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Monday, February 16, 2004
 



WHAT'S WORSE FOR BASEBALL -- A-ROD TO THE EVIL EMPIRE OR THE BREWING STEROID SCANDAL?


This seemed like a logical question to pose to the WB Wildcats, given the furor surrounding the trade of the best player in baseball to the team whose budget never sleeps, and given the uneasiness brewing over who shot what into whose veins when. And Chuck Hirshberg, our resident socialist, tried to answer -- after a fashion.

However, as always, the WB is nothing if not unruly. And so Tim Keown and Patrick Hruby responded to Chuck by explaining why, in fact, both the A-Rod trade and the steroid scandal were good for baseball. Kids. What can you do with them?

Eat your cake! | From Chuck Hirshberg

Happy Presidents Day, 'Cats!

Which is worse? Neither. They're both symptoms of the same disease.

People say that baseball is a business, but it's really not. The shampoo industry is a business: Dozens of brands compete for your dollar and if you buy a product that makes your hair fall out, you stand a good chance of getting your money back, because screwing the public is ... bad for business.     But in baseball, screwing the public is the name of the game. It's a government-sanctioned monopoly, run by a cartel of owners and a cartel of  players.  Everything that ought to be unregulated -- such as the number of teams and where they get to play -- is regulated. That means there's no competition, nothing to hold costs down. At the same time, everything that ought to be regulated -- like the use of androgenic steroids -- is, for all practical purposes, unregulated.

It's pointless to try to solve these problems one-by-one. There's an old Jewish folk tale about a grotesquely fat king who was such a tyrant, everyone was afraid of him. He had a special fondness for cake and grew so fat on it that one day he was unable to get up from his throne. So he ordered his all-cake lunch to be brought before him and, while stuffing his face, demanded his princes figure out a way to make him thin.  With considerable fear, the princes explained that if his majesty ever wished to be thin again, he must stop eating cake.

Alex Rodriguez
A-Rod to the Yankees? Ahh, but a sympton of a larger problem.

The king was so annoyed by this answer that he immediately had his princes beheaded. But he also figured they were probably right, so he also beheaded every baker in his realm. Henceforth, he decreed, no cake would be allowed anywhere in his kingdom! And to celebrate this edict, he ordered a roast suckling pig, ate it from tail to snout, and washed it down with a bucket of cream.    

Get it? The problem wasn't cake; it was gluttony. The problem with baseball is neither salaries, nor steroids. It's the ghastly system of public exploitation and graft we call MLB, and it's not likely to change. Why not? Well, for starters, one of the most unscrupulous plantation owners ever to suck millions of dollars from that ghastly system is currently the President of these United States.  That means the goons who are destroying our National Pastime have a little more influence than the rabble of fans who want to save it.

    Like I said: Happy Presidents Day.

Eat your cake! | From Tim Keown

So the broadest and most imaginative minds in the WB brain pan rolled out a simple question for this Monday morning: What's worse for baseball, the burgeoning drug scandal or the trade of Alex Rodriguez to the Yankees?

Perfectly legitimate question, but let's ask two obvious follow-ups: 1) why is the Balco/THG/steroids issue perceived to be primarily a baseball issue?; 2) how can anything that nearly reeks of loud desperation -- we're talking the A-Rod trade here -- possibly be construed as bad for baseball?

First, the focus is on baseball because one of Barry Bonds' hired bicep enhancers is on the indicted list. Greg Anderson allegedly distributed illegal drugs, and the records he left behind indicate he might not have been much of a housekeeper. Forget the fact that four Oakland Raiders tested positive for THG, and forget that many of the names associated with the Balco operation were athletes attempting to make the Olympic track team.

No, the problem is baseball, probably because everyone has long accepted the presence of laboratory products in the bloodstreams of football players and Olympians but retains some ill-conceived notion regarding baseball's purity. Look at the people who participate in football and track: 300-pound men with seven percent body fat, female sprinters with more chest hair than Pete Incaviglia.

Drugs? No ... you think?

But baseball, we can't stomach the prospect of chemically enhanced home runs. There's history to consider. More accurately, there's nostalgia to consider -- everybody over 40 wants to believe Bonds and Sosa and McGwire couldn't possibly have exceeded the accomplishments of Mantle and Aaron and Ruth, unless they were partaking of something stronger than pure mountain air.

Baseball is fathers playing catch with sons, for God's sake, so how can someone tar it with syringes and drugs when every little boy dreams of taking the field at Dodger Stadium on a warm July night with the Giants in town?

The Yankees are kind of like the hairy female Olympians of the baseball world. Everything associated with them is reflexively perceived to be bad, bad, bad. A-Rod the Yankee, bad for baseball? My interest in this season increased about 50 percent the second I heard the news of the trade. The Yankees have to win now, and there's nothing like that special brand of Steinbrenner-induced desperation to whip up some good old-fashioned hysteria.

Did Joe Torre's job just get infinitely easier or infinitely harder? How long before someone wonders how you justify moving a Gold Glove shortstop to third base when he's significantly better defensively than the current job-holder? What happens if they don'twin?

That's not bad for baseball, that's great theater, delivered daily.

Eat your cake! | From Patrick Hruby

Tim's right. The Yankees getting Alex Rodriguez is great for baseball the way the Lakers signing Gary Payton and Karl Malone is good for the NBA, or Duke adding McDonald's All-Americans in the manner of Rosie O'Donnell super-sizing her order is good for college basketball. Sorry, Chuck, but viva gluttony. It's the sports sin that makes us hate. Hate leading to interest. Interest generating revenue, ratings and ink. And that's just in Boston.

Think of it this way: What's "Star Wars" without Darth Vader? Batman without the Joker, Bush without Clinton, Kerry without Bush? Never underestimate the power of anti-fandom, of vitriolic dislike. Of attack ads, Willie Horton, talk radio. Forget a team to root for. Give us something to root against. Something to gripe about.

Admit it: You want the Yankees of the sports world on that wall. You need them on that wall. Otherwise, a Marlins victory wouldn't have tasted so sweet. March Madness would be as compelling as the Outback Bowl. And sports in general would be a lot like this year's nail-biting but oddly ho-hum Super Sunday. Folks in New England and Carolina were talking about the game; the rest of the country was fixated on the unexpected deployment of Janet Jackson's passenger-side airbag.

What does that tell you about the emotions evoked by the teams involved? Admiration, sure. Loathing, no chance. And without it, a decided lack of fun.

Likewise, there's something to be said for a juicy steroid scandal. Simply put, it's an easy opportunity to be sanctimonious, to stand on a phone book and proclaim your superiority to the misguided heathens pounding the pavement all around you. God knows all of us, particularly sportswriters, love that. Just look at the self-righteous opposition to gay marriage, a practice that effects traditional marriage in exactly zero ways. (Come to think of it, maybe gays are better off without the right to marry; this way, they can't enjoy family-strengthening 50 percent divorce rates like the rest of us.)

Point is, people like to shake their heads and tsk-tsk, the better to feel, well, better about their own sorry lives. Such is the appeal of Dr. Phil, of trash celebrity journalism and reality TV. He's dating who? That'll never last. Jessica Simpson said what? What a dope. Of course, that same dopey Simpson is laughing all the way to a bank whose Swiss name she can't pronounce. Once the BALCO smoke clears, who's to say baseball won't be doing the same?