Commentary

How Selig could save the game

Updated: February 13, 2009, 1:04 PM ET
By Howard Bryant | ESPN.com

The narrative of the steroids era is nothing if not consistent. The heat is on. The best player in the game has tested positive for steroids, and Bud Selig, the leader of the game, has yet to discuss how he plans to lead the game through this continuing crisis.

On Tuesday, a day after Alex Rodriguez confirmed on national television that he used performance-enhancing drugs from 2001 to 2003, another former MVP, Miguel Tejada, was charged by federal prosecutors with lying to Congress during the 2005 Rafael Palmeiro perjury investigation. He is expected to plead guilty Wednesday.

Bud Selig
Ryan Kelly/Congressional Quarterly/Getty ImagesBud Selig could be remembered as the steroids commissioner regardless of how much MLB prospered under his watch.

It is past time for Selig to recognize that the successes he trumpets -- interleague play, the wild-card format, the explosion of new revenue streams, the World Baseball Classic -- have been enveloped by steroids. The problem is that he does not truly believe this, else he would have acted sooner and more definitively. But here is an immutable fact: Bud Selig, 74 years old, friend of Hank Aaron, will be known only as the commissioner who presided over an era when baseball's greatest players have disgraced themselves, and the front-office executives and field staff were all culpable and did nothing without being forced, all on his watch.

The history major in Selig is betting otherwise, that he will survive surely as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire have not. He is wrong. It is over. The steroids era -- its players, its reputations, its taint, its records -- cannot be saved, but the sport can survive it.

This is no exaggeration.

The commissioner has put in place the strongest testing program available, but only under immense congressional pressure. He has the testing mechanisms, the will and the structure to move forward. He has failed by leaving all the toxic issues to others instead of addressing each directly.

He has left the judging of the players to the court of public opinion.

He has left the punishments to law enforcement and the federal government.

He has left the legacy questions to the Hall of Fame voters.

He has offered no road map of leadership to the questions that people care about the most. How do you determine who is eligible for the Hall of Fame? What do you do about the records?

The history major in Selig knows this: Lyndon Johnson should be remembered as perhaps the greatest domestic legislative president in history. But he is known for one word -- Vietnam.

Bud Selig has taken the game from the Armageddon of a 232-day players strike to its most financially profitable period in history. But if he doesn't move fast, he will be known for one word -- steroids.

If he does not know this, surely his people do. Selig can decide how far down he wants the bottom to drop. If he acts boldly, he can bring his game back into the light and end the steroids era once and for all. The question is whether he has the fiber to do it.

1. Record book

Selig must confront the record books directly by adding an asterisk to the period dating roughly from the 1994 strike to the end of the 2008 season. He must consult with the Hall of Fame, address the era and announce a binding statement that could read:

"During the years ranging from approximately 1994 to 2008, a high number of Major League Baseball players were involved with performance-enhancing drugs. The exact number of players who used these substances will always be unknown, but the impact on the baseball record book has been substantial.

"As such, the records during this period stand as valid but will be marked with an asterisk denoting the unfortunate and unusual circumstances during which they were set. All players who played during this period will be eligible for induction into the Hall of Fame."

If Selig fails to act, he'll relinquish further control over the sport to unpredictable market forces and throw it into chaos. The players who received drugs from a source other than Kirk Radomski or BALCO will be rewarded. The players who used but did not fail a drug test will be rewarded. If he adds the asterisk to the record book, the public and voters can decide, but at least baseball will have attempted to lead.

An asterisk would allow Selig to acknowledge the era for both pitchers and hitters. It would allow records to stand, because the caught aren't the only guilty ones. Home run totals are obviously cause for question, but the sudden resiliency of relief pitchers also is suspect. Of the top 30 all time single-season leaders in appearances (85 or more), 16 have come during the post-strike era.

The steroids era would be another one in baseball history marked by an asterisk, albeit an invisible one. Baseball can be broken down by the asterisks of simple years. For example, 1920 was the first year of the live ball, and 1947 was the first year of integrated baseball. The steroids-era asterisk would be another important demarcating line.

2. Punishment

If Bonds or Clemens is ever convicted of perjury, Selig has a relatively easy choice when placing them on the Baseball Hall of Fame's ineligible list, but once again he will be reacting to an outside agency -- the federal government -- instead of carving his own leadership path.

Even if Bonds is acquitted, it does not mean he is innocent, for baseball is not bound to identical standards as law. Selig also has precedent to act. The infamous Black Sox, it should be noted, were acquitted by a court of law, yet to this day, nearly 100 years later, are still ineligible for the Hall of Fame.

