Saturday, December 15, 2007

Humanizing the Mitchell Report …

When you read the report, it’s hard not to come to the following conclusion: anabolic steroids will not turn a stiff into a star. The names mentioned in Mitchell’s tome are very similar to the names we already know about. There are some fringe guys, journeymen, occasional all stars, genuine superstars and of course potential Hall of Famers.

What struck me were Mitchell’s notations that the problem was both widespread but only a minority of players actually used. I do feel that since you can count the suppliers mentioned in the report on one hand without bothering your thumb, that many users have simply went undetected up to this point in time. I think 50% of players being involved in some fashion seems like a reasonable figure.

However, there are some suppositions we’re reading about in the media that really don’t do the evidence (such as it is) justice. It seems that folks are of the opinion that the players outed were all hard-core long-term steroid users. It is good to keep in mind that a number of players simply experimented with the drugs and decided for whatever reason not to continue usage.

This would have been a valuable data point for investigation, who were regular juicers, who were off-and-on and who simply tried it and thought ‘This isn’t for me.’

We have to remember that a major league player generally hits his decline phase in his early 30’s. This is not an advanced age. We are talking about young men who still have a lot to learn about life. They feel they are invincible, bulletproof and generally are not averse to taking risks. These young men are in a highly competitive macho environment where the darker side of natural selection often takes place. They are not just in competition with those wearing different colour uniforms, they are competing with each other for roster spots, playing time etc. Just because the man one locker over wears an identical uniform to you doesn’t mean he won’t try to take something that you desire.

It is a highly competitive environment right from the time they sign their first contract until they receive their final pink slip. Nice guys truly finish last in such a situation. Adding to this is that while you are competitors, you’re also comrades--part of a fraternity. If the guy across from you is using something illicit, you cannot blow the whistle and violate the code of the clubhouse to level the playing field. A decision has to be made--join the ‘arms race’ or be left behind … there is no third option in their purview.

Bearing all this in mind, I find it hard to develop a sense of outrage over somebody whose usage was brief or intermitted. I was 23 and remember how things were. A player hopes to impress at spring training or perhaps getting called up but is being slowed by a nagging injury that is damnably slow in responding and watching a window of opportunity closing. At that particular moment, he feels his whole world, all his dreams are slipping out of his grasp, and desperation is starting to set in.

He takes the plunge.

The malady is now gone and what’s more, the ball is jumping off the bat or really popping the catcher’s mitt. He hears the coach talking that he's turned the corner and his future is a lot brighter.

Whoa … that stuff is amazing!

His friends and family are bragging about him, his teammates are looking up to him, his ears are filling with cheers and finally he sees his first major league pay check.

Oh. My. God! Look at all those zeroes!

Now it’s time to get off that stuff, but, but … what if his game suffers? How can he phone his family and friends and tell them that he has been sent down? Does he really want to lose those extra zeroes on the pay check? Can he sustain this level without it? He's living the dream and made the big leagues, the local papers are saying he's added a spark to the club--his teammates, family, the fans … they’re counting on him. He can’t let them down … he just can’t. He saw the look in his kid brother’s eye when he saw him wearing a big league uniform for the first time--he’s looking up to him. Little bro' told all his friends at school about seeing his brother play on T.V. and said he was his hero.

He thinks: "What do I do? What do I do?"

Is this an evil person? A cheat? A fraud? Or is it somebody that got in over his head, made a bad choice in a moment of desperation.

That’s reality to a lot of these young men. How many are out there? How many were mentioned in the Mitchell Report? This isn’t some surly superstar with a sense of entitlement--this is a local boy who made good. I’m not writing this to condone what they did--merely to understand it. We’re not dealing with embodiments of evil but a system that failed. A system that put pressure on young men to make tough choices without the wisdom and experience that only years can bring. Yes, some deserve derision--they decided to cheat, they did it for the money but many did it because dreams die hard and painfully and are mourned for a long time. Let’s face it, to see those dreams die at such young age is always a terrible thing to witness but that’s the reality of professional sports.

That is why we should blame Bud Selig, Don Fehr, Bob Dupuy, Gene Orza and many others. It is their responsibility to set the parameters in which the dream is pursued and the parameters they set are what has led us to this point in time.

Let’s hope the lesson has been learned.

Best Regards



Karen said...

Hi, John...your favorite renegade here.

It almost seems like Jeff Horrigan of the Boston Herald and you had a moment of mental telepathy.

He wrote an interesting blog item about Joe Oliver, former journeyman catcher for the Reds, Milwaukee, Detroit, Pittsburgh, the Mariners, the Yanks and Boston.

Player representatives, especially long time ones like Tom Glavine, have a lot of power among their peers. Would that THEY stood up to their union leaders on the PED issue, pointing out that turning the other way while PEDs were rampant in use would eventually damage the reputations of everybody. Why? Honest ethical players were muzzled by that blessed MLB players' law of silence about questionable behavior, with the threat of ostracism (even blacklisting, as Jose Canseco hinted had happened to him) that would follow if anyone spoke up.

The Steroid Era needed a Deep Throat loooooong before Jose Canseco... :)

Jonathan said...

I really like your humanizing of the steroid user. Another case is the Howie Clarks of the world who have put their entire lives into the game and are riding buses across the country knowing their time is running out.

They're right on the doorstep to their dreams, not to mention if they can just sit on a big league bench for a year they can feed their kids for a decade. The nation is treating some guy everyone in the game knows in juiced to the eyeballs like a national hero and they're stuck rehabbing yet another injury they got for running full out into a wall for some AAA club...Anyone who says they would do the right thing and go work in a sporting goods store for the rest of their life is a liar.

John Brattain said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Brattain said...

Hey Kayjay! Great seeing you. The thing is, (and I've devoted three yet to be published columns on the subject) the MLBPA never understood that ownership was fine with letting the players juice.

It took outside pressure to get Bud to really act on it. Fehr and Orza totally forgot that workplace safety is one of a union's primary responsibilities. Instead they allowed and aided an environment where players had to take risks with black market drugs to ply their trade.

Their devotion to the salary bar totally blinded their minds as to their responsibilities. Instead it was about the salary bar and superstar contracts.

They've lost the union. The players should negotiate an extension on the CBA or make sure the next one runs a couple of extra years then rebuild the MLBPA from the ground up--none of this 'serve the superstars' idiocy.

Stay in touch girl--you have this tendency to keep life interesting.


Thanks for the props.

As (almost *g*)always, you're bang on the mark. I view the (non-superstar) players as the least culpable in this mess. All they were trying to do was get a big league job and hang on to it--which meant not missing time to injury.

The hypocrisy in the media is nauseating.

Best Regards