I've written in depth about performance-enhancing drugs twice on this blog.
The first time was when the San Francisco Chronicle established, to the satisfaction of all but the most-determined fantasists, that Barry Bonds had taken steroids (and insulin and HGH and Clomid and, for good measure, crap that makes cattle more muscular). I called Bonds's story a tragedy, and I stand by that. Not because Bonds is anything other than a surly jerk, but because the best player of his generation (which he was long before the Cream and the Clear) destroyed a legendary baseball career out of jealousy over the attention paid by dimwitted fans to Mark McGwire, a one-dimensional player and thoroughly dull human being who would have been justifiably forgotten by now. The tragedy of Bonds isn't whatever he's done to the game (it'll survive just fine) or to Hank Aaron (even more appreciated now that his record is besmirched). It's that a player of such enormous talents was so insecure or oblivious that he asterisked his entire life because of a player who could only dream of being him. By trying to make people forget McGwire, Bonds ensured they'll forever be part of the same conversation. It infuriated me last March; it infuriates me now.
The second time was a couple of months later, after it came to light that Jason Grimsley — whose tenure in 10 different organizations made him the Patient Zero of the performance-enhacing age — had been visited by the feds after they saw him accept a shipment of HGH. Grimsley talked with the feds for hours, about steroids and HGH and amphetamines and the game's drug culture and what players knew tests couldn't find. And he named names. That, I predicted, was going to lead to an avalanche of disclosure — and Grimsley's use of performance-enhancing drugs was a wake-up call that we needed to rethink our suspicions. Grimsley wasn't a big slugger or a flamethrower, but the kind of commodity middle reliever teams run through by the bushelful in search of a couple of tolerable weeks. If a guy like that was a user, the question we had to start asking wasn't “Who used?” but “Who didn't use?”
There have been some more revelations since then, but tomorrow comes the avalanche: the report by George Mitchell, based in part on discussions with Kirk Radomski, who was employed by the Mets as a clubhouse guy from 1985 through 1995, and who's pleaded guilty to distributing performance-enhancing drugs to dozens of big-league players for 10 years after that. The Mitchell Report is due at 2 p.m. tomorrow; according to one report, those who have seen it claim it includes as many as 80 names, including winners of the Cy Young and MVP award.
To be provincial for a moment, Radomski's Met connections all but assure us that there'll be a fair number of names with which we're very familiar. But that's nothing new: The roster of busted/fessed-up Mets so far includes Grant Roberts, Jorge Toca, Wilson Delgado (twice), Felix Heredia, Jon Nunnally, Matt Lawton, Guillermo Mota, David Segui, Lino Urdaneta and Mike Cameron, with Gary Matthews Jr., Scott Schoeneweis and Paul Byrd having fallen under suspicion. (And that doesn't include the minor-leaguers.) I'll admit that I've gone through 1995-2005 Mets in my head in recent days, from players I'd bet a huge amount of money were dirty to players I still hope were clean. The problem is that given the names we know so far, there is no steroid profile more specific than “baseball player.” Anybody who fits that definition, alas, is under suspicion.
For me, the one thing that's changed since writing about Bonds and Grimsley is I think I've developed a much thicker skin about the whole thing. The avalanche of disclosure is finally here, and though I could be wrong, I don't think I'll be particularly moved, even if some names dear to my heart are on it.
One reason for that? In his superb The Soul of Baseball, Joe Posnanski recounts how person after person would share their outrage about steroids with Buck O'Neil, expecting and almost demanding that O'Neil be outraged about performance-enhancing drugs too, and say that yes, of course he'd played in a purer, better age. But O'Neil would gently but firmly refuse. Every player he'd known, he'd say, had looked for an edge.
Baseball and the men who play it are far more ruthless than we think, lulled as we are by green grass and the arc of curveballs and all the other beautiful things about baseball. That beauty is baseball's bottomless well of strength and seduction. In the stands or in front of the TV, we can't see that a lot of the players are boorish and/or stupid, even though we know that's true. We can't see that few of them are crushed by a loss or the idea of one the way we are, though sometimes they're dumb enough to let that slip. We can't see that some of them will make more money in a mediocre year than we'll make in our entire working lives, though we know that's true. And we can't see that some of them (or a lot of them or nearly all of them) are shooting their bodies full of God-knows-what in search of the edge Buck O'Neil warned us about. We know all that's there, but on the field it's nearly always invisible, and the beauty of the game is so staggering that we forget about it.
