As I write, news has broken that reigning National League MVP Ryan Braun has tested positive for steroids. Most of this was written before that story broke, but I think it underlines my point.

I don’t mean to interrupt what should be the feel-good time of the year – Red Sox tickets went on sale Saturday, and the 2012 team is taking shape – but I have to finish my series that nobody cares about. The other parts of the series are:

“Jack, there's something on everybody. Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption. He passes from the stink of the dydie to the stench of the shroud. There's ALWAYS something.” – Willie Stark, All the King’s Men
That line is from the movie version with Broderick Crawford, not Robert Penn Warren’s novel, if memory serves. Of course memory often doesn’t serve, and that’s why we have history, and the history of baseball tells us one thing definitively.

This game we love is corrupt, and always has been.

If you get a chance, check out The Black Prince of Baseball: Hal Chase and the Mythology of Baseball. Everyone who reads this book says the same thing: the details are fascinating, but there are too many of them. But to the point, Chase was no outlier: fixing games was a common practice. Saint John McGraw was well aware of it and may have participated.

We like to think baseball became popular because it was played in burgeoning American cities like New York, Baltimore, and Boston, and American progress created more leisure time, etc. Not quite. It became popular because people bet on it. The men who played were a far cry from what we would think of as professional athletes. The concept barely existed – there was no NFL, no NBA, and no NHL. In fact there was no Major League Baseball; there was the preposterously named “American League,” then some upstarts began the “National League,” and Chase briefly played in something called the Pacific Coast League. The managers were owners (or part-owners), and they were often showmen like McGraw.

It’s hard to find a modern equivalent, because there isn’t one. It had elements of the circus, the roller derby, and the professional wrestling circuit – which is not to say that the outcomes were predetermined, but it would have been pretty obvious to a team if the other team was tanking. Like the circus, and like professional wrestling (at the level below the televised matches), it was a brutal business. Sanctity of the game? What’s that mean, chump?

In this environment, Chase stood out, because he was the best first baseman anyone had ever seen (this was one point that Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb agreed on), so it was assumed that he could control the outcome of a game by himself. This seems hard to imagine, because Chase hit less than .300 for most of his career, but apparently he was really something to watch on the field. And he was not romantic about the game, or where he played. He followed the money. Hence he was easy to demonize.

American League was a silly name, but an even sillier name was World Series. Now, I’d argue, the World Series has grown into its name, and proudly so. But calling a battle between two teams in 1903 “World Series” was about as logical as me calling my pancakes world famous. In John Sayles’s otherwise great film Eight Men Out, everyone is shocked beyond belief that a team would contemplate throwing the World Series. It’s only shocking if you assume the regular season was honest. It was not.

The Black Sox were a symptom of a corrupt system. Had they truly been outlaws, there would not have been a need to impose a commissioner, the flamboyant Judge Landis, who was no genius. Sayles has choice words for Landis in Ken Burns’s Baseball. To paraphrase from memory: “He was a showboat judge, frequently overruled by higher courts, who finally had a job where he couldn’t be overruled.” But necessity birthed invention: the commissioner needed to be seen as above the game, sort of like when Congress appoints a special prosecutor, so Landis had great power and exercised it when the time came.

Thus, for the next 70 years, we had commissioners. I am finishing up Howard Bryant’s epic book, Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball. I say epic, because it is a sweeping tale, but there are no heroes in it, and no real villains either.

As Bryant tells the story, owners had one major problem with commissioners, especially the last commissioner, Fay Vincent. They tended to think of themselves as caretakers of the game, and forget who they worked for. As I write, the most powerful commissioner in modern sports, David Stern, is taking a lot of heat for nixing an elaborate but (to my mind) pretty fair trade. Stern is not perfect, but he never forgets who he works for. Vincent crossed that line, the owners thought, and for the first time they applied a rule that said the commissioner needs two-thirds approval of the owners in both leagues. In other words, one-third plus one owners in one league could depose him, and they did. Enter Bud Selig, an owner himself.

To be clear, I’m not as big a Selig detractor as some people. He’s made some ludicrous decisions, such as making the All-Star Game determine home field in the World Series (think what that may have done to the Rangers this year), but most Selig calls have been at least defensible. As Buster Olney noted after last year’s just-missed perfect game, 28 men came to bat. By definition, not a perfect game. Selig’s work in making the game more international might really pay off someday. He has tried.

But Bryant’s implication, which I agree with, is that Selig could not possibly police his business partners. When the 1998 McGwire-Sosa home run chase thrilled the nation, it was pretty obvious that something was going on. McGwire’s use of androstenedione briefly became news during the 1998 season, but we didn’t want to hear it. By the time Barry Bonds shattered the home run record just three years later, no one could seriously deny that steroids were in use, if not rampant.

Here’s the thing, though. No one needed to deny it. Steroids were the definition of open secret. According to Jeff Pearlman in The Rocket Who Fell to Earth, Mets catcher Mike Piazza admitted to reporters that he used steroids. But Piazza was a nice guy, and great copy, so it never occurred to the writers to think he was pulling them into the corruption. But, by telling them something was amiss in a way that they couldn’t print, he was.

When was the pure era? When did the sanctity come in? Never. The exclusion of black players is the most obvious thing, and the widespread amphetamine use in the 1970s (to help with the grueling travel schedule) is well known. But there was an interim, golden era of the game, right? Didn’t we just have a Golden Era committee or something?

Rogers Hornsby, great hitter, non-steroid user, admitted cheat.

Not according to Rogers Hornsby. Yes, Hornsby was a crank, and quite possibly a racist who spent time in the Klan, but he also hit .424 one year, and his lifetime stats (.358 batting average) are jaw-dropping, so he knows whereof he speaks. His book My War with Baseball is worth a look. Chapter 9 is called “You’ve Got to ‘Cheat’ to Win.” Here are some excerpts:
And what do you suppose he discovered? Why, his team, the White Sox, had a spy inside the scoreboard who used high-powered binoculars to steal the opposing catcher’s signals on every pitch. Then he’d flash a little red light in the corner of the scoreboard to let the Chicago hitter know whether the pitch was to be a fastball, curve, or whatever.
That isn’t the only way the White Sox cheat. Take, for example, the way they have their infield rigged. In Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio they have the best pair of bunters in the game. Their specialty is bunting down the base lines. Most third basemen, unless they’re sure they have the runner out, try to let the ball roll—and pray it rolls foul. But any time Fox or Apiricio lays one down in the home park it’s got a damn good chance of staying fair. The reason is simple. The Sox have that foul line nicely banked up to keep bunts from rolling out.
When Bill Veeck was President of the Cleveland Indians he went as far as to move the fence in or out before each series, depending on whether the opposing club was a long ball-hitting team. They had to pass a special rule to stop this.
But I don’t blame him or anybody. If I was managing the White Sox I’d tilt those lines too.
[Al] Dark is a good example of the caliber of men who become managers. He was always accused of stealing signals, robbing the opposing team and things like that. San Francisco couldn’t wait to hire him as manager. He made a good manager too, because he didn’t cry about the other team cheating him. He’s just thinking up different ways to rob the Cubs, Phillies and the Braves – the last three teams he played for.
Cassandra, thy name was not always Jose Canseco. It was once Rajah.

In an odd bit of symmetry, the second-to-last independent commissioner, Bart Giamatti, faced the decision of whether to ban a player for gambling, all-time hit leader Pete Rose. He did ban him, for gambling, but the decision and the stress that followed may have contributed to his already fragile health. Would the owners have banned Rose? I doubt it. But Giamatti was right.
Barack Obama invoked Teddy Roosevelt this week. We remember TR for being a trustbuster (among other reasons). But one, and only one, legal monopoly remains in America: Major League Baseball. When it chose Commissioner Selig, the monopoly chose to police itself. Is it any wonder that trouble followed?

As Bryant describes, the trouble was not all steroids. The strike zone shrunk, and hitter-friendly (and therefore pitcher-unfriendly) parks sprung up. The ball may have been messed with after 1987; Selig once sent a deputy to investigate this. As pitchers tell it, all of baseball literally conspired to favor the hitter, because “Chicks love the long ball,” as the famous ad put it. But pitchers are – well, let’s leave it at quirky. A few of them are also known steroid users. Bobby Valentine has a brief cameo in the book, marveling at the phenomenon of pitchers gaining velocity. That was marvelous, but also probably impossible.

Bill James, as quoted by Bryant, says the effects of steroids are almost impossible to quantify, other than with home runs. He notes that Larry Walker, a player for the Colorado Rockies hit over .350 in three straight seasons.
Only six other players had accomplished this in the history of the game, and all – Al Simmons, Joe Medwick, Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, and Joe DiMaggio – were either in Cooperstown or speeding toward it.
Records get broken. Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak was the most untouchable record, it was thought, but then Cal Ripken shattered it by over 500 games. Rickey Henderson’ base-stealing total towers over all others. Mariano Rivera isn’t that far ahead of the underappreciated Trevor Hoffman in saves, but when one looks beyond saves at the deeper numbers, Rivera’s dominance is astounding. And he does it with one pitch.

Look at this page on Baseball Reference: from 1920 to 1993, 74 years, there were 17 seasons or 50 or more home runs. From 2005 to 2011, seven years, there were five of them.
But we have to remember that the game has changed dramatically. Now we have professional athletes, paid millions. We have more teams, and therefore more minor league teams. In short, there are more jobs, but way more competition for those jobs. It’s harder to become a professional, and only great players get through.

Ryan Howard was supposed to be the guy who pulled baseball out of its steroids hangover and made people love it again. That hasn’t happened. People are just complaining about different things, like the length of games.

Here is what I think baseball needs:

A new, independent commissioner. I don’t have a particular person in mind, but it has to be someone who is outside the game, and can be above the game. It can’t be someone like Larry Lucchino or Nolan Ryan.

More stringent penalties. The Landis model of banning, effectively erasing players from the game’s existence, was wrong. We still admire Shoeless Joe Jackson, and we probably remember him more because of the ban. (Without the ban, do you think you would have heard of Chick Gandil or Happy Felsch?) But a commissioner could impose penalties that truly hurt – 100 games for the first offense, full season bans for the second plus a fine imposed on ownership, lifetime bans for the third offense. Or something. Steroids could be made to be not worth it.

A .400 hitter. The aforementioned Mr. Hornsby predicted there would never be another one, but Ted Williams (who also knew a bit about hitting) once said that Nomar Garciaparra could hit .400. Nomar never did, of course, but I prefer Ted’s optimism. A .400 hitter would be thrilling to watch – not at first, perhaps, but over time. What if two players chased .400 at the same time? Glorious.

Purity and sanctity will always elude baseball, which is only right, because people are imperfect. But it is a game, and games are supposed to be fun. If we can’t trust what we’re seeing, it’s not fun.

Jim Corrigan 12/10/2011 09:53:00 PM Edit
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