Talking Baseball

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Posted by Ben K. on Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Breaking the Silence

On the eve of Spring Training, the steroid ball started rolling. February 16 marked the day when four men associated with the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO) were charged with conspiring to distribute steroids, among many other charges.

Immediately, members of the media and sports fans all over the world saw the link to baseball. Barry Bonds' personal trainer Greg Anderson was one of the four men charged by the Federal Grand Jury that day. Of course, Bonds kept denying that he had every taken steroids, and he's been relatively silent throughout most of spring training. Silence, it seems, has dominated this issue.

We here at Talking Baseball have been silent on the issue despite pleas from our readers to tackle the steroid question. Dave and Jon in recent posts have both expressed their wishes not to join the witch hunt, as Dusty Baker so termed it. The Players' Association, up until a few days ago, was silent as well; in the name of union solidarity, none of the members of the union wanted to speak out against one of their own. Yet, last week, Turk Wendell spoke out, and a few days ago John Smoltz spoke out.

Now, it's our turn. After today's developments in the story, I find that I can't proclaim to be an aspiring baseball analysts while ignoring the steroid issue and all of the questions surrounding the potential use of this drug by baseball players, superstars and journeyman infielders alike. So what then makes today the day that we all break our awkward silence on an issue with so many questions? Here's what. According to reports in today's San Francisco Chronicle, Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Marvin Benard, Benito Santiago, and Randy Velarde have all allegedly received steroids from BALCO, and more specifically, from Bonds' personal trainer, Greg Anderson.

As a die-hard baseball fan and one who, despite my Yankee biases, tries to be an objective observer for the sake of this blog, I can no longer keep my silence on the issue. It's time for the fans to speak out, and for Major League Baseball and the Players' Association to listen. It's time to save face in light of a potential disaster that could damage the reputation of the game forever.

MLB Reacts

Before I get into my own opinions, I want to take a look around to see a few reactions. On one hand, we have ESPN.com which has numerous articles on steroids and numerous opinions pieces on the ramifications of the Chronicle's naming names. On the other hand, we have MLB.com. Now, please click on that link. What do you see? Well, right now, Ken Griffey, Jr.'s face is there and so is the hot story that the first Yankees-Red Sox game of the season will be on FOX with the crack broadcasting team of Tim McCarver and Joe Buck (don't get me started on them). Where are the steroid scandal articles? Well, there's one here linked from the front page, and that's all.

I think the problem of this scandal has been in the reactions by Major League Baseball to the idea of steroids. It's important to remember that right now, none of these players have been accused of taking steroids; they are merely alleged to have received them from BALCO. In this country, we believe in innocent until proven guilty, and some of these guys are doing a good job of proving themselves guilty. To save face, it's time for MLB to begin a major campaign to initiate mandatory testing with severe consequences for those that test positive immediately. And when I say immediately, I mean before Opening Day in a few weeks.

Let's look at who's painting himself as guilty. First, there's Barry Bonds. In the article on ESPN.com about reactions to today's revelations, all Bonds is quoted as doing is refusing to talk to reporters. By maintaining his silence, Bonds throws a veil of guilt over himself. What he should really do is get tested, publicly tomorrow or admit that he took steroids and apologize. At least, this way, we can all begin to move on.

To make matters worse for Bonds, his former teammate Andy Van Slyke had this to say to the media:

"Unequivocally he's taken them. I can say that with utmost certainty. Now, I never saw him put it into his body, but look ... the physical evidence is there. People do not gain 35 pounds of muscle in their late 30s without a little bit of help.

"When I played with him, I weighed more than him and yet he was still a tremendous player. He still had good power, and he was an MVP. The physical facts are the physical facts, and when you're 36, 37 and 38 years old is not when you peak with your home run production."
Those are damning words from a former player, expressing the thoughts that many of the fans and many other players have about Bonds. And remember, this is not about race or his personality. Bonds is not being singled out here; look at another one of the accused stars, Jason Giambi.

Over the off season, Giambi apparently went on the knee surgery diet. More likely, he went on the BALCO diet. But remember, innocent until proven guilty. Giambi too is being very silent. He has used his knee surgery as an excuse a few times already, but his denials are not as vehement as those issued by Bonds' lawyer. He may have realized the inevitability of discovery or maybe he's off them and truly would test clean. Either way, I think his numbers and health this season will go a long way towards showing us the truth.

Finally, we get to Gary Sheffield. Of the three All Stars named in the articles, Sheffield is the one I believe most likely did not use steroids. In my mind, what cleared Sheffield to me was what Bobby Cox had to say about Gary. And keep in mind that Sheffield's never made himself a favorite of the management or media in his career.
"To me, Sheff never looked like a guy who was doing steroids. He looked the same as I always remembered him looking."
Cox hit upon the key point; Sheffield has always looked like Gary Sheffield. Unlike Jason Giambi, who in 1988 looked like a skinny dorky kid, and during his (high-use?) days in Oakland, looked like a jacked-up WWE wrestler, Sheffield's physical appearance hasn't changed. Bonds is the poster child for physical appearance. People's faces don't really change that dramatically between 28 and 40 like Bonds' face did. It's hard to believe that's just a matter of him putting on more weight naturally.

