Is baseball held to a higher standard?

Originally Published: August 4, 2006
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Major League Baseball has a knack for outlasting bad news, as evidenced by its recovery from Pete Rose's gambling problems, Marge Schott's pro-Hitler sentiments, the Pittsburgh drug trials and the San Diego Padres' garish mustard-colored uniforms.

Since the early 1970s, only two concerns have refused to go away. And we're not referring to the twin scourges of artificial turf and the designated hitter.

Issue No. 1 is the elusive quest for labor peace. Baseball has endured eight strikes or lockouts and a canceled World Series in 1994. The lone reprieve came four years ago, when owners and players agreed on a new labor deal just hours before shutdown No. 9.

Issue No. 2 is the steroid scandal. It's an ongoing nightmare that has undermined baseball's statistical footing, thrown a cloud of suspicion over today's players and now threatens to bring chaos to the cradle of immortality in Cooperstown.

Over the next few months, baseball's biggest concerns could both be addressed in a big way or blow up in unison. Just as Barry Bonds' legal entanglements play out and Mark McGwire makes his first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot, the game's collective bargaining agreement will run out in December.

Feel free to take commissioner Bud Selig's recent sunny pronouncements as a positive sign. Here were are, a few months from Armageddon, and the owners just canceled their quarterly meetings in Toronto because they have nothing urgent to discuss. In the absence of saber rattling and agenda promoting by ownership hawks such as David Glass and Drayton McLane Jr., silence never sounded so good.

Still, the next blaring siren is only another steroid bombshell away. First there's Bonds, whose life is playing out like an NC-17 version of the "Truman Show." It's naive to think we've heard the last of disgraced Arizona reliever Jason Grimsley. And McGwire's Hall candidacy is a sure bet to steal attention from the celebration surrounding Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn.

These minefields loom at a generally positive time for the game. As Selig pointed out at the All-Star Game, baseball will generate a record $5.2 billion in revenue this year. Factor in rising attendance, a popular wild-card system, a new TV deal with Fox and the positive impact of the current economic system -- with its luxury tax and increased revenue sharing components -- and the game is in a happy place.

Stodgy old baseball is even thinking outside the batter's box. The World Baseball Classic showed promise as a vehicle to help enhance global growth, and Bob Bowman's MLB.com operation continues to churn out money and innovation.

Heck, the All-Star Game ratings didn't even tank this year -- despite the absence of Manny Ramirez.

But with the continued fallout from the BALCO scandal, baseball is receiving a huge -- and some might say, disproportionate -- share of attention as the whipping boy for performance enhancing drugs. While the stray Floyd Landis or Justin Gatlin might seize the headlines temporarily as sports' resident cheater du jour, it's a virtual lock that the focus will eventually drift back to baseball.

Just for fun, we Googled the words "Bud Selig" and "steroids" and came up with 263,000 matches. A similar search for departing NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue yielded a mere 33,900 matches.

NBA commissioner David Stern's name produced 329,000 matches, including a news story from May 2005 in which lawmakers branded the NBA's drug policy as "rather pathetic" and "a joke." But then, you probably didn't know that, because it was overshadowed by news that Twins reliever Juan Rincon had been suspended 10 games for violating MLB's steroid ban.

Baseball regards the media's obsession with its shortcomings as a compliment of sorts. The game's leaders attribute the attention to the cherished place that the game holds in the hearts and minds of the American public.

"We're held to a higher standard on all those issues, and to some respect, we ought to be grateful that we are," says Chicago Cubs president Andy MacPhail. "It's part of our blessing. The fact that people care is what keeps us going. But it's also a curse, because the expectations are higher."

All of which got us thinking: Is baseball truly held to a higher standard than other sports? Or is its status as a target the result of self-inflicted wounds from incompetence, arrogance or a combination of the two?

ESPN.com asked five people -- political commentator George Will, drug expert Dr. Charles Yesalis, "Game of Shadows" co-author Mark Fainaru-Wada, University of Oregon sports marketing professor Paul Swangard and sports reputation management consultant Mike Paul -- for their take on the question.

Maybe their opinions won't tell you precisely where baseball is headed. But it sure helps explain why the game is where it is today.

American treasure

Say what you will about proclamations that the NFL, with its forward-looking management and harmonious labor relations, has overtaken baseball as the national pastime. When Americans need a hug, they still look to the diamond.

Baseball, more than any sport, helped lift the nation's spirits after the carnage of Sept. 11. Ballparks were more than a source of entertainment; they were a source of comfort.

