Saturday, April 28, 2007

Reality Bites: Exhibit A

We have a problem accepting reality when it threatens our preferred historical narrative.

Exhibit A is Kirk Radomski.

As reported today above the fold in the New York Times, Radomski, now 37, has admitted in federal court to distributing a range of performance enhancing drugs––including anabolic steroids, amphetamines and human growth hormone––as a batboy and equipment manager in the clubhouse of the New York Mets during the period 1985-1995.

Perhaps Radomski’s admission can bring to an end the roiling debate over the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, to say nothing of the rest of professional sports. If a 15-year-old batboy was distributing drugs in the Mets clubhouse to “dozens of players,” one can safely conclude that the practice was pervasive.

This is not a Claude Rains moment. Learning of Radomski’s admission, no one can reasonably be “Shocked, shocked, that there were illegal drugs being used in baseball.” After all, any baseball fan worthy of the name read Jim Bouton’s classic Ball Four, which exposed––among other crude habits––the widespread use of amphetamines––or “greenies”––in the Yankees clubhouse during the 1963 and 1964 seasons. And while Bouton’s revelations about America’s heroes earned him the enduring enmity of his teammates and the Yankees organization, no one seriously challenged the veracity of his claims.

Today, several years after the Senate charade that marched players before the cameras to buttress the careers of the Senators and destroy those of the players, Mark McGwire is still pilloried for declining to state what everyone knew, his bash-brother Jose Canseco is still shunned for stating what everyone knew and writing a book about it, and the Baseball Commissioner and team owners who deflected questions from the Senators with the skill of cigarette company executives, still invoke the name of Senate titan George Mitchell as their agent in their efforts to “get to the bottom of the situation.”

Well, maybe the image of the 15-year-old Radomksi offering up anabolic steroids and methamphetamines to Ray Knight and Mookie Wilson and David Cone will finally allow people to come to grips with the long history of drug use in Major League locker rooms, and cease the fatuous effort to lay baseball’s problem with performance-enhancing drugs at the feet of McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds. The impact of money on the purity of America’s Game dates back at least to the Black Sox scandal in 1919, and the casual use of illegal drugs in the clubhouse dates at least to the early 1960s. The advent of free agency, and the ensuing growth in player performance-based compensation, magnified the incentives for players to seek out ways to improve their performance. And as Radomski and Bouton both suggest, the teams were co-conspirators in the effort.

Radomski’s “revelations” are particularly timely, as the ongoing steroid drama is reaching its apotheosis. One day over the next few months, Barry Bonds will break Hank Aaron’s long-standing home run record, and Bonds pursuit of Aaron’s record has become a national morality play. Hank Aaron is an historic figure in American sports, a man who endured the barbs of the civil rights struggle, and yet remains a figure of stature and grace. In contrast, Barry Bonds is, well, Barry Bonds. Surly and aloof, Bonds is widely vilified as a cheater and remains the protagonist in the steroid controversy. Major League Baseball, which profited greatly from the race between McGuire and Sosa to break Roger Maris’ single season home run record, is at a loss about how and whether to recognize Bonds when he hits home run 756. Aaron himself refuses to acknowledge Bonds, and Aaron’s disdain supports those who view Bonds as the villain in the drama.

The fact is, however, that Barry Bonds is not destroying America’s Game. America’s Game is an American game, part of our commercial popular culture, with its rules and rewards. It is possible that Barry Bonds may have outstripped his peers in his use of steroids––as he has in all other aspects of the sport––and certainly today’s Barry Bonds physically bears little comparison with the Barry Bonds who came into the League. However, the same can be said of Roger Clemens, and other players whose records are steadily displacing those of players from earlier eras.

As one looks back over the past 40 years, it is impossible to know who benefited and who did not from performance-enhancing drugs, and therefore how their records should be compared. Bonds vs. A-Rod? Clemens vs. Maddox? Ricky Henderson vs. Maury Wills. In each case, the first player seems the more likely beneficiary than the second. We only know from the testimony of Radomksi, and the supporting observations of Bouton and Canseco, that the opportunity was there, and that many took advantage. Yet no player has been targeted, vilified and ostracized like Bonds.

As the Bonds drama unfolds, we will most certainly continue to recite the preferred narrative––that Barry Bonds is a unique villain in this saga, rather than just the most recognized actor in what has been a decades-long play in which many are complicit. New York fans will certainly prefer to cling to their image of Lenny Dykstra as a hard-scrapple, tobacco-chewing, throw-back player, and view today’s story as an aberration. Others will argue that unlike Bonds, Dysktra and the other heroes of summers’ past were the unwitting victims of team doctors and trainers, and perhaps even an occasional 15-year-old batboy, pushing their wares.

But as it ain’t so. It just ain’t so.