Saturday, August 11, 2007

Baseball’s Celebrity Witch Hunt Misses Mark

Sports of The Times
August 12, 2007


Chipper Jones did not take nearly enough heat for putting Alex Rodriguez into the conversation with Barry Bonds, and that was before Rodriguez gave Jones a pass here Friday night, insisting that Jones, his old friend from when they were Florida high school prodigies, “didn’t say anything out of order.”

Rodriguez’s manager, Joe Torre, said he read Jones’s comments about steroid questions and public trust last week in the New York newspapers and that it was, as Jones fumed afterward, simply another case of those evil tabloid people not synchronizing their headlines and articles.

“He said that anybody is going to come under scrutiny, get asked questions,” Torre said. “And that is true.”

Anybody, apparently, attempting something special, like chasing Bonds, as A-Rod is said to be in the process of doing. He was at 503 homers for his career and 39 for the season, after two two-run blasts in the scorching Yankees’ 11-2 lockdown of the Indians. But is that what the sanctioned and much-ballyhooed investigation, led by former Senator George J. Mitchell, is all about? Pursuing royalty? Protecting records?

If it is, then the pending report will not be an honest accounting of baseball’s implicit acceptance of performance enhancement while other sports were at least acknowledging and legislating against the scourge. It will be a celebrity witch hunt, a few famous heads for the commissioner, Bud Selig, to mount on his wall.

Why investigate that way at all when baseball has the exiled crusader Jose Canseco dropping a big name here, another there, as he shamelessly shops another book proposal, by way of the public?

My guess, my hope, is that Mitchell understands that the essence of his work has been to examine the core issues of a bastardized culture, explain how baseball as an industry injected itself with the belief that steroids — like peanuts and Cracker Jack — were staples of the sport.

It should be apparent to everyone by now that the Popeyes who blew past Maris and Ruth and Aaron were far from the only major leaguers spiking their spinach. In the nontesting era, there was so much to be gained, nothing (it seemed) to be risked, from going on the juice even if you weren’t tracking history or the Hall of Fame.

“It’s just so far-fetched, the numbers that those guys are putting up,” Jones said during his Bonds-Rodriguez seminar. “And a lot of it comes from the era that they’re playing in.”

Yes, the home run chases and the subsequent revelations put the spotlight on the sluggers, but why is their enhancement, alleged or admitted, more morally reprehensible than anyone else’s?

One career year by an average player on the threshold of free agency could bring the contract of a lifetime. A few chemical boosts could mean the difference between major league perks and minor league misery. If cheating is cheating, the same at all institutional levels of productivity, then why would A-Rod, as Jones said, have to “answer the questions” more than others achieving the unexpected or the extraordinary?

Jorge Posada is hitting .338 this season — or 51 points higher than his career best — with his 36th birthday coming this week. Beyond baseball’s drug-testing program, should he have to “answer the questions” of the legitimacy police? Should Hideki Matsui have to explain his July power surge? Should Joba Chamberlain, 21, with a body type that Roger Clemens didn’t grow into until he was past 30, have to convince us that his 99-mile-an-hour fastball is au naturel?

Before serving a one-game suspension Friday night, Torre said he interpreted Jones’s comments to mean that “anybody is going to come under scrutiny.” But Jones didn’t talk about anybody. He connected A-Rod to Bonds and was shocked when headlines rolled off the presses. How naïve is that?

Jones cited suspicions about A-Rod that were raised self-servingly in a recent radio interview by Canseco, while adding that he was inclined to believe that A-Rod’s home run numbers were pure — which is akin to calling a news conference to announce that your so-called friend probably doesn’t beat his wife.

This isn’t to say Canseco’s first literary work wasn’t enlightening, on the money, with arguably greater impact than the journalistically brilliant “Game of Shadows.” Without Canseco, maybe there is no March 2005 Congressional hearing on steroids, and Mark McGwire winds up sitting between Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn last month in Cooperstown, N.Y.

But let’s not forget that Canseco has an agenda, and knows what he has to do to keep himself relevant: Drop names, big names; and feed the insatiable public appetite for celebrity news. Jones should not have played along. It wasn’t fair to A-Rod, and it didn’t raise the more important institutional questions the Mitchell investigation had better answer.



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