Bud Selig Needs to Own Up To Baseball’s Complicity in PED Era
Hey, Bud, let’s party!
Oh, Spicoli, you cad, if only you had known that I’d someday be using your dude-broism for a baseball column. Not sure how the mummified remains masquerading as Sean Penn would feel about that, but as I’m quite sure he’ll never read this, I’ll not venture a concern.
It truly is a time for celebration, as four deserving men were named to the 2015 Major League Baseball Hall of Fame call class. Voting has consumed much of the conversation these past few days, with talk surrounding the validity of given candidates’ worthiness of entry into the hallowed confines of Cooperstown. I even joined the fray by sharing my own votes for the IBWAA Hall of Fame.
I’ll assume you’ve not read my fantastically interesting piece linked above yet (though if you’d like to take a moment now, I won’t mind; I’ll still be here when you get back), so I’ll break it down. I had Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens in but I left Sammy Sosa out.
As you can see, I’m not in the don’t-let-any-accused-users-in crowd. That’s not to say I condone cheating, but rather that I’ve chosen not to make the decision on a player’s candidacy based on what he may or may not have done to gain an advantage. I try to look at what he did relative to his peers.
In that sense, perhaps I’ve given Sosa short shrift. Ryan Davis’s earlier post made several valid points that I am forced to think on a bit. Likewise, Gunther Dabynsky took me to task over my somewhat obtuse view of Slammin’ Sammy’s forfeiture of his second language when faced with a Congressional hearing, and for good reason.
Still, I can’t help feeling that Sosa’s seeming lack of compunction when it comes to the way he left Chicago and his alleged cheating (lest we forget, the guy corked his bat too) are more than a little irksome. Were I Drax the Destroyer, this would be reason for me to remove the offender’s spine. But that’d be murder, pretty much the worst crime there is, and not befitting of the crime.
Guardians of the Galaxy references aside, I’ll move on. I have also played the “pharmaceutical advantages have been employed for decades” card, figuring it to be trump, even if only one of middling value. If you’re on the Twitters, you can check my timeline from roughly 7-10pm EST to see how that went.
But as the conversation went on, in some cases with real people but mostly with those in my own head (I’m so happy, ’cause today I found my friends!), I began to come around to a bit of a different way of thinking. I’m starting to think that Sammy not only belongs in the Hall, but that baseball really owes it to him to induct him. Mark McGwire too.
Just look at that featured image: I can just see Bud Selig thinking, “Just…a…little…closer. Need…to…get…knife…in…back.”
Let’s go back in time to 1994. Baseball was at its zenith, enjoying the highest average attendance in the game’s history at around 31,000 fans per game. That’s nearly 72% to capacity, representing a jump of over 20% (and about 10,000 fans) from just ten years earlier.
Then August 12th came and the boys of summer took their bats and balls and went home. The game wouldn’t resume until April 2, 1995 after 223 days, 948 cancelled games, and the loss of the would-be magical season of the Montreal Expos. Major League Baseball became the first professional sports league to lose an entire postseason to a labor dispute.
But even when the players returned, all was not well. The public that had so recently supported the National Pastime was jaded and attendance in 1995 dropped by nearly 12%, or 6,000 fans per game, from the previous year.
People had slowly begun to creep back to the game over the next couple of years, but it was the ’98 season that is largely credited for reigniting America’s love affair with baseball. That wet, hot American summer was no chaste courtship though; the visceral tryst that ensued was proof that it’s just chicks that dig the longball.
As Mike McGwire and Sammy Sooser traded moon-shots and shots of…well, surely nothing stronger than milk, Alan H. Selig sat up in his ivory tower and rubbed his hands together in maniacal Burnsian pleasure. Owners saw profits margins increase as turnstiles clicked ever faster. And the fans ate it up, loving every moment with suspicion but a fleeting wisp in the warm breeze.
I know I bought into McGwire’s androstenedione excuse, though I later believed it a clever and effective red herring for what was really going on (then again, I’m the kind of conspiracy theorist who thinks The Interview being pulled from theaters was at least partially a publicity stunt). After all, he’d always been a pretty big guy, right?
I loved seeing Sosa do his patented hop each of the 66 times he went yard, his bulging pythons extending above his V-shaped torso in a showcase of hard work and the totally normal and natural mesomorphic maturation. Out with the jheri curl, in the bicep curls, simple as that.
The home run got us excited about baseball once again, aroused a passion for the game that many might have thought gone for good. But there we were, coming out in droves once more to watch a sport that had been teetering on condemnation only three years prior.
But as more time passed and baseball got its sea legs back under it again, the infatuation started to fade into old-hat familiarity. We started to notice that heads and feet were growing right along with the home run and RBI numbers and guys just weren’t aging like they used to. Part of what makes baseball so great is its inherent imperfections, the fact that it’s a game of failure.
