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Bud Cracks Down
By Tom Goldstein

Back in the early nineties, when home runs were flying out of ballparks as if there had been a change in the earth's gravitational pull, there was a lot of talk about juiced baseballs and, when the National League expanded to fourteen teams in 1993, about the watering down of competition in the majors. This talk became especially heated during the 1994 season when several players, most notably Matt Williams of the Giants, seemed poised to make a run at Roger Maris's then thirty-three-year-old single-season home run record. I don't recall any discussion in baseball circles about performance-enhancing drugs or steroids, but my memory of that time period is pretty fuzzy—canceling a World Series will do that to a baseball fan.

In fact, as we've been reminded by Jose Canseco's controversial new book, Juiced, steroid use in baseball has been a known quantity since at least the mid-1980s. Sportswriter Tom Boswell of the Washington Post wrote a column in 1988 alleging that Canseco was using steroids, and that same year crowds in Boston taunted Canseco with chants of "Steroids! Steroids!" during the ALCS.

So it's more than just a bit disingenuous for Major League Baseball officials to claim, in the wake of congressional hearings held in March, that they've been very aggressive about trying to crack down on steroid use and keep the game free of performance-enhancing drugs. Sure, baseball adopted a tougher steroid-testing program in January, but that was only in response to the furor caused by advance publicity for Canseco's book. Otherwise, do-nothing Commissioner Bud Selig was more than content to leave in place a completely toothless testing regimen that would not have penalized a player until his second infraction for steroid use—and only mandated a year's suspension upon the fifth positive test.

Baseball just can't bring itself to admit that under the Selig regime nothing even close to progress will come about absent a huge public outcry. (And shame on Donald Fehr for letting the players association ignore the issue as long as it did.) Case in point: during the 1994–95 strike/lockout negotiations between the owners and the players, baseball management put forth a "comprehensive proposal on steroid testing" that was ultimately rejected by the players union. Why didn't MLB dig in its heels and insist that some kind of testing program be a part of the new bargaining agreement? According to MLB Executive Vice President Rob Manfred, "No one believed that there was significant steroid use in the game at the time," and the desire to resolve "the economic issues facing the game and getting the game back on the field" thus took precedence over any concerns that baseball might have a new kind of drug problem rivaling the cocaine scandal of the 1980s.

Although Manfred acknowledged before Congress that baseball's "policy on steroids in the 1990s was inadequate and inappropriate," in the same breath he noted that "the federal government's policy on performance-enhancing substances was also deeply flawed." The message? If the government won't act, neither will baseball.

To hear Selig and his minions tell it, however, baseball did as much as it possibly could given the restraints of the collective bargaining agreement. Thus, here is the first paragraph of Manfred's opening statement to the House Committee on Government Reform:

In a perfect world, those of us privileged enough to work in Major League Baseball would have been aware of the use of steroids from the minute it became an issue among our players. In a perfect world, the leadership of Major League Baseball would have had the unfettered right to deal with the problem of performance enhan-cing substances as soon as we became aware of that problem. Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world.

Poetic rhetoric aside, what did the commissioner know and when did he know it? Admittedly, Selig wasn't the commissioner in 1988 when Tom Boswell wrote his piece for the Washington Post regarding Canseco, nor was he commissioner when a dying Lyle Alzado acknowledged in 1991 his abuse of steroids in football. But it is ridiculous, if not bordering on perjury, for Selig to tell Congress that it was only in "the period of time following the 1994–95 strike" that he began to "hear more about the possibility of the use of performance-enhancing substances by players." After all, the owners were trying to get a steroid-testing policy in place during the strike. Does Selig really expect us to believe that the most myopic, backward thinking of the major professional sports only sought such a policy out of concern for the game—and not in response to a problem that insiders knew had existed for some time?

In a word, yes. "It was a sound proposal that reflected foresight on the part of the leadership of the game," Manfred told Congress. Just like baseball has always been on the forefront of innovation concerning integration, collective bargaining, free agency, the designated hitter, cocaine abuse, fan loyalty, promotion of blacks and Latinos, interleague play, and a whole host of other topics. In much the same way that former commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis was able to state during the thirties and forties that Organized Baseball had no "formal policy" prohibiting its member teams from employing black players, Selig can now argue that he took decisive action once the problem of performance-enhancing substances reached his desk. After all, until an informal testing program was introduced in 2003, baseball had no tangible proof of steroid use, right? Only in Bud Selig's universe could such logic pass for truth.

In the grand scheme of life, the fact that talented baseball players with physical gifts would risk their well-being by ingesting or injecting steroids into their bodies is but one of many minor tragedies that occur every day in the world. Compared to famine, tsunamis, the AIDS epidemic in Africa, widespread hunger, or the slaughter in Iraq, the Sudan, and the Middle East, baseball's troubles with steroids—and what impact they may have on the sanctity of some of the sport's most hallowed records—just really aren't that important.

But everything is relative. As fans, we care about what goes on in baseball for the same reason that we care about anything in life: we want that which is most dear to us to be treated with respect. So no matter how silly or trivial baseball may seem in the universe at large, protecting what goes on within the game has value.

In Juiced, Jose Canseco writes that the excitement generated by the McGwire-Sosa home run duel in 1998 came about "[b]ecause the owners had been smart enough not to chase steroid use out of the game, allowing guys like McGwire to make the most of steroids and growth hormone. . . ." And this:

The owners' attitude? As far as I could tell, Go ahead and do it.

And why not? The steroid spectacle was making money for them. It brought the game back to life. Eventually they were going to have to find a way to deal with steroids, but back then they weren't worried about it. They weren't even testing. Instead, they gave players every reason to get bigger and stronger. If the athlete did his part . . . the owners did their part and wrote out the checks—which just kept getting bigger all the time. Everybody was profiting, and they never even had to answer difficult questions. . . . There's a name for that kind of thing: Good business.

I would never suggest that Jose Canseco is a particularly credible spokesperson for the state of the game. But he sure appears to be speaking Bud Selig's language—whatever's good business is good for baseball.

After all, it's Bud who talked incessantly about baseball's "renaissance" in 1998 and used that analogy over and over again in his quest to build a new stadium in every city with a major league team. And it's Bud who had no concern about remaining owner of the Milwaukee Brewers while serving as commissioner, somehow convincing himself that the obvious conflict of interest could be circumvented with the sleight of hand that created a sham blind trust. So why should it surprise us that Bud would turn a blind eye toward steroids? Why kill the golden goose?

In my universe, such thinking is absurd. Illogical. But I don't think Bud and I operate in the same world. As wild as Canseco's allegations may seem, on Planet MLB there's a certain logic to the scheme.

In the end, whatever action baseball takes to deal with this challenge will be based only on protecting the image of the game—and the bottom line—and not out of any concern for posterity or the health risks that steroids pose for players. To feel differently would require Selig (and, for that matter, Donald Fehr) to come down from the clouds and live in the real world.


TOM GOLDSTEIN is publisher of Elysian Fields Quarterly. His planet is earth.

This column first appeared in EFQ 22:2, Spring 2005

© 2005 Tom Goldstein


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