(This post was originally published on Baseballgb.co.uk )
Baseball does not get much coverage in the British press, so the recent increase in news stories about the sport could be seen as a positive event. Sadly, it is the issue of drugs that has raised the interest of sports editors in this country. As Barry Bonds edges ever closer to Hank Aaron’s career home run record, the general focus throughout the world on the sport of baseball will increase. The oft-stated idea of “any publicity being good publicity” will be well and truly put to the test over the next month or so.
The Times published a double-page spread on Saturday about Barry Bonds’ chase towards 755, placing it in the context of the importance of statistics within the history of baseball. It is held up in contrast to previous record-breaking events such as Ichiro gaining the record for most hits in a season, Cal Ripken Junior’s consecutive game streak and Joe DiMaggio’s consecutive hitting streak. These are portrayed as records to be admired and treasured; untainted by the allegations of deceit and cheating that swirl around Bonds’ latest attempt to etch himself further into the history books. As the article’s author, Gerard Baker, concludes: “baseball – and a nation – can only look away in embarrassment”.
The home run record chase makes this a very newsworthy topic in its own right, but Bonds’ links to Balco provides sports writers and sports fans around the world with an extra incentive to look on with interest. While many sports fans may not have heard of Barry Bonds, the Balco scandal received widespread publicity. Part of its notoriety is the fact that many of those involved have been punished for their actions. Top track athletes such as Britain’s own Dwain Chambers have seen their careers derailed by positive tests and the chief instigator, Victor Conte, served a four-month prison sentence last year. While Bonds has not been charged or punished for any wrongdoing, the amount of circumstantial evidence that has entered the public domain, alongside his well-publicised links with Conte, have seen the finger of suspicion pointed firmly at him.
It was the clinical, cynical cheating that made the Balco scandal so deplorable. Gaining an unfair advantage is one thing; gaining the advantage while “proving” your innocence by beating the system goes that extra calculated step further. The BBC’s Inside Sport programme that airs tonight will include an interview with Dwain Chambers in which he starkly explains his decision to take steroids. “I didn’t think I’d get caught”, is his answer and it is very revealing. By taking performance enhancing drugs (PEDs), athletes are able to become heroes in the public’s eyes. That this heroic status can partly be gained on the back of such gutless, classless and cowardly behaviour is surely the antithesis of what sport is all about.
Only Bonds himself will know the full truth when he passes Aaron’s record and this is what will make the event such an uneasy spectacle. Do we cheer? Do we boo? Do we remain ambivalent even though he has passed an incredibly important landmark?
It is Major League Baseball as a whole that has to take responsibility for this position. While an individual is responsible for their own decisions, various testimonies (accompanied by common sense) make it clear that the use of drugs in baseball involved more than people acting alone. Whether it’s clubhouse employees acting as go-betweens and suppliers, or simply players/managers/owners deciding to take a blind-eye, there has to be a slightly wider acceptance or indifference to the issue for it to flourish . This isn’t to say that everyone is guilty by association, just to acknowledge that putting individuals to the sword for previous actions isn’t of much worth.
MLB must take overall responsibility for this previous state of indifference. Drug testing was not introduced into baseball until September 2003 and while Balco have sadly proved that no testing programme is fool-proof, having one provides the centre piece to the concept that drugs have no place in the sport. Mark McGwire cut a tragic figure when he refused to “talk about the past” at a congressional hearing in 2005, but MLB has to accept that there was no drug testing programme when he played. More pertinently, 658 of Barry Bonds’ home runs were hit by the end of the 2003 season. How can MLB take a moral position on alleged former drug use during a time when they didn’t conduct any testing?
And that ultimately is the key point. The past is in the past and there is nothing MLB can do to change what went before. All focus should now be on making sure this position is never repeated. A seemingly comprehensive drug testing programme is now in place and this allows the next step to be taken. Laws are bent or broken depending on the collective social opinion of their worth. Baseball will only curtail drug use when it becomes socially unacceptable within the game. That will not (and could not) eliminate drug use entirely, but it will greatly raise the stakes for anyone who wishes to go down that route. Considering both the sporting and health issues that are on the line, we can only hope this position is reached as quickly as possible.
When Barry Bonds hits numbers 755 and 756, it won’t just be America that reflects on the moment. Newspapers around the world will cover the event to some degree, briefly putting Major League Baseball into the conciousness of many sports fans who otherwise would not pay any attention to the sport. The focus will not be on a tremendous sporting achievement, it will be on the rumours of steroid abuse and cheating. Whoever you decide to cast as the heroes and villains, the fact remains that this historically important event will not be celebrated, it will be painfully endured by everyone and everything it has an impact upon. That this most publicised event will overshadow all of the many admirable, awe-inspiring and enjoyable moments of the season is the biggest tragedy of all. Everyone who loves the game can only hope that the matter can be put to rest as quickly as possible and that baseball can finally start to look forward with optimism rather than continue to look back with regret.
Post script –
The Times also ran a two–part interview with Victor Conte recently which makes for very depressing reading. His self-justification and smugness at the “ducking and diving” which allegedly allows athletes to beat the drug-testing system does little to suggest that he has any regrets, despite his declaration that doping is now “a past life” for him. That Conte is back in business providing ten elite sportsmen with nutritional supplements and advice is disturbing. Every man has the right to earn a lawful living, but it’s hard to imagine why any sportsman would want to be associated with him. Conte has consciously not released the names of those ten athletes so whether Bonds is among them is unknown.