Yesterday, the day that the federal government announced its indictment of Barry Bonds on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice, was a great day for Major League Baseball. Commissioner Bud Selig reported that his association was now a $6 billion business. 15 years ago, Selig said MLB was merely a $1 billion business. For the Commissioner, the four year saga of the federal investigation of Bonds could not have culminated at a better time. The league announced that since The Homerun King was facing federal charges, he was likely to retire and would not even merit a suspension. Now, Bud Selig has an unprecedented opportunity to rewrite the history of his league with unprecedented public support. Yesterday, Bud Selig received a mandate to dispose of the legacy of Barry Bonds in a manner as swift and decisive as a federal prosecutor. The national media and the American public have largely co-signed Selig’s right to reframe the Steroids Era as The Bonds Era.
The Bonds Era, if Selig and others have their way, will not be framed as an era of errors that included the tainted legacy of Roger Clemens or Andy Pettitte or Jeff Bagwell. The Bonds Era will be announced and formally sealed as an invitation to the world to look back in horror while looking forward with hope that a new day is here. Major League Baseball wants to begin anew in 2008 without the scourge of steroids or of Barry Bonds in view.
There is a problem, though. Allan “Bud” Selig has known about steroids in baseball for at least 15 years. According to his own words, he and other owners studied the question of steroids in 1994. Bud told The Sporting News:
“I think we all have our suspicions who’s on the stuff, but unless someone comes out and admits to it, who’ll ever know for sure?” Acting commissioner Bud Selig says the topic was last addressed by owners in a private meeting about a year or 18 months ago. The conclusion was no one had any evidence steroid use should be a concern.
“If baseball has a problem,” Selig says, “I must say candidly that we were not aware of it. It certainly hasn’t been talked about much. But should we concern ourselves as an industry? I don’t know, maybe it’s time to bring it up again.”
That was in 1995. In the same article, players like Frank Thomas and Tony Gwynn were complaining about steroid use and calling for testing. If the Commissioner spoke to Thomas or Gwynn or read the article, he would have known steroids were something to be concerned about. But, he’s said a mouthful already. The topic was addressed – by owners – in a private meeting…possibly as early as 1993. The revisionists, though, have already sought to redefine the era and change the legacy of Mr. Bonds and Mr. Selig. Listen to Richard Justice:
“People have criticized Bud Selig for not attacking the problem earlier. In 1995, the Los Angeles Times reported that baseball might have a problem with steroids.
Should Selig have acted sooner? Of course.
Here’s the problem. Baseball is governed by a collective bargaining agreement. The commissioner doesn’t act unilaterally in such matters.
He sought a steroids testing plan in the 1994-95 labor negotiations. He didn’t get it and probably didn’t pursue it hard enough.
At that point — rightly or wrongly — economic issues were a higher priority. The game was in shambles. The World Series had been cancelled in 1994 after players went on strike.
They went on strike because they knew owners were planning to lock them out the following spring. And the start of the 1995 season was delayed.
Mistrust was never higher. Had Selig gone back to the players in 1995 and asked for a testing program, he’d have been laughed out of the room.
Should he have tried anyway? Yes.
Should he have used his bully pulpit? Yes.
But at that point, he was working to save the game. Remember that some people said that baseball would never be really relevant again.
The game was revived by Cal Ripken’s pursuit of Lou Gehrig’s streak in 1996 and by the McGwire-Sosa home run chase of 1998.
By the end of the 1998 season, he knew there was a steroids problem. But he was unwilling to publicly trash the sport’s biggest star.”
What can we take away from this spirited defense of Bud Selig?
- Richard Justice likes to play with the truth. Baseball is not “governed by a collective bargaining agreement.” Baseball is governed by owners and the governance powers of ownership are mediated by a collective bargaining agreement. There is a tremendous difference between these two statements. Owners colluded to keep players salaries artificially low in clear violation of the principles of collective bargaining.