I think Barry Bonds' story is a tragedy, but it's an entirely self-inflicted one, and I don't feel the least bit sorry for him. In fact, I don't feel sorry for any big-league baseball player. Why would I? It should go without saying that I don't feel sorry for the owners, GMs, managers, trainers, agents, commissioner and union jefes who looked the other way for years. And I don't feel sorry for the fans — even if we don't want to hear what Buck O'Neil kept saying, the blinding beauty of the game will get us through this, like it has everything else baseball does to itself.
But there is one group of people I do feel for. They're the only ones who truly have been cheated. And they're the only ones who won't be holding a press conference, or starting a Web site, or holding up some misspelled banner in April.
They're the guys in Rookie Ball or Single-A or Double-A who one day realized their abilities were marginal, or they were a little too small to overcome baseball's Pleistocene prejudices, or got hurt, or just had a run of bad luck, and faced a choice — the exact same choice many of their teammates faced. Only these guys, when faced with that choice, didn't do steroids or HGH or God knows what else. Because they were scared of what it might do to their bodies. Or their heads. Or maybe — and cynical as I become, there have to be guys like this — because they just wanted to play the game the way they thought was right.
What's the difference in ability between, say, Lino Urdaneta and somebody who washed out of pro ball after a year of short-season A and another in the Sally League? It might not be very much. Except Lino Urdaneta, eminently replaceable though he is, is in the Baseball Encyclopedia and has bubble-gum cards that maniacs put in The Holy Books and has bloggers cheer him for the rather underwhelming accomplishment of reducing his ERA below infinity, while that other guy is utterly anonymous. The minimum big-league salary for 2008 is $390,000. What do you think two years in the bus leagues does for your job prospects?
The difference between the Lino Urdanetas of this world and those forgotten teammates? In some cases, it's that the forgotten teammate didn't stick a needle in his ass. And because of that, he's thinking maybe if he works hard he might make $39,000 someday, instead of having a shot at making 10 times that — and if he got lucky, maybe much more. And because he didn't stick a needle in his ass, you and I have never heard of him and we never will.
If you want to find the tragedy in all this, there it is.
There's really no way to segue out of that, so I won't even try. Please excuse a musical PSA….
The best live band I've ever seen, the Figgs, are playing three dates in New York City this weekend. The three-borough tour begins with an opening slot at Cake Shop on the LES Friday night, continues at Staten Island's Cargo Cafe (very short walk from ferry terminal) on Saturday night and finishes at Magnetic Field on the edge of Brooklyn Heights Sunday. Now that the Replacements have gone to the musical great beyond, the Figgs are my favorite band, and I'm hugely excited about this weekend. The Sunday show in particular should be great fun: The Figgs are playing at the very-unrock-star time of 8 p.m. and are the night's lone band, so they should play for a good long time and still get you tucked into your warm bed in plenty of time to show up at work relatively unhungover and able to hear. Details on their MySpace page.
What do the Figgs sound like? I'd describe them as harder-edged power pop (rest assured they rock), but you can hear some songs by going to that MySpace page or entering their name in YouTube. Or go to Baby, You Got a Stew Goin'!, which has a stream of my favorite song in the world, “Jumping Again.” (Which, in a better world, would have anchored a post preparing for the 2007 playoffs.)
They've played together since they were high-school kids, so as a band they've gone beyond tight to borderline telepathic. And they're about the most-approachable band you'll ever find: At most concerts your chief worry is whether or not you can see; at a Figgs show it's not bumping into Mike Gent and Pete Donnelly when they decide it'd be more fun to play this next song from the middle of the audience. I'll wear my the Faith and Fear numbers shirt Sunday night; come to Atlantic Avenue and if for some strange reason you don't have fun, I'll buy you a beer. Hell, I'll buy you a beer anyway.