"Other sports might rival the popularity of baseball, but they're not rooted in the American cultural fabric the way baseball is," Swangard said. "Maybe that's a function of longevity. But it's always been baseball, apple pie and Chevrolet. It certainly wasn't lacrosse, and it wasn't the NBA."

That retro-romanticism helps explain why books on Babe Ruth and Roberto Clemente hit the best-seller lists this summer, and fans were so eager to wave derogatory signs and boo Bonds as he chased the Bambino's 714.

Baseball derives much of its allure from the cachet of its numbers, and any assault on something so sacred is bound to hit a nerve. The nature of the game is what makes it so conducive to dissection -- and criticism.

"How many NFL fans can tell you how many yards Walter Payton gained?" George Will said. "Baseball is a game of discrete episodes, so it has a different relationship to its numbers. If a baseball player takes a performance-enhancing drug it's either going to increase his pitching or hitting success and that will be recorded. If an interior lineman does it, who notices? How do you measure it? There is no statistical yardstick."

Media scrutiny

A higher standard is one thing. A double standard is something else entirely.

New York Post baseball columnist Joel Sherman recently asked a compelling question: If Dr. James Shortt, the team physician who received a jail sentence for dispensing illegal performance enhancing drugs to the Carolina Panthers, had worked in baseball, wouldn't the headlines and the furor have been appreciably bigger?

This is meant as no sign of disrespect to our colleagues in the football writing profession, but the media's seemingly blind acceptance of the NFL as an environment free of performance-enhancing drugs seems rather farfetched.

In case you didn't know, linebacker Bill Romanowski plays a strong supporting role to Bonds in "Game of Shadows." Carolina players allegedly referred to the NFL's drug testing policy as "almost a joke," and the number of 300-pounders in football camps this summer has swelled to nearly 430.

"Do we believe that's all weight training and In-N-Out Burgers?" Will said. "I don't think so. I'm suspicious."

Still, criticism bounces off the NFL like tacklers off Larry Johnson's thigh. Earlier this year the Scripps-Howard News Service did an exhaustive study of death rates among pro football players, compiling a computer data base of 3,850 deceased players and finding a stunning link between obesity and death at an early age. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello quickly dismissed the story as irrelevant, and nothing more was heard on the subject.

Why does the NFL get a free pass? In some cases, you can look to control-freak coaches who use access as a weapon and dispense less information than the Pentagon. In Miami, Nick Saban allows reporters to talk to his assistants three times a year. In New England, star quarterback Tom Brady is absent from practice, and no one knows why because Patriots coach Bill Belichick refuses to acknowledge it.

When Red Sox GM Theo Epstein expressed a desire to emulate the Patriots, some people took it as a sign that a cone of silence would envelop Fenway Park. But the nature of baseball makes it more difficult for teams to control the information flow. Every day, Boston writers show up in droves and troop into manager Terry Francona's office for the latest info. If Gabe Kapler has a strained groin, Red Sox fans are going to know about it.

Baseball players don't particularly like having writers in the clubhouse day after day, but it's a matter of tradition. The scribes are as much a part of the scene as wet towels and postgame fried chicken.

"There is a peculiar intimacy between baseball players and the press, because you're talking about a season that begins in the middle of February and ends in late October," Will said. "Unless you're a Cubs fan, when it ends a lot sooner."

Image vs. reality

The consensus among drug experts is that the use of performance enhancers in sports is so advanced that athletes are now virtually assured of staying ahead of the testers.

A reliable test for human growth hormone doesn't exist in any sport. So are we to believe that athletes in football, basketball and hockey refrain from using it because they have more integrity, less incentive and better moral compasses than those in baseball?

Yesalis, retired Penn State professor and renowned authority on drug use in sports, blames all sports journalists for their incompetence and negligence in failing to alert fans to the problem of performance enhancers in athletics. But he says Selig and baseball union leader Don Fehr were particularly shortsighted in missing the warning signs.

"There's a reason baseball is being picked on -- Mr. Selig and his highly-paid advisers were remarkably stupid in the way they initially handled the doping problem," Yesalis said. "If they would have followed what the NCAA and NFL do and immediately done damage control and reconstructed their facade, the politicians would have been happy."

Like many experts, Yesalis is convinced that use of performance enhancers in football is just as pronounced as that in baseball. "The NFL has just managed it much better from a PR standpoint better than baseball," he said.

While baseball union leaders talk about preserving privacy rights, fans and elected officials see it as obstructionism. When Selig tries to send MLB lawyer Rob Manfred to a Congressional hearing in his stead, the public sees arrogance. And when Rafael Palmeiro points his finger in denial and Mark McGwire refuses to discuss the past, they just poison the well and invite more scrutiny.