The Future of Steroids in Major League Baseball

But I'm getting ahead of myself. It's dangerous to go around accusing these guys of steroid use when it's virtually impossible to prove. And that right now is the situation Major League Baseball is in. This BALCO stuff has gone on long enough that it's hard to believe the prominent guys named would test positive. In fact, I find it hard to believe that anyone in baseball would test positive. If they do, they deserve to be tossed out of the game at this point for their sheer stupidity.

Despite my claims, Bonds is still innocent; Giambi is innocent; Sheffield is innocent; and yes even Marvin Benard, and his career-high 16 home runs, is innocent. Right now, the guilty parties are Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players' Association for not doing something before this started and for remaining silent for so long. When the issue arose in 2002, the MLBPA should have accepted a no-tolerance agreement. Remember, steroids are indeed illegal, and it's not really ok for someone to test positive for steroids ever. By not agreeing to a no-tolerance policy, the Players' Association comes across as hiding something. Maybe they were and maybe they weren't. But are we ever really going to know at this point? (The answer is maybe, and I'll come back to that soon.)

Now, in 2004, the Players' Association is still handling this situation poorly. They have yet to make much of an announcement, and except for most likely exerting pressure on their members to stay silent, the union representatives have avoided the issue. Players such as Turk Wendell and John Smoltz should be applauded for their bold statements. It's time for the union to come forward as one in this scandal. If that means upsetting the Bonds' or Giambi's or Sosa's who may use performance-enhancing drugs, then so be it. As this off season and the A-Rod trade demonstrated, no union member is better than any other. The members of the MLBPA are all on equal footing, and they all right now should do what's best for baseball.

Bud Selig too is guilty for the way he has handled this recent crisis. On Monday, he broke his silence, but in the wrong way. Before the proverbial steroids hit the fan on Tuesday, Selig wrote a piece for MLB.com. (It's right here.) In fact, it's almost as though Selig knew that the Chronicle would be printing names a few hours after his piece went up. In it, he demonizes the Players' Association, making enemies with the group he now needs as friends to help save baseball. Let's take a look at what he writes:
"There is only one solution to this problem. Major League Baseball must adopt zero tolerance as a policy, and I am firmly committed to making that a reality. However, while I would like to eliminate steroids and other illegal performance-enhancing substances today, Major League Baseball must operate in conformance with our collective bargaining relationship with the Major League Baseball Players Association and with federal law...

"At the major-league level, however, because our players are represented by a union, drug testing is a mandatory topic of collective bargaining. Unlike the International Olympic Committee, which is unencumbered by a labor union or any other second party when setting policy, Major League Baseball must negotiate its drug-testing regimen with the Players Association. During collective bargaining, progress on the issue of drug testing has been difficult."

While the rest of the piece praises MLB and the Players' Association, Selig clearly is trying to lay the blame for this disaster at the feet of the union. He should not do that at all. In order to combat this public relations catastrophe before it turns into a steamroller, the owners and the players must do something they are loathe to do: they have to put their differences aside and think about what's best for the game. It's time to stop worrying about money and collusion and high salaries; instead, it's time to develop a mandatory testing system with severe punishments, and this system should begin in April when the players take the field for the first time.

In order to safe face now, players also should stop denying their steroid use. If they didn't take them, then great, but the ones who did should come forward. And we all know that there those who did; the anonymous tests that aren't so anonymous after all it seems showed that they are out. If the players won't come forward, maybe the test results, which were subpoenaed a few weeks ago, should be released to the public. It would damage baseball's credibility in the short run, but it would force MLB and the MLBPA to take measures that would improve this credibility in the long run. Clearly, it's time to act.

Finally, I want to again stress that I only singled out the three superstars because they were named in the papers today as having received steroids from BALCO. Remember, none of them were alleged to have taken them; just to have received them. It's no crime to get something in the mail, think better of it, and throw them out. Maybe that's what happened; maybe it didn't. What I advocate though is that the players and owners work their hardest to find a solution to this problem before it goes much further.

(Note: The opinions in this piece are mine and mine alone. I'm not speaking for Mike, Jon, or Dave. If they have anything different to say or if they disagree, they will of course add to the debate over the next few days. Keep that in mind as you contemplate my argument. If you don't like it, criticize me and not them or the site. For those of you expecting by DH analysis, it will be here for my next post over the weekend. The conclusions and statistics are fairly surprising. But I won't reveal more now; you'll just have to check back.)

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