Monday, January 28, 2008

When is Chuck Knoblauch the same as Curt Schilling?

Well, it's that time of the year again - the Fed makes an "emergency" rate cut, the government pushes out an inconsequential $150 billion that is effectively an unwanted short-term loan to the middle class, and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has determined that they should be focusing mostly on baseball's steroid "problem" rather than any of the other issues they could possibly examine.

In short, this is a baffling and putrid move on the part of Congress - a move that seems much more apt to produce sound bites from congressmen than from baseball players.

To start, let's get some things out of the way. First, this is not implicitly a waste of the government's time or taxpayer money - the powers of the COGR are wide-reaching, allowing investigation of really anything that might affect anyone or anything dealing with Federal law in even the least strict sense. Actually, this sort of investigation could be one of the better uses of the Committee - there is no doubt that Congress has power and influence in the way that investigative journalists do not, and should there be actual time and effort put into determining the scope and scale of baseball's PED issues, the COGR would probably be the most effective body to perform that investigation.

However, if you've spent even a modicum of time on this issue, it should be starkly obvious that "time and effort" have fallen victim to "pomp and circumstance" at just about every turn. Watching Henry Waxman and Tom Davis at work for just a few minutes at a time during the hearings with Bud Selig and former Senator George Mitchell was enough to expose the committee's intent: to put on a show, to decry drugs as "bad" rather than design a plan to stop them, and basically waste everyone's time for the benefit of the men and women of Congress alone.

This is really an excuse for the members of the House committee to proselytize from the podium, get air time, rant and rave to a camera and then peddle themselves as "difference makers" during their next reelection campaign. Baseball's testing program is on par or superior to any league out there, and its penalties are more severe - football, by contrast, has a legitimate drug problem, with stars caught every year (see: Merriman, Shawn) and a testing program that is notoriously full of holes and pre-test warnings to star players, by reputation, anecdote and evidence.

The committee chair first, then the minority leader, stood up and delivered a ridiculous sermon on the dangers of drugs, while giving uncited and laughably uninformed "statistics" on drug use for high school and college athletes. Next, both drew an explicit connection between professional baseball players and use by youth, and specifically minors. Never mind that most of the minors using performance-enhancing substances are not baseball players - football has, by far, the more serious problem, by all reports - or that the true 'enablers' are generally not pro athletes, but rather the parents who fund the purchases, or the coaches who look the other way in search of more and better wins, or etc.

The finger-wagging on the part of Congress in this situation is laughable at best, and insidiously dangerous at worst. Announcing the baseball situation as a "problem" while focusing on the stars and not the majority of users (who are, in general, failed scrubs or the injured), all the while making innuendo that the problem is worse than the testing indicates because of the specter of HGH (which has never been shown to actually increase muscle mass or athletic performance), really gives children the actual license and rationale for using performance-enhancing substances. Think about it like this: you advertise that steroids are dangerous, because you might just get really good at something and make millions of dollars doing it. There is a legitimate incentive to use PEDs - instead, why aren't we focusing on the still-minute chances of success (read: money), while showing the health and legal risks that neatly offset the ludicrously small chance for any given high school star to even sniff a professional paycheck?

The situation only becomes more laughable now that players are being subpoenaed, yet again, to appear before the COGR. The last time, we were treated to a total implosion of Mark McGuire's Hall of Fame status, the hypocrisy of Rafael Palmeiro's "inspired" finger-wagging, and one Curt Schilling looking incredibly out of place. Schilling, the same guy who regularly shows up to spring training with a dome belly and a winter's worth of Cheese-Its and Mountain Dew Gamer Fuel lingering around his ham hocks, was invited to sit on a panel with those suspected or accused of steroid use.

This time around, we get Chuck Knoblauch filling the same role, albeit in a completely different fashion. Indeed, Knoblauch has been explicitly linked to performance-enhancing substances in the Mitchell Report, although without the canceled-check "certainty" of those outed by Kurt Radomsky or others. Still, it seems odd that of the 80-some people named in the report, those invited to testify are essentially from the Yankees dynasty of the late 1990s: Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, and Knoblauch. One of these individuals does not fit; one has never had the stature of the others . . . and that one is, in fact, Roger Clemens.

So why do we have Pettitte (who has admitted use to recover from injury, certainly not a pernicious deed but questionable and likely illegal nonetheless) and Knoblauch (who has only tenuous ties to steroid use by any barometer) speaking in front of Congress? Likely, the goal is to put pressure on Clemens, just as the FBI put pressure on Bonds, ultimately resulting in an indictment for perjury late last year.

If the goal is to only attack the game's biggest stars, aren't we falling into the same trap I mentioned earlier - namely, that public perception of the problem will be much more dangerous than if we simply examine the root reality of the situation? Knoblauch's situation should stand on its own merits, for better or worse - if he used at the end of his career to attempt to prolong it, this would be a wonderful time to cut the bullshit anger and looking down the nose, and instead state publicly that his attempt failed, and the health risks were not worth the effort (not to mention the money). If, instead, Knoblauch is merely there to get grilled about others in the locker room and the so-called "steroid culture" (a culture propagated and facilitated, for the most part, by ownership), why even pretend? Doesn't this do more harm than good?

The COGR examination of baseball (and ignorance or disregard for any other sports, the reality of modern baseball's testing program, hard statistical evidence, or even the potential harm of their own actions framing the problem incorrectly) is quickly evolving into onanism. The hearings are often a masturbatory exercise for those who have never heard of "replacement level," or the hardship of playing 162 games in 180 days for ten years - in short, Congress has not taken the time nor put in the effort to fully understand the problem's roots, or its realistic extent or issues. It's no surprise we see Roger Clemens on the stand, instead of the real problems - players like Larry Bigbie, Howie Clark, Adam Riggs and even Eric Gagne. These are the players that are getting the benefit - the marginal guys who wind up making a few bucks (or a ton of bucks, in the case of Gagne). Let's expose this charade for what it is - an unproven method to reach incredibly unlikely heights in a difficult, tense profession.

And that's without even talking about the HGH fascination, for which we have zero proof of any positive effects on baseball players beyond possible reduction in recovery from injury. It's insane.

1 comment:

cseguin said...

Don't forget Rafael Betancourt, who was suspended in 2005 just as his career started to rebound. Now he has just signed a new deal with Cleveland, and, if he keeps putting up good numbers, could be in line for a huge deal in a couple of years.

This list is a couple of years old, but I think it supports your point about the types of guys who have been caught/suspended: