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Say it ain't so, baseball
by Dan K. Thomasson
Scripps Howard News Service


December 07, 2004

How does one tell a son or grandson who shows an interest and talent for baseball that at the major-league level the game is thoroughly corrupt and that his heroes may be cheats? That's the dilemma parents and grandparents across the country face as the news of widespread steroid use among players continues to unfold.
jpg Dan K. Thomasson

How does one explain to all those Little Leaguers who dream of scaling the heights of baseball fame that it is a substantial infraction, penalized by suspensions and fines, to cork a bat but not a body; that in fact there are dramatic rewards for the latter in the form of startling new records and millions of dollars, both for the players and the team owners who have closed their eyes to the obvious? Money, after all, is what it is about. Home runs fill stadiums and produce unheard-of revenues. Issues of health, legality and morals have had little place in the debate.

But hold on a minute.

Hasn't there always been an element of fraud in Major League Baseball, a basic corruption in which a key participant has been the public, the statistic-loving fans who also have given the icons and those who hire them unstinting support, even as the salaries have become increasingly astronomical and so have the prices charged to pay for them? With every major-leaguer earning millions a year, the disconnection between the players and the average ticket buyer is huge. Yet the idolization continues.

The scam is classic. Billionaires, holding out great enhancement to local business and the city's welfare, con communities and taxpayers out of hundreds of millions of dollars to finance incredible playing palaces at the expense of other badly needed projects. Either the demands are met or the owners take their ball elsewhere. That extortion is made possible by an archaic Supreme Court decision that gave MLB an exemption from antitrust laws - a decision that had doubtful validity at the time it was handed down more than 80 years ago. It was based on the outlandish theory that each game played was a local contest and therefore not subject to interstate-commerce provisions of the Constitution. Even in the days of much smaller leagues, that was a stretch.

That was just another aftermath of the 1919 scandal, when gambler Arnold Rothstein fixed the World Series by buying off eight members of the Chicago White Sox. Even then it wouldn't have happened if the team's owner, Charles Comiskey, had not cheated his own players out of deserved bonuses and other recognition of their success. He was a scoundrel - although, unlike Rothstein, a legal one. Then there was the high-handed commissioner, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, one of the most overturned jurists in the history of the federal bench. In the name of cleaning up the game, he helped see that players remained chattel for decades and managed to keep MLB lily-white far longer than it had any right to expect.

Now the game's lovers are being treated to the ultimate outrage - icons whose muscles are made of chemicals, whose feet are made of clay and whose incredible records are made of tissue paper. They aren't real. All this has been made possible by greed. When every other professional and amateur sport in America, and for that matter the world, was regarding artificially enhanced performance as a major sin and grounds for banishment, the czars of MLB have refused to set a firm policy for testing and punishment. The players' association, probably the most powerful of the professional sports unions, also has been stupendously recalcitrant.

All the guilty parties now profess not to have known. Even the most despicable of the chemical men, Barry Bonds, who is the game's leading hitter, says he didn't realize he was taking steroids. Right. He just thought a nice diet and an hour in the gym every day added all that muscle and quickness and improved coordination just at the age when most athletes are beginning to lose their edge a little. One would have to be blind not to have known what was going on with Bonds and the others. The owners, the players and the fans just didn't care.

But now under threat of congressional action by no less a tough guy than Sen. John McCain, MLB and its slippery commissioner, Bud Selig, will have to come up with some drug policy. But first they should apologize to the nation's youngsters and those who never grew up.


Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.


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