This week’s Sports Illustrated cover story excerpts parts of the new book, Game of Shadows, detailing the evidence about Barry Bonds’ steroid use. SI.com also carries the story. Their documentation, drawn public domain evidence from the BALCO investigation (emails, notes, schedules, statements of defendents) as well as interviews with identified and anonymous sources, makes the Dowd Report on Pete Rose seem like hearsay. Here are some observations:
1. While subject to criticism on moral grounds, it appears that MLB has played their cards right. Baseball came out of the 1994 strike needing a boost with the fans and the chemistry-enhanced home run explosion fit the bill. As the steroid use became more apparent, Bud Selig and the owners faced a dilemma — crack down and potentially jeopardize fan interest or take a “I don’t see anything” stance that might jeopardize fan interest as more data came to light. MLB chose the latter even when it seemed to be living in complete denial, yet fans have not appeared to penalize MLB so far, and my bet is that they probably will not.
2. The failure to penalize MLB as a whole has been interpreted by some as proof that fans do not care about steroid use. I disagree. Many fans are slow to believe rumors of use in the face of substantial but not overwhelming evidence. My own mom is a good example of such a fan. However, once the evidence mounts to a critical, “believability” threshhold, attitudes of all but the most rabid supporter of the individual radically shift. People, in general, don’t like cheaters. MLB as a whole may escape fan wrath, but Bonds will not now that his cheating ways have have been more clearly documented. That’s my take on why Sammy Sosa — a player who had been a fan favorite for many years — could be jettisoned from the Cubs with so little fan response. McGwire (like Florence Griffith-Joyner) got out before his believability index dropped as low as it has or will for some others. Flo-Jo also helps break down the racial element sometimes suggested in the difference in views toward Bonds and McGwire. The key variable is “believability” and not race.
3. While it’s difficult to cast Bonds as a tragic figure given his sullen and selfish persona, the story does highlight the “externality” problem of steroid and related chemical use:
As McGwire was celebrated as the best slugger of the modern era and perhaps the greatest who had ever lived, Bonds became more jealous than people who knew him well had ever seen. To Bonds it was a joke. He had been around enough gyms to recognize that McGwire was a juicer. Bonds himself had never used a performance enhancer more potent than a protein shake from the health-food store. But as the 1998 season unfolded and, as he watched Mark McGwire take over the game — his game — Barry Bonds decided that he, too, would begin using what he called “the s—.”
Personally, I’m very inclined toward a live-and-let-live philosophy. Generally speaking, I support freedom for adults to engage in activities that do not directly harm others. In athletics, all sorts of advantages exist — nutritional, training regimen, genetic — so that all influences on outcomes are not and never will be equal. If some guy at the local gym wants to pump up on powerful chemicals, lose his hair, get acne, and shrink his testicles, its not a big deal to me as long as he steers clear of juveniles. That’s not the case in organized sports. One person’s drug use has a direct impact on their performance relative to others in venues where it’s all about relative performance. As I have written before, one would think that players’ associations such as the MLBPA would have taken a firmer stance against the issue, but “politics” often inluence outcomes in private collectives and not just government organizations, especially not-for-profit entities where the output and performance measures are ambiguous.