Well, this is it. Kindly pay your piper. Welcome those chickens coming home to roost. Please enjoy your Hall of Fame Day of Reckoning.
The anecdotal accounts – and an invaluable “exit poll” – foresaw that the Baseball Writers Association of America would elect nobody as part of the class of 2013, and though I grieve for Dale Murphy and Craig Biggio and several others, there is a certain poetic justice to it.
We all knew. The players who used, the players who didn’t, the owners who enabled it, we reporters who covered it, we fans who bought tickets and cheered anyway. Some of us didn’t want to admit we knew until they went after Bonds and Clemens, or until Canseco’s book, or until McGwire’s temporal displacement in front of Congress, or until that container of Andro showed up in his locker in ’98.
But we knew.
We saw utility infielders popping opposite field home runs and part time guys slapping 20 homers and superstars hitting drives that would have set distance records in golf. We saw before and after photos of the Cansecos and the Bondses and we suspended our disbelief.
We all deserve nobody going into the Hall this year save for Hank O’Day and Jake Ruppert and Deacon White. Only O’Day – in his post-pitching career as an umpire – and the bespectacled White were ever accused even of myopia, let alone actual PED-use.
I am not casting stones from inside the glass house. I’m guilty, too. It was the day they gave the 1986 A.L. Rookie of the Year award to Canseco (whose moral standing in this mess has gradually gone from last place to about 4th from the top because he alone was utterly, if mercenarily, honest). One of the runners-up told me off-the-record “you do know that Canseco uses those drugs they give to the East German Women Swimmers, right?”
He didn’t even know they were called steroids.
I did what digging I could, and kept an ear to the ground, but how many sources were enough to tell that story?But in 1988, just after Ben Johnson was thrown out of the Seoul Olympics for a positive steroid test, I got a series of four sources – including some of her opponents – who told me that Florence Griffith-Joyner was just as steeped in scandal as was Johnson. I promptly went out and butchered the story. I was trying to write a revelation that should have sounded like “other Olympic runners say this” and included a recitation of the math that she was now breaking records so profoundly and so quickly that if the pace continued, by the year 2188, a runner would actually finish a race before she started it. Instead, I turned it into something that sounded like “I think she’s on them drug things.” She and her crew threatened suit, I retracted the story, and not long after Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post had the same experience with his “Canseco Cocktail” story. As well-meaning as we each were in trying to expose the putrid mess, we both set back its revelation by some (presumably small) degree. I’m sorry.
About two months after she got back from Seoul, Flo-Jo, who had promised to sue me and CBS and Carl Lewis (who had made the same charge at a speech at the University of Pennsylvania, on videotape, and then claimed it was off the record), and who had promised to keep running until she won Gold in her “home” Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, abruptly retired. We never heard from their lawyers again. She died in 1998, more than a year shy of her 40th birthday. For the record, I think she too either didn’t know – or willingly disbelieved – that there was anything more than perseverance to her unprecedented series of record-breaking performances. I think she suddenly found out, which is where the retirement – and the legal silence – came in. But it’s just a guess.
In any event, the next time I tripped over something substantial, I kept it to myself. A pro sports team orthopedist remarked on the sudden devastating, nearly career-ending, bizarre injury to a star baseball player. He said that there were only three ways to accomplish what the guy had done to himself: a hereditary circulatory problem or the repeated injection of anabolic steroids into the same place in the body or a horrific car accident (“By that I mean,” he told me, “having a car dropped on top of you from about 25 feet.”) Having burned myself on the Flo-Jo thing I was not prepared to repeat the process. And now I knew that there was one baseball star on steroids and maybe another one had just had his career virtually ended by steroids and there were not enough sources to mine and certainly nobody to pool notes with.
And then the bottle of “andro” showed up in McGwire’s locker. I can remember that week hearing the late baseball writer Leonard Koppett tell me on my show that nobody cared, that it wasn’t cheating, that it was nothing worse than vitamins or maybe, maybe, “greenies.” To his eternal credit, the author and former pitcher Jim Bouton not only disagreed, but got it exactly right. Some day, he says in the interview, baseball will have to reckon with years and years of records that will be artificially inflated, distorted beyond all measure, by the effects of a drug that lets you keep working out when the guys next to you – or before you, chronologically – have to drop the barbell. It was Bouton, after all, who had written in the eternal Ball Four that if a pitcher could take a pill that guaranteed him a) 20 wins and b) that he’d die five years sooner, he would’ve swallowed it before you finished that “b)” part.
So I pushed the Andro story – wrote a piece for Playboy in 1999 in which I picked up both Bouton’s point and the fact that baseball was going to lose the breathless charm of “chasing the home run record.” I pushed that story and every little hint of the truth dropped over the years, by the late Ken Caminiti, by Canseco, by Curt Schilling. But by then, almost nobody cared. I stood atop the right field corner at Fenway at the Home Run Hitting Contest the night before the 1999 All-Star Game at Fenway and ooed and ahhed with the rest of you as McGwire hit 650-foot blasts beyond the wall at the other side of the ballpark. And I knew it was mostly the drugs and while I could still preserve enough of my own disbelief to know it wasn’t real, I could see how the results of the PEDs could be as addictive to the fans and the owners’ bottom lines, as the drugs themselves could be the players.
By 2002 I was carrying a printed list of the players I had been told by various sources were “using.” Printed out and folded up inside my scorebook. I’d show it to colleagues and team executives and even other players and get confirmations or denials or additions. But I never even emailed it to, nor copied it for, anybody. With delicious irony, the legal rules protected the rule-breakers.
My conscience is relatively clean. I’ve been yelling about the Emporers’ Clothes for more than fourteen years. Yet it literally still keeps me up at night. Did so last night before today’s announcement. Biggio will probably get in later, and I think the Veterans’ Committee will soon note that Dale Murphy has the same OPS+ as Jim Rice, and was at worst the second or third best hitter of the era that matched his days as a starting player, and the collateral damage to them and the other deserving clean players will be transient. I do think there’s something delicious about the fact that the Baseball Writers have never even been consistent about what merits election to Cooperstown, and this time they all had to figure it out at the most complex moment in voting history, and that because none of them was likely to reach the same conclusion, for everybody who voted Bagwell but not Bonds, there was somebody who voted Bonds but not Bagwell, and none of them got in.
But they all deserve that kind of self-abnegating communal shame. As do we. They did it. We watched it. Those of us who didn’t care, and those of us who cared but couldn’t reveal or stop it, deserve similar if not identical fates.
The path to Steroid Hell was indeed paved with good intentions. And Jim Bouton’s pills. And the drugs that he didn’t know the name of that the guy told me about 26 years ago that they also gave the East German Women Swimmers. And the stuff we saw with our lying eyes and just pretended wasn’t real.
In The New York Times, my friend Rich Sandomir has an extraordinary piece on the arranging of the Costas/McGwire interview, and the rest of yesterday’s ‘limited hang-out,’ as a component of the Mark McGwire Contrition Tour.