- Selig’s attempt to get a steroid testing program was but one way to address the question of steroids in baseball. Owners who have had nearly infinite powers over players, franchise mobility/relocation, ticket prices, media contracts and access could have employed a slew of tactics to address this issue. Didn’t George Steinbrenner pay Howard Spira $40,000 to spy on Dave Winfield? Owners have never been powerless in their relationships with players.
- Justice suggests that the game of baseball was revived first by Ripken’s pursuit of Gehrig and then by the home run chase of McGwire and Sosa. Let’s be clear about this. Ripken’s pursuit of Gehrig drew old fans back to the game. It was memorable because it was so profoundly historic, but it was not what revived the game. The summer of 1998 saved the game of baseball from a near certain death. Mammoth home runs and the routine invoking of The Babe brought the game to old fans and new fans and casual observers. As big a story as Ripken was, it wasn’t “water cooler talk” until he was right at the record. Not so with McGwire and Sosa.
- In the same article in which Selig was quoted in The Sporting News, an unnamed General Manager said of steroid usage:
- “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s closer to 30 percent, although most people will say it’s about 5 to 10 percent, We had one team in our league a few years ago that the entire lineup may have been on it.”
Now, I could be wrong about this, but I’d bet he was talking about the Oakland Athletics of Tony LaRussa. The A’s had one of the most physically imposing lineups in the history of the game. Jose Canseco was on that team. So was Mark McGwire. It simply does not stand to reason that owners could have a private about steroids as early as 1993 and not contemplate the significance of its impact on the sport for another five years. The question of “outing” the game’s greatest star in 1998 is beside the point. The surge in production for many players began before 1998 – and for owners desperate to draw new fans, home runs were the easiest sell.
- Major League Baseball has never outed Tony LaRussa because he is the goose that laid the golden egg – thrice. The first time he laid the Golden Egg, he took the Oakland A’s to the World Series, led by The Bash Brothers, and their steroid-fueled long ball attack. The second time he laid the Golden Egg, he brought Mark McGwire to St. Louis – to the heartland – to the home of the whitest uniform and whitest stadium in all of God’s creation. During the summer of 1998, not only were there no empty seats at Busch Stadium, there was only standing room at every bar in St. Louis. LaRussa, though, may have pushed the envelope too far with his third attempt at gold – Rick Ankiel. The resurgent outfielders ties to HGH proved to good to be true. And while some fraudulent sports writers at ESPN, like Rob Neyer, refuse to connect the dots – somethings are too obvious to ignore. After all, how else do we explain a Commissioner in America’s drunkest city (that’s right Milwaukee, it’s you) giving a pass to America’s drunkest manager as he began this season asleep at the wheel – and watched one of his charges drink himself to death? How does happen unless you’ve something to do with moving that bottom line from $1 billion to $6 billion.
- When Barry Bonds became baseball’s biggest star for the second or third time (it gets confusing – the media seek to bury him so often…sometimes under Ken Griffey, Jr; sometimes under Will Clark; sometimes under Andy Van Slyke; sometimes under Michael Vick), the Commissioner of the game had no problem with publicly trashing him. Now is that because McGwire (not unlike Giambi) is an over-sized oaf with a limited vocabulary? Or is it because he’s a nice guy?
Whatever the justification, Richard Justice wrote this piece in 2006 – setting the table for the end of the Bonds era. But imagine if this time frame known as the Steroids Era was handled just a bit differently.
Barry Bonds is being indicted for allegedly making false statements to federal officials – even while being extended an offer of immunity from prosecution. Of course given his family history, Barry has always played the game for legacy. Money (getting his fair market share) may have been important, but his legacy was always first. I believe that is why, if he is proven to have falsified statements, he would be willing to take the risk. Barry Lamar Bonds knew his legacy as a ball player could not withstand an admission of steroid use – even though owners gave players a wink and a nod back in 1995. They said they saw nothing they needed to be concerned about as an industry. In other words, the business of baseball was/is business and at that time, steroids were the single best tool to increase the attractiveness of the game. Re-read Selig’s comments. It’s all right there. He’s telling you the essence of the decision the owners made – possibly as early as 1993.
