Baseball's Mess to Clean

03.15.2005 | Tim Marchman | Sports

If you believe reports published in yesterday’s Daily News, FBI sources can draw a straight line from a drug dealer named Curtis Wenzlaff to retired slugger Mark McGwire. These same sources reportedly produced information that helped lead to 70 drug-trafficking convictions in the early 1990s, and there isn’t much reason not to believe what they say about McGwire.

This is not a very big surprise, but it’s the sort of thing we’re going to have to get used to. Before baseball moves on from this ever-expanding drug scandal, we’ll hear all the sordid specifics of drug use and drug abuse, from purchase to injection to resulting illness, in every numbingly similar instance in which they occurred.

Ballplayers you’ve never heard of will end up on television, lamenting past sins. All manner of goonish Californians wearing zebra-striped trousers will produce documents proving their wild tales of selling drugs to All-Stars. Policemen and attorneys will put on their best jackets and tell reporters in clipped tones what they know, don’t know, and won’t say about drugs and baseball. In the end, we’ll know nothing more than we do now - that ballplayers bought and used drugs. We will know the specifics, and we will have seen the ritual humiliation of probably dozens of players. Maybe it’s necessary if baseball is to survive - who knows?

You’ll note, though, that I use the word drugs, and not the word steroids. If any sense is to be made of this scandal and the proper context in which it should be viewed, I think people should start using the word drugs a lot more often. It certainly is a loaded word. That’s exactly why it’s a useful one.

Let’s reframe the McGwire reports, for instance. Imagine for a moment that all the fuss and bother over what McGwire did a decade ago was in relation to an FBI investigation into large-scale marijuana dealing in California, and that informants, rather than sharing the lurid details of precisely which steroids he was using, were instead telling the world that McGwire liked to buy an eighth of an ounce of weed every Tuesday.

I don’t imagine that would be a very big deal; perhaps slightly embarrassing for McGwire, but probably more so for those who had gone to the lengths of digging up such information. And the reports would certainly not be seen as an affront to baseball and the immortal spirits of Rogers Hornsby and Ty Cobb.

The Pittsburgh drug trials of the 1980s, which revealed that many of the game’s biggest stars were heavy cocaine users, hardly threatened the life of the game. In fact, it seems that no one remembers them today. The essential similarity between steroids and recreational drugs is that while the details of their use may be titillating, their use by an athlete in his capacity as a private citizen should really be of no one’s concern but his own.

The difference with steroids, obviously, is that they aid achievement on the baseball field, and that does make them a legitimate issue. People put their time and money and their hearts into following baseball, and most of them want to know that what they see on the field is the result of hard, honest work, not cheating.

People care about drug use insofar as it affects what happens on the field, and their interest in McGwire’s steroid use is greater than their interest in his hypothetical marijuana use in proportion to how much steroids affected championships and long-standing records, compared to how much marijuana use would have.

This being so, one must allow that if what is offensive about the use of steroids is that it affects the game on the field, then the authorities who should deal with it are the same ones who rule over everything that affects the game on the field: management and the players as represented by their union. When steroids are thought of not as a uniquely immoral affront to everything that is good and right in the world, but as just another drug that happens to affect baseball games, baseball’s exclusive responsibility over eliminating them from the game becomes quite obvious.

No one would call for a congressional inquiry into the scuffball, and no one would call for a congressional inquiry into cocaine use in baseball. How, exactly, is steroid use any different - in kind, rather than degree - from either of these two problems? The answer is that it isn’t; it simply combines features of them, and this has confused the issue.

The proper response to drug use isn’t righteous anger or punitive laws, but education. The proper response to cheating in a sports league isn’t congressional hearings, but enforcement of the sport’s rules by its commissioner in a manner consistent with agreements between owners and players.

And if neither of these is forthcoming, the proper response from private citizens involves quiet boycotts of the sport and putting pressure on elected representatives to withdraw subsidies and privileges like the anti-trust exemption and taxpayer-financed ballparks. All of that is fitting and appropriate and commensurate with the gravity of the scandal. But this is baseball’s mess to clean, no more so and no less so than its cocaine and gambling problems were.

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