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Lawyers, drugs and money

Special to

Dec. 4

It is a shame that Jose Canseco's book isn't yet off the presses, or that Ken Caminiti died. Their voices should be heard this week, voices from the ashes of the time when owners and chicks who dug the long ball stimulated the steroids era.

Barry Bonds
The leak of Barry Bonds' grand jury testimony has ignited a frenzy of controversy.

The week that baseball's dirty little secret became a scandal, the game that is a billion dollar business turned into a cesspool of needles, creams, performance-enhancing corporations, illegal (not to mention immoral) leaks and lawyers' fees. Since Mark Fainaru-Wada and the people at the San Francisco Chronicle so brilliantly detailed what our government promised was confidential information, the baseball business has taken a hit. How serious a hit we will not know until we see where the roads that lead out of BALCO take us, or if government officials leak the private, confidential information from the 2003 drug testing they seized, which will detail the identities of the more than 50 players who tested positive.

What we do now believe is that when Barry Bonds passes Babe Ruth sometime this spring, it will be greeted not by cheers, but jeers, or worse, disinterest. When Bonds passes Henry Aaron in early 2006, we will be reminded that what once was the most regal of all sports records will have been relegated to the level of the all-time NHL goals leader.

And Bonds has been charged with nothing. Yet. But while we do not know where the roads from BALCO will lead, what we have seen thus far is that all the roads from baseball to BALCO point toward Barry's neighborhood, and if last January's State of the Union address was the gauntlet thrown toward that neighborhood, all the wiretaps and leaks may not have resulted in any indictments, but the perjury charges may have just begun.

This is an American story. It's about money, obscene amounts of it. Did, as Canseco alleges, teams have a pretty good idea what was going on? Maybe. Certainly as the Bash Brothers ushered in the Home Run Era -- now known as the Juiced Era -- the people who run baseball encouraged everything powerful. There is no question that, after Cal Ripken and the dignity of the Joe Torre championship Yankees, what took baseball out of its recession and back into the high life (again) was the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa Summer of '98, and how it took all of us in, from grandparents to children. It was all about what one would do to get rich, be it look the other way or chemically recreate one's body.

In 1999, Barry Bonds was already a Hall of Fame player. He had won three MVPs, and should have had a fourth. He hit .300 and averaged 36 homers a year in the '90s. He is such an intelligent hitter that teammates claim he knows every pitch that's coming, he's reduced the strike zone to the size of a nickel, and in the 21st Century has batted .306, .328, .370, .341 and .362, with on-base percentages of .440, .515. .582, .529 and .609. That's not chemical, that's simple greatness. But where he averaged 36 homers a year in his prime, he's averaged 52 a year in five years theoretically past his prime. WFAN's Christopher Russo interviewed a home run distance expert who claimed that prior to 2000, Bonds hit three homers longer than 450 feet; in the last five years, he has hit 26.

Bud Selig was not begging the Players Association for drug testing in '98, or at the All-Star Game in Boston when generations wept at the sight of McGwire bowing to a wheelchair-ridden Ted Williams. There had been requests in the past, but most of them had been directed at recreational drug use. But during the 2002 Basic Agreement negotiations, Selig knew there were storm clouds on the horizon. "Bud was adamant that we had to get a tough drug-testing policy in that agreement because he believed the industry could be in for a major scandal if we didn't," said one member of the owners' committee. "But the couple of times we brought it up, Gene Orza went ballistic, at one point shouting obscenities. In the end, it came down to getting what we got, or shutting down the game with another strike, because to Gene and Don (Fehr), drug-testing was a strikeable issue. Bud didn't feel the game could take a strike at that time, and the drug-testing policy we got was a start." Then, of course, 7 percent of the players in 2003 were so dumb they tested positive, which permanently put the program into effect.

What is absurd here is that in the summer of 2002, when Canseco and Caminiti issued their original allegations, several players began speaking out. USA Today released a poll in which 78 percent of major league players said they were for serious testing, and more than 50 percent said they felt the pressure to use steroids or performance-enhancing drugs because of peer pressure. At the All-Star Game, Mike Sweeney told ESPN, "I want strong testing because I don't think it's fair for someone to have an illegal advantage over me." Lance Berkman said, "I want the testing because I don't think I should have to have anyone question how I hit my home runs."

BALCO labs, the center of the storm.

But Fehr and Orza always believed that any form of drug-testing was un-American in that it forced an individual to prove his innocence. However, by adamantly sticking to that civil libertarian line, they in fact have led players to a point where, because of this BALCO scandal, every player who hits more than 40 home runs is subject to having to prove himself innocent.

Much of this can be laid to 30-something years of cold war politics between the Players Association and owners, with its resulting distrust and contempt. But the union lawyers have always considered themselves civil rights and labor lawyers. They are not. This isn't Edward Bennett Williams defending John Connelly, or Sacco-Vanzetti. They're not civil rights lawyers, they are entertainment lawyers.

The players these lawyers represent are the product that the owners and the industry present to the public, the consumers. And because they have stonewalled and litigated and arbitrated and filibustered so masterfully, the product they represent is tainted. As a result, the consumers have lost the trust that the players need, all because of a minute minority.

This is not only about home runs. Many in the game believe that in this decade the percentage of pitchers juicing is higher than hitters; check those relievers that have thrown 88 mph all their lives, show up out of the Indies ringing 96 on the radar guns, then two years later are back in surgery.

The problem is that this is not about athletics for the sake of athletics. It's business, big bucks, doing whatever it takes. It is comical to read outraged comments about "cheaters." There are anywhere from four to 10 pitchers in the Hall of Fame who cheated in some form or another; Gaylord Perry wrote a book about it. The 1951 Giants cheated to help them win the Miracle of Coogan's Bluff. Corked bats predate the Eisenhower administration. Do we want to get into amphetamines? How many players damaged their eyes or their stomachs with red juice in the 1960s and 1970s? Yeah, sure, those 340-pound 17-year-olds out there at the top of the Rivals College Football Recruiting Charts all got there because of Wheaties. Why do you think "Playmakers" so upset the NFL? The truth hurts. Did all those 280-pound power forwards in the NBA get that way drinking Ovaltine?

Baseball is going to have to ride all of this out and prepare for names and allegations thrown against the wall; on MSNBC Saturday, it was casually mentioned that the Yankees have three players involved in these scandals, throwing Kevin Brown's name in with Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield.

It will survive, as it survived the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, Pete Rose, the 1994 strike, etc. It will survive because while Cal Ripken, McGwire and Sosa helped bring back the game, as baseball has boomed in the 2000s -- hey, the Brewers were just sold for 20 times what George Steinbrenner paid for the Yankees, the value of the Red Sox has increased by more than a third since John Henry bought them in 2002 and if went public, its estimated value is $2.5 billion -- it has done so not because of stars, but because of teams. It's not a game of stars as the 1996-2000 Yankees proved. The Mariners shed three Hall of Famers, won 116 games and shot up to second in the majors in revenues (now fourth). The record ratings enjoyed by FOX and ESPN in 2004 had nothing to do with Bonds, but with the fact that the Red Sox, Cubs, Yankees, Cardinals and Astros captured the national imagination. Hey, Bonds was booed when presented the Henry Aaron Award at the World Series.

As baseball has paralleled America's great, proud immigration/assimilation patterns and integrated sports seven years before Brown vs. the Board of Education, maybe what it can do is change the way Americans think about "at all costs." Maybe 14-year-olds dreaming -- many of whom are pushed by parents hungry like the wolves -- of being McGwire or Corey Dillon or Ben Wallace will think twice about turning to the underground that all too many high school athletes know about.

Maybe, just maybe, we'll think about what cheating really is, that scuffing baseballs or placing anonymous phone calls spreading hideous lies about political candidates -- such as the ones in South Carolina in 2000 about an American hero named John McCain -- isn't right. That while we understand why Bonds lied -- if he did -- or Bill Clinton did the same, that perhaps it's more than just words.

In the meantime, baseball's owners and players can end 30-something years of cold war, get together, and, starting with a drug testing policy, work together as partners in regaining the trust of their public. All those civil rights that our government shredded at the expense of Giambi, Bonds, et al., aren't coming back, much less their reputations.

But the rest of the players can remind Fehr and Orza that the lawyers work for the players, and the players have to take control of their public trust.

The dirty little secret is a major scandal. It is not going away. Curt Schilling has long said that we can't love the game as much as the players because we don't play, and now is the time that no one can do as much to restore the game they love as the players themselves.

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 Union Role
Mike and Mike: Peter Gammons says Bud Selig saw this scandal coming in 2002, but proposals for stringent rules reportedly got a cold shoulder from Gene Orza.

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