Tuesday, December 18, 2007
What Now, Baseball?
It was in the early morning hours in Seoul, Korea, in 1988.
A young athlete opened his bedroom door and found a delegation of officials, media, friends.
They were there to inform him that he had failed the drug tests, and that he was being stripped of the gold medal that he had won earlier in the Olympic Games. They were there to tell him that he was a cheat, and that he had been caught.
They knew that in the hours to come, the rest of the world would find him shameful for his actions, as well as the country he represented-Canada.
His name? Ben Johnson.
We had watched the race, the most important sprinting event at the Olympic Games. We felt great pride as he had crossed the finish line first. His time was brilliant, eclipsing the existing world record. We had watched the race from many different angles. We had seen him fly from the blocks to get an almost perfect start. We had seen him cruise through the first fifty metres, then explode to the finish, alone, at the pinnacle of his chosen work.
Then the shame. Then the denials.
Almost twenty years ago, and yet the rest of the sporting world continues to follow that path to become the very best. All ignore the potential dangers of all of the drugs. All scurry around in dark corners knowing that they are doing something wrong, and may get caught with their hands in the cookie jar some day.
They are driven by fame and fortune. And the belief that they could not get there without performance enhancing substances.
In the almost twenty years since Seoul, there have been many studies, reports, and commissions regarding illegal drugs. Many athletes in many sports have admitted use of the drugs. Several others have been stripped of their glory. A few entire teams of athletes have admitted usage in aquatic events, gymnastics, weightlifting, and others.
Last week, Senator Mitchell brought down his damaging report on the use of steroids, human growth hormone, and other performance enhancing drugs. At the tip of the iceberg, almost one hundred Major League baseball players were named in the report, linking them with the drugs.
There are, of course, several hundred other players whose names were not listed. They fall into two categories: those who did not get caught, and those who have never used the drugs. For those who did not get caught, lucky break.
For those who have never dabbled in the substances, there must be a few puzzling questions on their minds.
Let us look at one hypothetical case. I use the term hypothetical because there is no way I can either prove, nor disprove his use of the drugs. But let us assume that Ken Griffey Junior has not now, nor ever taken the drugs. He is now entering his twentieth season of Major League Baseball. He ranks near the top of several categories for power hitters.
He has hit 593 home runs in his career, which began in Seattle when he was 19, the youngest player in the Big Leagues. When he began the season last year, he trailed a few Hall of Famers on the list: Aaron, Ruth, Mays, Frank Robinson, and Harmon Killebrew. The others he lagged behind were: Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Rafael Palmeiro. All four have been implicated in some way in the drug scandal.
One of the theories about steroids is that they will add just enough distance to your swing that the ball will carry over the fence. It sure beats warning track power.
With a little help from some Dr. Chemical, perhaps Griffey Jr. would be in the hunt for the home run crown along with Barry Bonds.
Griffey has also been on the disabled list thirteen times during his career, limiting his number of times at bat. Once a player returns from the disabled list, he is not always at the top of his game, with nagging aches and pains from muscle tears and the like.
Griffey Jr also had to face those amazing flame throwers who have sat him down more than 1500 times in his career. What justice is there when you consider more than a few of them were all juiced up in the process?
Once the report was filed last week, Griffey Jr took the “low road”, and spoke through his agent. He wrote that “we need to do everything possible to restore and maintain the fans’ confidence in the integrity of the game and its players.” Brian Goldberg is Griffey Jr’s agent, and at this point in time, he is grasping desperately at straws.
The ultimate decision in this process lies with the fans. They will decide how tolerant they will be toward the cheating. They buy the tickets. They purchase the goods touted by these athletes. Will they accept the hypocrisy and head back through the turnstiles in April?
There are conceivably hundreds of other stories like the Griffey Jr one. We will hear some; others will get lost in the shuffle. There will be plenty of “spinning” from many sides before even a partial truth surfaces.
“Take me out to the ball game?” Let me think about that.