Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Era of False Outrage - A-Rod and the Juice

I know I said I'd wait until the weekend to comment on the Alex Rodriguez situation, but I have so many thoughts I feel I need to get them out now. I've typically refrained from talking about steroids in my blogs, but I did when the Rafael Palmiero bombshell broke in '05 and then last year when the Mitchell Report was made public. So I'll do it again now, but if I had my druthers, I'd never take the time to write anything pertaining to steroids again.

I say this not just because steroids discussions are almost always centered in the past as opposed to the present and future (which I believe are more important than anything that happened 8 or 10 years ago), but because there's a ton of false outrage out there about steroids.

We live in the Era of False Outrage. Twice in the course of a week, we got to see this era at its best (or worst), first with the Michael Phelps bong hit and now with A-Rod's revelation. In this Era of False Outrage, TV talking heads, radio wingnuts, high-flaunting bloggers and message board wackos get to spend hours on end going completely berserk when their favorite celebrities/athletes/politicians/anyone in the public eye at all does something stupid, and these reactions typically don't look beyond the surface of what that indiscretion was. Within a few days, it's often forgotten. It's not likely to be the case here, but the speed at which we move on from things purported to be so awful makes the Era of False Outrage that much more infuriating.

Admittedly, the Phelps and A-Rod situations are different. Phelps put himself in a bad place and was caught in the act. To me, his biggest offense wasn't smoking pot; his biggest offense was getting caught. What percentage of white bread American 23-year-old dudes over the last 40 years has smoked pot? And what percentage of the people spewing False Outrage over this hit the bong when they were 23? Of course, when they were 23, cell phone cameras never existed. You mean to tell me Bill Walton wasn't puffing the magic dragon with his Portland teammates when he was a rookie in 1975, and also happened to be 23? We'll never know, because no one was there snapping pictures to sell to tabloids. So does this mean that what Phelps did was OK? Well...maybe I'm the wrong person to ask, since I think pot should be legal. (Before you call me a pothead, I have a clear argument for why I feel this way. But that's for another day.)

Anyway, A-Rod's case is different, like I mentioned. For two seasons and part of a third (at least long enough for there to be a positive test, if A-Rod is to be believed) one of the most talented men ever to step on a baseball field polluted his body with illegal substances because he felt "enormous pressure to perform" after signing the biggest contract in history (only to be trumped seven years later by...himself). A-Rod said he hasn't taken illegal substances since spring training of 2003 (we only have his word to go on, although he hasn't tested positive since then).

If not for four sources breaking the law and telling SI that A-Rod was on the government-protected list of 104 positive tests from the initial 2003 testing period, we'd almost certainly never know A-Rod did steroids. That makes his admission seem all the more pompous and self-centered. Rob Neyer feels A-Rod is most sorry about getting caught, and probably doesn't feel like he himself did anything wrong (sounds Blago-esque, almost). That's not going to keep him from telling kids not to do steroids, as we're almost guaranteed to see an A-Rod PSA within the next six weeks or so.

This brings me to my larger point, which also ties back to the Era of False Outrage. People forget that in 2001, the same year Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs, Major League Baseball had fostered a rich drug culture that allowed every player to experiment with performance enhancers free of penalty (unless, of course, the authorities caught them. Anyone else remember this little incident?). Steroids were actually illegal in baseball starting in 1991, but there was no way for the rules to be enforced.

From the late 1980s until 2002, MLB essentially told its players, "We know these drugs are illegal, and can have adverse health effects. But we also know it will help you perform better on the field, attract more fans, and make all of us more money. So we'll let you keep doing it, as long as everyone plays by the what-happens-in-the-clubhouse-stays-there rules." For a long time, it worked. After the strike, two juiced-up sluggers helped revitalize the game with a home run race for the ages. Attendance soared, revenues skyrocketed, and people cared about the game just as much as they had before 1994.

