Baseball Juiced

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Baseball Juiced

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

Congressional hearings yesterday focused on what they consider a crisis in baseball. Steroids. Three entities, Major League Baseball, the Players Union, and Congress are ironing out mutually acceptable punishment guidelines in the hopes of declaring The Boys of Summer clean and above ethical scrutiny. The Players Union suggests fairly light punishment, 20 days for a first offense. The Commissioner has tougher limits in mind, such as 50 games for the first time. Congress leans toward the Olympic standard. Two years out for the first positive test. Lifetime ban-you-re out!-- for the second.

Congress is the only entity here paying attention to history. Steroids crept into the underground world of track and field before World War II, yet it wasn-t until some forty years later that track and field engaged in an earnest push to rid their sport of steroids. Actually, it was this week in 1988, when sprinter Ben Johnson was stripped of his 100-meter gold medal at the Seoul, South Korea Olympic Games, for taking the steroid Winstrol. That-s what it took. A big name at a big moment. It took another 16 years, to the Athens Games last summer, until doping scientists could say with confidence that they were capable of detecting just about any steroid in an athlete-s system.

If baseball is gripped with worry over what they call a public relations nightmare, why aren-t the lessons learned from the folks who have walked down this road before the obvious blueprint for the baseball world?

Track and Field discovered two crucial truths. First, you can-t police your own. You-ve got to turn over the policing to outside agencies with no image to protect. Second, penalties must be very severe. If a Major Leaguer faced two years for a first-time offense and a lifetime ban for a second, he would no doubt throw himself into heavier soul-searching before popping that pill or prepping that syringe. An owner or manager would quickly abandon the laissez-faire attitude of not knowing what his ball players are doing away from the club house. The investments are too precious to lose big guns two years at a time.

The ultimate irony here is that steroids, at least on the pure performance level, may be a non-issue in baseball. A track sprinter, such as Ben Johnson, relies on very few factors for success. Basically, all he has is an explosion of power from the contraction of quick, white fibers in large, powerful muscles. Testosterone boosts both that contraction and the size of those muscles. But a batter connecting with a 95-mile-per-hour pitch? There-s fluidity of swing, vision (both daytime and nighttime), instantaneous adjustments, reflexes, experience, judgment of wind and sun, a read of the outfielders positions. So many factors. We can only presume that both Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi are tested constantly, given their reputations of dipping down into the illegal cauldron of performance enhancing drugs. And since they have both hit the heck out of the ball since those cheating days, we can assume the juice didn-t really help them much, if at all.

So Congress is urging baseball to clean its own in the name of setting an example for kids, the health of the players, and protecting the record books. But I-m not sure the public relations nightmare they claim is raging among the public really exists.

New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden laments -The synthetic era has permanently altered the soul of the game.-

Well, this season has seen attendance records, more-than-healthy television ratings, and the most dramatic American League showdown in many years. Once Giambi publicly and sincerely apologized about the error of his ways, the crowds, both at Yankee Stadium and around the League, have forgiven him. As for Bonds and Palmeiro, the court of public opinion has judged them harshly, -- but not as -roid users--as liars.

We the public haven-t turned our backs on the Olympics. And we won-t turn our backs on baseball. Steroids are an issue, not a crisis.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad