Who could blame them, right? It was the summer of 1998, and everywhere you turned, there it was. Fans watched Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire chase history. Balls were flying into the stands, hot dog sales were up and eyes were glued to television sets around the country. It was exactly what Major League Baseball needed. A race to get fans interested again after the strike-shortened season of 1994.
There were those who questioned it at the time. How could it ever be legitimate? McGwire was once a tiny rookie with the Oakland Athletics and a decade later, turned into the St. Louis Slugger with gargantuan arms and an acne-laden neck. Sosa was also noticeably bigger, but why pay attention to that? The race was filling up seats and MLB was making money. At that point, Commissioner Bud Selig may or may not have known about the steroid problem – but one thing’s for sure, he knew where the money was coming from.
In the end, that’s what it was about. No one seemed to care what was going on in the locker rooms as long as home runs were being smacked at record rates. Now, it looks like the mess might finally catch up to baseball.
It began with one sad individual with major credibility problems. Jose Canseco, whose book “Juiced” recounted steroid use in baseball, became the catalyst that woke up the United States government.
The panel of players gathered, looking sterile and scary like a bunch of tobacco company executives, in front of the Committee on Government Reform. For nearly 12 hours two weeks ago, McGwire, Sosa, Canseco, Curt Schilling and Rafael Palmeiro sat at a long oak table on Capitol Hill, “answering” questions about steroid use. However, they offered nothing we hadn’t heard before.
Members of the committee took turns chastising, and the “all-stars” essentially curled up and hid. But to most, it was expected. Almost every member on the panel tried to get out of the hearing.
That day, C-SPAN looked like Saturday Night Live. Sosa, who has proven himself proficient in English after 15 years of professional baseball, brought a translator. Schilling, who once said steroids are rampant in baseball, claimed he didn’t witness the use of the drugs first hand. McGwire sat, big glasses resting on his nose, now-smaller biceps visible through his suit, repeated the same legally sound phrase.
“I am not here to talk about the past.”
Mr. McGwire had to be reminded on several occasions that this committee, the same type that investigated Watergate, was supposed to oversee the past.
But the true criminals in this whole situation are bigwigs. The lineup of Selig, Director of the Players’ Association Donald Fehr, and executive vice president Rob Manfred were just as bad as the players.
Rep. Christopher Shays, the vice-chairman of the committee, brought the fundamental problems of the situation to the surface. Under current rules, players are allowed five strikes before suspension. Fines can only be levied between $10,000 and $15,000. In essence, Shays said, players have five chances to break the law before they are held accountable by their league.
That’s not the worst part. Use of marijuana is not an offense that can result in suspension. So what can these players get in trouble for? Commissioner Selig said he doesn’t recall suspending anyone for any of these violations.
Lynn Westmoreland, a first-term Georgia congressman, was in absolute shock. He looked at Selig and said a lot of criminals in his district would like these policies and frankly, so would I. To know that a criminal offense would practically go unpunished by my employer would be a pretty comfortable feeling.
To trust that baseball can clean up its own mess is asking too much from an organization that has ignored federal laws for some time. Currently, baseball enjoys an anti-trust exemption, which allows revenue sharing and monopoly-like economic conditions in order to maximize Major League Baseball’s cash flow.
Maybe that will make them care, because in the end, only one thing matters, and it’s certainly not the law. As long as the money is coming in, steroid ignorance is bliss for baseball officials.