numbers up? If you can’t, we’re gonna have to look elsewhere and we don’t want to do that since we’re gonna offer you a new multi-year, multi-million dollar contract”.

Money talks, the “pure” ballplayer walks on four pitches to first, down the foul line,  and out the bullpen gate.

Bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded, click below for more

The second point I’d like to make goes back to those writers who vote for the Hall of Fame.

Not to stereotype them, but most sports writers were wannabe players back in their youth who were told early on (or realized themselves early on) they didn’t have the stuff to be an elite player. Or they loved sports and had a facility for words that afforded them an opportunity to write for the college paper or announce for the college radio station and ultimately worked their way up to the big leagues. I say good for them on those accounts, they are living their dream.

But they will never earn the money the players do. Or the fame. Or the adulation. There’s living the dream and then there is LIVING THE DREAM. And if you are just living the dream you don’t want to give it up, no matter the cost. So when the sports editor says you need to cultivate sources inside the team or buddy up to the star player or best yet get in good with the manager or owner, well you do just what the boss man says to do.

And when that owner says he’ll ban you from the ballyard if you write unflattering things about the team or it’s players you nod your head and keep the bat on your shoulder instead of swinging for the fences.

Once again, it was 12 YEARS between steroids being banned and testing for steroids being instigated. For twelve years baseball beat writers and announcers walked into major league locker rooms and saw with the own eyes the evidence of steroid use. Barry Bonds ends the 1998 season weighing 210 pounds and then shows up at spring training 1999 weighing 225 and chiseled like a Greek statue. Brady Anderson hits 16 homers in 1995, nearly the highest total of his career, then hits 50 homers in 1996, only to return to numbers in the teens for the rest of his career. Mark McGwire had bottles of androstenedione sitting in his locker for all to see, but apparently no one ever saw anything.

These writers aren’t dumb. They knew what was going on and opted to say nothing. Why? Back to that issue of access. If you can’t be in the ballyard or the locker room, your value as a correspondent is severely diminished. And if your value is small, you end up covering the Shreveport Giants and not the San Francisco Giants. The writers who actually broke the steroid story weren’t sports writers, they were general investigative reporters with nothing to lose access wise.

Just like Woodward and Bernstein were local DC reporters with no worries about losing access to the White House, which is why they could be so dogged in their reporting of Watergate.

It’s also the reason the media never seems to be willing to ask the hard questions of political leaders (see I told you I’d get around to current affairs) or to just accept ridiculous answers without follow up questions. Reporters, encouraged by their editors and their media mogul owners, are afraid to ask the questions that should really be asked. Some senator makes a statement like “Joe Biden’s policies are causing the gas price surge” and you never hear a reporter come back with “Just what policies are you referring to?” Why? Because they want to stay in the political locker room. And the outlet they are reporting for wants to be able to stay there as well. If you aren’t in the press room of the White House how are you going to get viewers to read, click, retweet, re-read and retweet again, all of which adds up to getting the advertising money that is the life blood of the media industry.

In other words, the government doesn’t need to resort to censorship, the bean counters on the 47th floor of the Time-Life building are doing it for them.

One last thing about the HOF. If you were a baseball writer between 1991 and 2003 you should not be eligible to vote on any of the players from that era. It appears that the most fervent “keep out the users” voters are those that actually covered the users. You know, the ones that looked the other way as players bulked up to Incredible Hulk proportions. Maybe you feel you were lied to or used or manipulated in some way but your not reporting on what was going on disqualifies you from having a neutral feeling on the matter. Hand that ballot over to the kid who started in 2005.

As well, the writers of that era should not be eligible for the BBWAA Career Excellence Award which is given annually to a writer or writers “for meritorious contributions to baseball writing”. Winners have included Grantland Rice, Ring Lardner, Jim Murray, Red Smith, and on down to this year’s winner, Tim Kurkjian. If the players who took the drugs can’t get into the Hall of Fame then the writers who looked the other way also shouldn’t be allowed in.

Yes, the Career Excellence Award comes with a plaque in the writer’s wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown New York. It’s the next hall over from the players wing.

We’ll make the final out a number from my favorite Indie Rocker Super Group, The Baseball Project, with a number about one of those guys who didn’t even come close to election this year. That number is 13

And you were sure that you wouldn’t get caught, sneaky and serpentine
Detection is for losers and losers just don’t hang out with 13

Shapiro Out