But those flaws were being buffed away with so much cream and clear-coat. Or was it flaxseed oil and vitamin B? Skinny leadoff hitters were blasting 50 home runs and being featured in supplement ads (Brady Anderson) and second basemen were mashing 37 homers and 141 RBI and having their offseason workouts featured in SI for Kids (Bret Boone).
The villagers who had once cheered the exploits of these various behemoths began to take up torches and pitchforks in anger over what they had done to the game. All the while, Dr. Frankenselig remained cooped up in his castle feigning innocence and counting the money from his continued orchestration of the game.
Remember earlier when I said that I have a problem with Sosa’s lack of compunction? Well that’s nothing compared to Bud, who sees even less reason to be contrite. After all, he’s not only the man who brought his sport back from the precipice, he’s also the guy who cleaned it up. Never mind that he essentially cast aside all those upon whose broad backs he rebuilt his empire.
And it’s not just Selig who has the exploits of Sosa, Bonds, McGwire, et al. to thank for his continued employment and prestige. Like it or not, the sport as a whole benefited greatly from what is now perceived by many as a bunch of cheats who sullied the reverence of a game in which cheating has forever been lauded and encouraged.
I should slow down now, lest I try to make a circularly logical argument that a needle is no worse than a nail file or a pill the same as pine tar. But the point I’m attempting to make is that baseball owes much of its relatively halcyon status to men who are now considered pariahs.
The BBWAA and the Hall of Fame have no direct connection to MLB, so nothing Bud Selig says or does can force the hands of those who cast either votes or plaques, but I do believe he owes all of us an apology of sorts. We deserve an admission that baseball was not only the benefactor of rampant PED use, but that it was complicit in it as well.
After all, what is turning a blind eye but a willingness to allow a certain behavior to go unchecked. And in those terms, I must also point the fat finger of blame at myself, and probably some of you as well. The ink and quill responsible for transcribing revisionist history are quite powerful though, so it’s possible that many supporting narratives have been overwritten.
But unless we delete all the footage, there’s no denying the way Busch and Wrigley shook through that whole magical summer and how we all felt watching 139 horsehide spheres leap over walls and into our collective imagination. The joy, the awe, the pure excitement that imbued us with the energy of a handful of greenies can’t ever be truly forgotten or destroyed.
Like it or not, cheaters brought baseball back. The game had been torn asunder, and those men were the expert tailors who sewed it back together with 108 stitches of crimson thread. Perhaps at some point, time will see fit to polish off the tarnish they all willingly opened themselves up to. We do, after all, have a tendency to romanticize the past.
But with many of the greatest players of the last two decades living under a gray cloud that would make Schleprock feel good by comparison, it’s unlikely that E.L. James will be writing their redemption stories anytime soon. Still, there is something that can be done, impotent though it may be in the grand scheme.
Because it’s not just the fans to whom Selig owes an apology, it’s the players too. The players who he tacitly encouraged to get bigger, to hit more home runs, to make more money (for him and for the owners) and then swiftly persecuted when his ends had been met.
Isn’t that all we wanted from Pete Rose? From Bonds and McGwire? And, although it’s the wrong sport, from Lance Armstrong? I’m a forgiving person, but I’m unwilling to open my arms and embrace someone if they are not able to admit their faults.
And as far as I’m concerned, Bud Selig’s legacy is no better than those of the players who will likely languish on BBWAA ballots, lacking the requisite 75% approval from a group of anachronistic scribes who just can’t seem to get out of their own way. Yet he’ll be lauded by many as the man who helped to curtail that which he helped to instigate. Funny, isn’t it?
So this is my personal plea to Mr. Selig: please, as you leave your role with Major League Baseball, just acknowledge that you saw what was going on with these ballooning bodies and swollen stats and you simply looked the other way. Admit that you knew it was best for baseball to just leave well enough alone and ride the wave.
Baseball’s been berry, berry good to you but steroids were berry, berry good to baseball too and it’s high time you went ahead and owned up to that. It might not get someone like Sosa into the hall, but it’ll help me sleep better at night. And you know how I relish the proper modulation of my circadian rhythms.
Alas, I fear my request will go begging as Selig walks out of his office and into the annals of history. But I do feel a bit better already, have exorcised a few of my demons with a few literary squat-thrusts. I can’t fully condone what those players did in pursuit of greatness, but neither can I forget the unadulterated childlike joy they brought me as a result.
I can’t expect all of you to share my thoughts or to be swayed by anything that I’ve said, be it blatant or–all too often–cryptically esoteric. But I do hope that perhaps I’ve encouraged you to see a different perspective or to remember a time when you saw how pure the game was in spite of, because of, its flaws.
And in that, baseball shows us ourselves. We may not ever forgive the men who we feel wronged our game, but perhaps we can start to look more closely at how they righted it.