Confession's good for baseball's soul

Updated: March 1, 2005, 1:07 PM ET
By Ray Ratto | Special to ESPN.com

OK, so Kevin Towers knew. And Tony La Russa. That's two people in baseball management who knew that some of the employees were juicing. Two out of ... what, hundreds?

But if you're waiting for these two baby steps toward the light of full disclosure, well, we would encourage you to continue your current regimen of regular, healthy breathing. Baseball is like so much of American business, politics and interpersonal relations ... fueled by the lie and lubricated by the implausible denial.

Will owner complicity be the next chapter in baseball's public confessional?
Too much to risk, too much potential jeopardy in the murky depths of the past, too many good people going down because the rules have changed, and by "the rules," we mean, the rules by which athletes behaved and were rewarded for that behavior.

Ten years ago, even five years ago, junking-up was fully part of the "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'" culture of the game, and all the way from the top. Even now, baseball management comforts itself by saying, "We didn't know because the union wouldn't let us," without admitting the back side of the argument, that it always, quickly, cheerfully took drug testing off the table in the earliest stages of every contract negotiation.

Besides, what was Kevin Towers admitting to, or Tony La Russa for that matter, if there wasn't testing?

In other words, baseball's management gets to share blame with the union and the players, because the denials are no longer plausible, nor tolerable. Not from Bud Selig, from any of the owners, any of the general managers, none of them.

Thus, the time seems to have clearly come for all the people who ran baseball to admit what they knew about steroids, human growth hormone, etc. and when they knew it, because their denials have rung false for years and now Towers and La Russa have shown them to actually be false. Towers, out of self-imposed guilt over the death of Ken Caminiti, and La Russa, out of a hyperkinetic desire to strike Jose Canseco, to defend Mark McGwire.

Unless you think they're the only baseball executives who really did know.

But you'll notice that the operative phrase is "seems to have clearly come," as in, "it actually hasn't come," because the phrase that comes most frequently after "admission" is "legal culpability."

And therein lies your deal breaker.

First, though, the case for actual truth.

By now, it is clear that the performance-enhancer story has gotten away from the entire baseball establishment, labor and management alike. If it isn't grand jury testimony over the transom, it's the existence of a grand jury in the first place. If it isn't Jose Canseco, Author, it's Victor Conte, TV Star.

In short, "I never knew" doesn't float any more. Nobody's buying.

Now, we must understand that this is a peculiar age in American history, an age in which those people caught in a lie defend themselves with the novel new defense, "Yeah, what of it?" This is a brazen new world, one in which the First Law of Behavior is, "That Which You Can't Stop Me From Doing Makes Me Stronger," and baseball is only one of the industries that operate that way.

True, it doesn't win a lot of public sentiment, but it does seem to work well enough in business, culture and politics.

Baseball, though, thrives best when it has its PR ducks in a row, and the steroid story is beating it all to hell this spring. The game is supposedly in a financial and artistic renaissance, but the news every day is of Creams and Clears and needles jabbed into the posteriors of million-dollar athletes while standing in bathroom stalls. The news is about books that tell unpleasant truths and/or unverifiable falsehoods, of press conferences dressed as Molotov cocktails, and grudging admissions decades after the fact.

And this is not a media creation, either. This is real stuff, and the culpability goes all around, primer plus two coats.

Thus, if baseball wants to get past this, if it can be done, it's time to stop hiding behind absurd and mendacious claims like, "We didn't know." Nobody gets to claim misdemeanor stupidity, or felony ignorance. The only way for the sport to get out from under this is to admit that it is, in fact, on top of the sport.

And it's simple, based on three basic and unassailable facts:

1. Baseball has known about its steroid problem for years, just as it knew about its amphetamine problems of days gone by.

2. The players union and management share fully and completely in the blame for this.

3. This cannot continue, which is why baseball and its union will fully fund and back the most comprehensive forms of testing, not only for steroids but amphetamines, HGH, and whatever the next 12 forms of chemical whoopee juice happen to be.

The public would be happy enough at this rare burst of candor that it might even be willing to amnesty everything that has happened before, on the off-chance that forgiveness really is good for the national soul.

On the other hand, there would be lawsuits, and plenty of them, and we are still in an age in which the facts are always trumped by a suit with a fistful of writs, which is why Kevin Towers and Tony La Russa are standing out on that thin branch with no leaves on it.

Alone, with their public regrets.

Ray Ratto is a columnist with the San Francisco Chronicle and a regular contributor to ESPN.com

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