Talking Baseball

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Posted by Ben K. on Friday, December 03, 2004

Baseball Morals

Does this surprise you? Giambi admitted taking steroids. No, me neither.

How about this one? Bonds Testimony. I can't say I wasn't expected that one either.

What happens from here with this scandal is all up in there, and I'm not going to talk about it now. But as I was watching this story break on the 1 a.m. (Eastern Time) edition of SportsCenter did surprise me. In commentating on Bonds' Grand Jury testimony, Tim Kurkjian explained why he felt that what Pete Rose did was worse than what Barry Bonds did. My jaw hit the floor when I heard that.

Kurkjian went on to say that he felt betting on baseball was worse than steroid use. I couldn't believe I was hearing this from an ESPN commentator. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is an issue of baseball morals with roots that spread back to the beginning of the modern era of baseball in 1903.

In the early days of baseball, betting was an expected part of the sport. As I've learned from reading Louis P. Masur's Autumn Glory: Baseball's First World Series, betting was nearly synonymous with baseball. Bookies would take money on nearly every aspect of the game from whether or not a team would win to how well individual players would do in their at-bats during the game. Even the players would bet on the game. While there were constant rumors of players throwing games, nothing was proved until 1919.

It was that year that baseball would enter its darkest days. That was the year of the infamous Black Sox scandal. After it was revealed that eight members of the White Sox accepted money to throw the World Series so that bookies could cash in on the so-called upset, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the first true commissioner of baseball, implemented Rule 21. This rule stated, in part d, the following:
BETTING ON BALL GAMES. Any player, umpire, or club official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has no duty to perform shall be declared ineligible for one year.

Any player, umpire, or club or league official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible.
This rule would be one of the driving forces behind Landis' efforts to restore the public confidence in baseball following a scandal of epic proportions. Seventy years later, Major League Baseball and its fans would see the true power of Rule 21 (d).

On August 24, 1989, Pete Rose became baseball's black sheep as he suffered from the punishment outlined in the second part of Rule 21 (d). When it was revealed that Rose, one of baseball's best hitters and later a manager of the Cincinnati Reds, bet on games in which he managed, A. Barlett Giamatti, baseball's last true commissioner, banned Pete Rose for life. While it is unclear and unlikely that Pete Rose ever bet against his own team, he broke the rules and suffered the consequences, no matter how steep they were. Baseball's all-time hit king is not enshrined in the Hall of Fame, and may never be, because he broke the rules.

Now, on December 3, 2004, another controversy involving another baseball great is brewing. As we all know — and are not surprised — Barry Bonds, during his recent run as one of the best hitters of all time, took steroids. He claims he did so unknowingly, and the jury is still out on that. But the bottom line is that he broke the rules. He took illegal substances on more than one occasion in an effort to improve his play. And Bonds isn't the only one. Gary Sheffield and Jason Giambi are among the guilty as well.

In the eyes of this fan, what does steroid use amount to? I, for one, think that it is cheating. In an effort to gain an advantage in the game, these players took illegal, body-altering substances. And this brings me to the motivation behind the post. Tim Kurkjian is of the opinion that Pete Rose's betting is worse than Barry Bonds' and Jason Giambi's use of steroids.

I simply do not agree with this assessment. What Rose did was wrong; he broke the rules, and he suffered the consequences. But he didn't cheat. What Bonds, Giambi, Sheffield, and countless other ballplayers have done is cheat. They broke the laws; they cheated. It's as simple as that. But baseball has a problem: Their collective bargaining agreements do not stipulate a punishment for this kind of action. While they have a clear policy against betting for fear that it would lead to cheating, when it comes to body-altering and performance-enhancing drugs, baseball has no policy.

Is this why Tim Kurkjian thought it was worse that Pete Rose bet for his own team? I am in no way excusing Pete Rose's behavior. But what these men have done over the past few years is much worse than betting. They used drugs, illegal ones at that, to cheat and gain an edge. That is, in my mind, all there is to it.

Will this trump the 1919 Black Sox scandal as baseball's darkest hour? Obviously, only time will tell. We might find out sooner rather than later as this evening at 10 p.m., Victor Conte will go on ABC's 20/20 ostensibly to name more names about steroid users. But until we have a historical perspective on this developing scandal, it's hard for me to see how betting on baseball could be worse than outright cheating especially when those who have bet on baseball like Pete Rose did were betting for their team to win.

In the end, players who break the rules are in the wrong whether it be by betting or by knowingly or unknowingly using performance-enhancing drugs. Is Tim Kurkjian out of his mind? Of course. Steroid use should be condemned by Major League Baseball. It should be condemned by the MLB Players' Association in the same way that it was condemned today by Bud Selig. But it seems that baseball will suffer another black eye until this problem is resolved.

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