Federal prosecutors have positive steroid tests from Bonds, who has admitted he has used performance-enhancing drugs. What he has not admitted is whether he did so knowingly. So cut through the red tape: The all-time home run leader used performance enhancers. That is a fact.

But if he is acquitted (or if Clemens is never even charged), there will be no clear guidelines for voters to consider their Hall of Fame credentials besides their tainted (or allegedly tainted) numbers. Neither will have failed an official drug test during the punitive stages of testing, and neither will have been convicted by a court of law.

But both have much to answer for.

The same is tangentially true of Palmeiro, who tested positive for steroids and was investigated for but never charged with perjury.

Still, baseball has been clear with the Black Sox. It has been clear with Pete Rose. The rules might not be universally accepted, but they are clear: Both are on the Hall of Fame-ineligible list.

It had been suggested that anyone convicted by the federal government during its assault on steroid use should be immediately placed on the list. This is an unfair and inappropriate punishment because the federal government has focused only on BALCO and the Kirk Radomski distribution case, and also because steroids are available from thousands of sources. In terms of punishment for past transgressions, the public shame and legal action are sufficient.

For the future, Selig should announce that any player who fails a drug test beyond the 2008 season may be subject to having an asterisk affixed to whatever future records he might set.

3. Fairness

Inevitably, there will be questions about fairness, of how impossible it is to paint so wide a canvas with one brush. Cal Ripken Jr. played during the steroids era, as did Rickey Henderson, Tony Gwynn, Derek Jeter and Greg Maddux. What have they done, the question will be asked, to have an asterisk placed next to their accomplishments?

The answer is not what they did, but what they did not do. They did not question the direction of their game. They did not question their leadership to produce a different course of action. They did not take a stand. With some notable exceptions -- Frank Thomas, Jeff Kent -- players did not care enough about their legacies to fight from being tainted as well.

Jeter, the captain of the Yankees, understood to be clean, did not demand something be done to ensure that his accomplishments not be tainted. Ken Griffey Jr., also thought to be clean, did not stand up for himself and demand accountability from his peers or from his union, if for no other reason than to protect his name and integrity.

And Bonds, angry that lesser players such as Sammy Sosa and McGwire were receiving more acclaim and credit for saving baseball, did not say publicly or privately to his union, "These guys are using steroids, and it has to stop, because look what it's doing to the game and to me." Instead, knowingly or "unknowingly," he started using, too.

The players did not in large enough numbers challenge Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, or Gene Orza, the union's chief operating officer, to think about steroids not only as a privacy issue but also as a cheating one. As former MLBPA head Marvin Miller always said to the players, "This is not my union; it's yours."

And some players, such as Curt Schilling, talked big until it was time to say something important. For Schilling, that time came on March 17, 2005, the day of McGwire's denouement. Schilling backed away under oath from his outrage that the game -- and, by extension, his accomplishments -- had been devalued by steroids.

Those players might not have used, but they are not innocent parties, either, because of the money they've earned. Steroids produced big numbers and big money. The players who did not use steroids nevertheless benefited from steroid use because staggering offensive numbers became the hallmark of the steroids era. Those numbers raised the salaries of all players, regardless of whether they were steroid users. The salary ceilings and floors were performance-enhanced as well.

Former baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banished the Black Sox for fixing the 1919 World Series, and his words could be applied to the steroids era. The users are guilty; the nonusers are accountable for not stopping the guilty. They all pay together.

"Regardless of the verdict of juries," Landis wrote, "no player who throws a ballgame, no player that undertakes or promises to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it, will ever play professional baseball."

The players got to keep their money, but all of them failed in choosing the credo, "What happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse," instead of that of the Old West: "You ride with an outlaw, you die with an outlaw."

This is the choice that belongs to the commissioner. It is a painful one and certainly is not easy, but by acting in a bold, sweeping manner, Selig could finally contain the issue. The Hall of Fame questions would be settled. The records would be settled. Rookies entering the game in 2009 would have a fresh start. So would baseball.

What Selig does not seem to fully grasp is that his legacy will not be defined by the $17.5 million he earned for himself last year or the $6.6 billion in revenue the game produced last year. If nothing else, the money will be one more strike against him. He became richer than any commissioner in the history of professional sports but contributed to the low standard of confidence that is ruining the game. He has proven he can make his partners and himself fabulously rich.

As of today, you'll have to leave it at that.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine. He is the author of "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball," and "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn3.com.