Games will eventually overshadow steroids
Seven developments we can expect to see as we move forward out of the Steroid Era.
There is a new testing agreement in place, and they tell us things will be different. We hope so. Seven developments we can expect to see as we move forward:
1. The game will remain healthy.
As soon as Randy Johnson throws the season's first pitch Sunday, the steroid discussion BALCO, Mark McGwire, testing, Jason Giambi's testimony, Barry Bonds' problems will recede. Steroids will still be a prominent topic of discussion, but we'll also be talking about Joe Mauer, Jake Peavy, Jeremy Bonderman, Johan Santana, the Angels, the Moneyball Crowd vs. The Old Guard and a whole lot of other stuff.
Baseball had a rough winter. But all in all, baseball is thriving.
2. Baseball officials will root quietly for the rapid end of Bonds' career.
The dire words we heard from Bonds last week are actually fairly common for older players going through injury trouble (although the context is much different). Faced with weeks of rehabilitation, the veterans will muse about retirement, then start to feel better, especially as they start getting back on the field and swinging a bat. Bonds might be weary of the investigation and off-field problems he faces, but he has probably realized by now that retiring won't make any of that go away. He might as well try to get back on the field and pursue Henry Aaron's record.
This is not something that baseball could want, in any way. Every time Bonds hits a home run, he will provide another reminder of the steroid mess. Aaron's record might be the greatest in sports, and within two years, it could be held by a player whose achievement will be viewed by many of the game's patrons as fraudulent; fair or not, that's the way it will be. Bonds will be baseball's version of Rosie Ruiz, and instead of ignoring him, Major League Baseball will be forced to honor him.
So if Bonds actually does retire before getting the record, Major League Baseball probably will issue a statement with lofty sentiments about Bonds' career. And then the sport's executives will start popping open the champagne and celebrating.
3. The statistics from recent seasons won't shift dramatically toward pitchers or hitters.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that in the last few years, as many pitchers as hitters were using some kind of performance enhancer and maybe more. Last year was the first season in which players were subject to suspensions if they tested positive multiple times, and home run production actually increased slightly. Scouts thought there were a lot of pitchers who suddenly experienced a decrease in velocity.
4. More politics over the steroid issue.
We're not talking about senators or congressmen, either. If you watched the March 17 hearing, you could see Bud Selig working very hard to maintain a peace with the players' association leadership. As the committee members pressed for commitments for tougher testing, the high ground was there for Selig to seize. He could have said, "We will do whatever we can on ownership side to have the toughest testing possible, adopt whatever regimen you want. But you gotta talk to the guy a few seats down on my left."
That would be Don Fehr, head of the players' association, who really has the ability to steer this toward tougher testing or back into the murky waters where you're not sure who's cheating and who's clean.
The commissioner wants civility with the union leadership. But he might be better off applying the squeeze: If he were to say he would endorse the toughest possible system, then the onus would fall clearly on the union leadership at a time when the majority of the players want the whole mess cleaned up.
5. Fehr and union counsel Gene Orza will have something to prove.
A decade has passed since the ugly strike of 1994-95, which galvanized the already powerful union; the members had all gone to war together, and survived together. But most of the current members of the union weren't around for that strike, and Fehr and Orza don't necessarily get extra credit points from the young guys.
The union has mostly followed the advice of Fehr and Orza over the last two decades, and their stewardship through the steroid mess has been badly flawed, at best. At a time when there were many indications that a majority of the players wanted to get steroids out of baseball entirely, the union's stance consistently managed to make the players appear as if they were resistant to testing, and forced many of them to make a choice they didn't want to make: whether to take steroids to keep up.
Some of the youngest members of the union have felt in recent years that their interests were being ignored entirely. They were subject to steroid testing coming through the minor leagues, and as they began fighting for major league jobs, some of them believe they were competing against steroid users who effectively were being shielded by the union's stance. "The young guys, they're pretty upset," a veteran said last year.
The players' directive to reopen the issue of steroid testing in the winter was, in effect, a shift away from the philosophical stance Fehr and Orza had championed for years. And more recently, some veteran players were furious that they had to learn about the so-called suspension-or-fine loophole through the media, rather than in their union meetings earlier this spring.
As the union nears the end of the current collective bargaining agreement and perhaps moves toward more evolution on the steroid issue the relationship between the leadership and the rank and file will be interesting to follow.
6. More and more politics on the steroid issue.
The rhetoric thrown down by Major League Baseball officials during the days leading up to the testing greatly angered committee members, who were offended by the verbal lines in the sand that were drawn as the hearing invitations were resisted. Besides the minor language tweaks baseball officials agreed to adopt on the day of the hearing, baseball and union officials have made it apparent they aren't changing anything, and now the question is being asked by columnists and talk radio hosts all over: What's Congress going to do now?
Well, it'll do something. John McCain and others in Congress have discussed introducing legislation for a single steroid testing standard for sports. How far that goes remains to be seen, but baseball's war chants were probably a mistake.
7. Somebody will test positive and get suspended.
With the legitimacy of the testing system under great scrutiny, baseball will be willing to throw somebody overboard as a sacrificial lamb. And, as Jason Giambi will attest: You don't want to be that guy. Your life will be changed forever.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is a New York Times best seller and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.
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