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By Stefan Kanfer

The Voodoo That They Did So Well: The Wizards Who Invented the New York Stage.

Soundings

Stefan Kanfer
Play Balco!
The corruption of the Summer Game
Winter 2005

Once upon an era, baseball-team owners ex-ploited the players.

Then the players unionized, acquired agents, and exploited the owners. Then, in an epochal labor-and-management accord, the two sides stopped exploiting each other—and began exploiting the fans.

Ballplayers receive absurdly inflated wages. Back-up catchers can gross over $1 million a year, and headliners can own private planes. Does all this revenue come out of owners pockets? Hardly. It derives from: a) broadcast rights; b) licensing fees for costly caps and T-shirts with the team logo; c) ludicrously expensive refreshments at the park; and d) ever-pricier tickets.

Consumers complain, but at showtime, they fork over the cash. What they expect in return, though, are monster shots to the second tier, home-run races like the one in 1998 between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire that saw both men break Babe Ruth’s season record, and bulked-up superstars like Barry Bonds, now closing in on Hank Aaron’s career mark of 755 home runs.

Once upon an era, batters cheated by corking their bats or taking uppers to keep themselves stimulated. That seems sandlot stuff these days. A grand jury recently investigated professional baseball players’ use of anabolic steroids and human growth hormone developed by the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (Balco). According to the leaked testimony of Yankees Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield, and on-the-record statements by Jose Canseco and the late Ken Caminiti, among others, the use of such banned compounds now runs rampant in both the American and National Leagues. The drugs build muscle tissue, enabling athletes to perform unprecedented exploits on the field. So what if they’re feats of clay? The people in the stands are happy, the athletes win fat contracts, and the owners rake in the money. What’s wrong with that?

The risks, for starters. Athletes injecting such substances can irreparably damage their livers and hearts and experience violent mood swings. Giambi has suffered dramatic weight loss and a pituitary-gland tumor. Caminiti died at 41. Lyle Alzado, an outstanding pass-rushing football star, died at 42, after years of taking steroids. “We were not born to be 300 pounds or jump 30 feet,” he said in 1992, at the bitter end of his life. “My hair’s gone, I wobble when I walk, and have to hold on to someone for support, and I have trouble remembering things. My last wish? That no one else ever dies this way.” Since then, however, more have died that way, most of them unrecognizable names—kids who wanted, quite literally, to be big men on the playground or campus.

And then there’s the little matter of the Summer Game. Baseball is statistic-mad. Numbers break down into columns of infinite refinement: total bases, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, and on and on. But baseball of late has become a game of home runs über alles. The big roar—and the big money—comes from round-trippers, and there are a lot more hit now. Some say the rise is due to thin pitching talent. Or maybe it results from bringing outfield fences closer to home plate, or from the fact that ballplayers are stronger than in the past, simply because American boys eat better and train harder than their fathers did.

Well, now we know better. All the above may be true, but steroids are the main reason why long-standing records have shattered like fungo bats. The union has always known about the situation but is loath to do anything about it. Hence Players Union general counsel Gene Orza on steroids: “I have no doubt that they are not worse than cigarettes.” As for baseball management, it was shocked—shocked!—to discover that athletes were taking designer drugs to make them brawnier and quicker. Hence baseball commish Bud Selig’s advocacy of a Five-Strikes-and-Yer-Out rule: four unannounced drug tests per year, a 15-game suspension upon the first positive test, increasing to one year on the fourth; expulsion would not occur until a fifth positive turned up.

This softball policy must have been too much for President Bush, who lamented steroid abuse in his 2004 State of the Union speech. To bring back baseball’s integrity, warned Senator John McCain after the Balco revelations, Selig and the players’ union must announce a new policy posthaste. “I’ll give them until January, and then I’ll introduce legislation.”

It may be too late to restore integrity. Baseball now needs two record books. One would cover the pre-steroid era, featuring such stars as Babe Ruth, who ate too many hot dogs; Mickey Mantle, who drank too much; and all the other pre-chemical players—some louts like Ty Cobb, some gentlemen like Hank Aaron—who set records without the benefit of Balco. The other, beginning in the early 1990s, when labs got into the business of athletics, would be for players like McGwire (who admitted using a body-building drug in his 70-home-run season), Giambi, and Bonds.

The late Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Willie Stargell once observed, “The umpires always say ’Play ball.‘ They don’t say ’Work ball.‘ ” They don’t say “Sleazeball,” either. It seems time they did.

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