And then, Ken Caminiti broke ranks, and became the prime source for Tom Verducci's earth-shattering June 2002 SI cover story that changed baseball (and my life, for reasons pertaining to the power of journalism) forever. This quote from the late Caminiti highlights the zeitgeist of an time when players saw steroids as not just a choice, but a necessity to get by:

"If a young player were to ask me what to do," Caminiti continued, "I'm not going to tell him it's bad. Look at all the money in the game: You have a chance to set your family up, to get your daughter into a better school.... So I can't say, 'Don't do it,' not when the guy next to you is as big as a house and he's going to take your job and make the money."

Athletes, in particular professional ones, are the most competitive people on the planet. That competitiveness presents a double-edged sword for people like me who live for sports. On one hand, if athletes weren't highly-competitive, we'd have no reason to watch. If they don't care, why should we? At the same time, hyper-competitive athletes can tend to have darker sides. That includes doing whatever it takes to get ahead, to be the best, to beat your opponents and even your teammates to get to the pinnacle of sport. Many will resort to Machiavellian tactics, as a large percentage of players in baseball's steroids era did.

So when Texas gave a 25-year-old $252 million during what could only be described as the height of the performance-enhancement era of baseball, and as a 25-year-old felt pressure from all sides to live up to this contract, and the sport he played had enabled an entire culture of chemical advantages that could turn a skinny outfielder into a 70+ homer behemoth in just a few years and could make average players into All-Stars without consequences, I'm supposed to be outraged when I find out that 25-year-old decided to give steroids a whack? Are you kidding me? Like A-Rod, because he's such a great player, is just a saint among men, and would never ever do such a thing. I wasn't born yesterday, or at least, was born before the Verducci article came out.

So when I hear the False Outrage machine blaring about A-Rod, and steroids, and how "these guys are role models" and "trashing the history of the game," I can't do anything but laugh. I don't think athletes should be role models for kids beyond what they do on the field. When you watch A-Rod he always plays hard, he never dogs it on the basepaths or in the field, and his approach at the plate is among the best in history. That's the type of role model he should be: this is how you play the game. Beyond that, asking these pro athletes to lead squeaky clean lives is too much. The guys like Mike Lowell, Nick Lidstrom and Steve Nash are harder to come by than you'd think.

The "trashing of history" is equally hilarious. I have a profound love and respect for the history of baseball that will never, ever, ever be shaken. But I don't expect everyone to feel the same way (there may have been a time when I did, but I've grown up since then), and I especially don't think most of these cut-throat millionaire primadonnas who willingly shrank the size of their gonads just to get an edge really cared about what they did to history. All they were thinking about was being the best and striking it big on their next contract. If they thought that little of their own well-being, why should they care at all about their place among guys who did it right like Christy Mathewson, Lou Gehrig, and Stan Musial?

So am I saying it's OK that A-Rod did steroids? No. Unlike pot, I think anabolic steroids and other dangerous chemicals used for such purposes are rightfully illegal. Yet MLB CREATED AN ATMOSPHERE WHERE IT WAS ACCEPTED AND EVEN EXPECTED FOR STEROIDS TO BE DONE. Why should any of us be outraged that A-Rod, one of the most narcassitic players of his generation, did steroids when baseball wasn't going to penalize him?

As far as I'm concerned, the whole era is completely tainted. No one is above suspicion who played in that era. Not one player. I'd like to believe Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez, Curt Schilling, Frank Thomas, Derek Jeter, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Ken Griffey, Jr. never took steriods, but I can't be 100% sure. At the same time, I believe Sammy Sosa, Bret Boone, Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, Albert Belle and Nomar Garciaparra among others did take steroids, but I can't be 100% sure (H/T to Buster Olney, he's the proprietor of this idea).

A-Rod did the smart thing by saying he did steroids and will likely be better off in the long run because of it, even if most people don't realize he probably would have just kept lying about it had his privacy not been breached in the first place (which Doug Glanville covers marvelously in this NY Times op-ed).

Anyway, I'm not sure if any of what I've just written makes sense. It's late and I have to get up to write a story about ice dams, maybe. But I'm ready for the Era of False Outrage to end. You know what we really ought to be outraged about? The economy, that's what.


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