"If anybody has the perception that steroid use is worse in baseball than other sports, they're mistaken," said Fainaru-Wada. "Baseball gets treated the way it does because it was so slow to deal with the issue and acted more defiantly than anybody else."

Historical baggage

Baseball also seems to generate more heated debate on economic issues than other sports. Why is it that A.J. Burnett invites contempt for signing a five-year, $55 million deal with the Blue Jays, while no one cares that a marginal NBA player like Keith Van Horn is guaranteed $73 million over six years by the Nets?

Some point to the cynicism generated through years of baseball labor battles, of haves haggling with have-nots and entitled ballplayers sneering over a table at crusty owners. Selig and the union, to their credit, are finally trying to remedy that image.

"I don't even think fans pay that much attention to whose fault it is," Swangard said. "It's just all these millionaires in a sandbox generating billions of dollars a year, and they're acting like a bunch of spoiled brats. That's where frustration comes in for lot of people."

Evidence suggests that fans will pay higher ticket prices and buy merchandise regardless of steroid use. Last year, when Rafael Palmeiro's career went down in flames and the stench from Jose Canseco's tell-all book kept lingering, baseball drew a record 74 million fans.

Contrast that to the 1995 season, when attendance took a huge dip in response to the World Series shutdown. In sports business schools, professors distinguish between fans and consumers. The fan will keep coming back, while the consumer might not. But the fan tends to remember slights or transgressions that the consumer might shrug off. A canceled World Series is as bad as it gets.

So why does the media seem more obsessed than fans with baseball drug use? Maybe, Swangard said, the new generation of fan doesn't see baseball as pure sport anymore. It's just entertainment.

"If I'm paying $150 for my family of four to go to AT&T Park and watch the Giants, I want to see Barry Bonds hit a home run over the right-field fence at McCovey Cove," Swangard said. "And if his head falls off rounding second base, that's entertainment."

The top dog

George Will, whose love of baseball might transcend his passion for politics, is an unabashed Bud Selig supporter. He thinks Selig's record of accomplishment is every bit as impressive as those of his commissioner peers, Tagliabue and Stern.

"One of the most remarkable aspects of sports journalism in the past 20 years is the bad press Bud Selig gets," Will said. "I've written this before and I'll say it again: He is immeasurably the greatest commissioner in baseball's history. He's the ninth, and the other eight don't come close."

Of course, you wouldn't know it from the occasional online poll that labels Selig a drag on the game and the worst commissioner in sports. The accessible, folksy Selig who is so adept at forging consensus among owners is also a lightning rod for criticism. For all the advances he's brought to the game, he will always be just Bud.

"Just Bud" gets his hair cut at Tony Lococo's Hair World, eats lunch at Gilles Frozen Custard stand and fills the ownership ranks with like-minded thinkers who will support his agenda. He has a $100 million discretionary fund at his disposal. He agonizes over what people think of him and religiously reads the papers, but finds logging on to the Internet a bit of a challenge.

And of course, Just Bud worked in the car business before bringing baseball to Milwaukee. He'll never get over that characterization.

"I think Bud Selig's roots are very important to his overall character and how he handles things," said Mike Paul, the sports reputation consultant. "What are a used-car salesman's root instincts? Let's haggle. Let's take our time, and we'll get there in the end.

"When Bud Selig is in a meeting and he's in some kind of fork-in-the-road situation, with steroids or whatever, I think he turns toward his lawyer first and says, 'How do we limit our liability and protect ourselves?' He should be asking, 'What's the right thing to do long-term for our reputation?' "

Fair or not, that's the perception. Selig dithered and dithered on the Pete Rose situation until time took care of the problem for him. When Boston pitcher David Wells went on an anti-commissioner rant in spring training, Selig merely shrugged and changed the subject. Contrast that with NBA commissioner David Stern, who slaps Mavericks owner Mark Cuban with a fine every time Cuban looks at him funny.

Even when Selig wants to take a stand, he gets stiff-armed. He tried to apply the hammer to John Rocker for offensive comments in Sports Illustrated, but the union had the punishment gutted. The net result: Selig's authority was undermined in the public eye.

At least the evidence suggests that Selig is finally "getting it" on the drug issue. Last month in Pittsburgh, he spent considerable time discussing the dangers of amphetamine use in baseball. It appears the commissioner actually wants to be ahead of the curve this time.

Selig will have a lot more on his plate in the coming months. More steroid flare-ups. Lots of labor pains. As usual, baseball will grapple with the big-picture issues while trying to adhere to a unique set of standards.

Best-case scenario: The game emerges from this crossroads looking better and stronger than ever. Worst case: We're heading into the quintessential day-night doubleheader from hell. Time will tell.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer

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