It could have been so different. What if the federal government grilled owners for 3 hours and peppered them with questions like:
- Have you ever knowingly contracted the services of a player known to be using steroids? Have you ever sought, employed or retained a player you knew to be a user of steroids? Have you ever provided any means for players in your employ to receive, inject or otherwise use steroids?
- Have any of your management team or franchise employees any knowledge of players who use illegal substances? If so, when did they come into that knowledge? When were you made aware of that by your staff? Upon receipt of that information, what actions did you take?
- Have you ever met with other owners to discuss players who may be users of illegal steroids? Have you discussed the performance of those players before and after steroid use? Have you and other owners discussed the revenues of teams with larger numbers of suspected steroid users?
What if the federal government asked these questions using the grand jury system in 1998 – at the height of the Mark McGwire – Sammy Sosa home run chase? Would the owners have told the truth? Would they have lied to protect themselves, their families, their franchises – their legacies? Would Bud Selig, himself, have come clean about his knowledge of steroid use?
That same Sporting News article from 1995 quoted then San Diego Padres GM, Randy Smith:
“We all know there’s steroid use, and it’s definitely become more prevalent,” Padres General Manager Randy Smith says. “The ballplayers all know the dangers of it. We preach it every year.
“But because there’s so much money to be made these days, guys are willing to pay the price now and will pay the piper later. I can understand it’s a difficult choice for some players. They know it can take five years off their lives, but then they say, ‘OK, so I die when I’m 75 instead of 80.”
If the general manager knows, doesn’t the owner know? If the Padres know, don’t the Dodgers know? If “we all know,” who doesn’t know? The federal government NEVER focused on owners. They never focused on the power brokers who set the table for steroid use in the game as a means to enrich themselves. They never focused on the bottom line of this $6 billion industry. The federal government – and your media – focused on the players, black, white and Afro/Euro/Indio-Latin. Owners were not called to account for what was deemed to be the greatest transgression in the history of sports. And some day, players will understand that there is an enormous difference between player rich and owner rich. Owners are addressed as Mr. Angelos or Mr. Turner or Mr. Selig. Players are still children in a man’s world. They are addressed by their nicknames (“A-Rod”, “Rocket”, etc.) or their first names with all the derision and familiarity of a john slapping his favorite whore on the ass.
Perhaps, if this had been done correctly by the United States Department of Justice, by the attorneys for all parties, by the media – if Troy Ellerman had not leaked sealed testimony (and blamed it on cocaine and alcohol) to ESPN’s newest, shiny employee we would all see a different story. Perhaps the faces of the Steroid Era would not merely include players, dope fiend lawyers, and myopic journalists. Perhaps the list would include owners like George Steinbrenner who sought, employed and retained Jason Giambi because he believed a burly, power-hitting, left-handed paisan would really pack ’em in in the Bronx. Perhaps we could see Peter Angelos who sought, employed and retained potential steroid poster boy Miguel Tejada to attract a new generation of fans who remembered Ripken’s many seasons batting .260 as clearly as “The Streak.” Perhaps we’d see the owner of the Houston Astros, Drayton McLane, Jr. and his stable of Suspectable Injectables: Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell. Surely, we’d see the face of Tony LaRussa and Bill DeWitt, Jr. But can you imagine some hot shot lawyer from DOJ grilling a significant campaign contributor to the President of the United States – a man who has conducted several business dealings with W – and who allegedly informed him of the opportunity to purchase the Texas Rangers?
If you get your news and information from the corporate media in the US, you can forget it. They’re not telling this story. There are ad spots to sell and bills to pay and players to incarcerate. As the Bonds Era draws to a close, an entire nation will have slept right through the Ages of Selig.