SB Nation

Michael and Colin MacDonald | January 10, 2013

Bonds played by the rules

How baseball insiders are punishing players for the steroid culture they helped create

Barry Bonds was rejected for the Hall of Fame on Wednesday. Everybody agrees he has the numbers. But 63.8 percent voted against how he compiled them. Using steroids was cheating, they say, and violates the character clause for the Hall.

Hold accountable those who created the incentives Bonds exploited

We have a few questions for that 63.8 percent. We’ll stipulate that Bonds used steroids knowingly. If they want to punish Bonds, okay. But if Bonds is to be punished, then cast the net widely. Hold accountable those who created the incentives Bonds exploited.

Let’s look at the two decisive junctions in steroid history in baseball. Baseball had a clear choice about what to do – or not to do – about steroids. In 1989, the first juiced team won the World Series. In 1998, two juiced players raced to break Roger Maris’s single season home run record. Both times, steroids lurked in the background. They could have become the story. Executives, journalists, and insiders in the know could have blown the whistle either time. They could have made steroids the story either time. They could have won journalism awards for exposes. But they did not. Insiders concealed steroid use. Instead of exonerating or punishing it, they adopted baseball’s version of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

It is impossible to know what insiders knew, what they didn’t know, what they suspected, and what suspicions they tried to deny. But we do know that steroids have visible effects on the male body and insiders had access to clubhouses. If they did not harbor suspicions about why larger and, especially, older men were hitting more balls farther than ever before, it’s because insiders did not want to know.

Voters are not the jury of the impartial. They were the cheerleaders of the steroid era

Fair enough. Baseball is a game and games are to be enjoyed. Why spoil them with ugly truths? Here’s why. If you avert your head from the truth, you are aware that there is something you do not want to know. If some among of the 63.8 percent closed their eyes because they did not want their illusions dashed and their stories ruined, it’s too late now to blame players. Hall of Fame voters are not the jury of the impartial. They were the cheerleaders of the steroid era.

Keep in mind two landmarks – the 1989 Oakland A’s and the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in 1998. Both were fueled by steroids. So what did the commissioner, the sport writers who fancy themselves as the game’s conscience, and pontificating politicians say then? How did the guardians of the game deal with the intrusion of steroids in baseball’s holy of holies? The answer is – they ignored it.

Jose Conseco

There were exceptions. Tom Boswell, one of baseball’s most esteemed writers, reported as early as 1988 that Jose Canseco of the A’s might be using steroids. Coincidentally, his teammates were usually large in size. The world champion 1989 A’s were the largest great team ever, according to Bill James. But polite company did not associate the A’s with steroids. There were rumors. Red Sox fans mocked Jose Canseco. But it wasn’t clear that overmuscled behemoths won baseball games. Anyway, who could doubt the A’s, baseball’s model organization? They were owned by the exemplary, socially conscious Haas family. Sandy Alderson, the product of Dartmouth, Harvard Law School and the Marines, was the general manager. Their manager was the iconic Tony La Russa.

The Oakland A’s crushed the San Francisco Giants in the 1989 “earthquake” World Series. The series is remembered mostly for the earthquake that struck during warm-ups before Game 3, not for the beating it was. The Giants were swept in four games and outscored 32-13. Worse, they never led at any point in any game. Not once. It was only the second time in World Series history that had happened.

The A’s were baseball’s original steroid team and they won a World Series and three consecutive American League pennants. They also changed the rules of the game. They played on a field that was not level. Some A’s were using steroids for competitive advantage. The rest of baseball, including the 1989 Giants, played at a competitive disadvantage. Within a few years, teams were seeking the advantage for themselves. In 1992 George W. Bush’s Texas Rangers became the second steroid team. They traded for Canseco, the Johnny Appleseed of steroids.

the stain did not wear off onto the men who assembled and managed them
Tony La Russa

Baseball cheered the A’s. It was the model franchise. Tony La Russa was bold, inventive, competitive, and perceptive. He didn’t miss anything and sought every edge. He had pitching, defense, hitting, speed, fundamentals, heady play and great execution. La Russa fought for every advantage, but he played within the spirit of the game. His teams won games the right way – classy. Of course, if La Russa always did the right thing, then whatever his teams did was right. If it wasn’t right, La Russa’s A’s would not do it. Sport writers sang his praises. When La Russa retired, some thought he was the greatest manager ever.

A’s general manager Sandy Alderson was hugely successful, too. After establishing a mini-dynasty in a small market from 1988-90, he remained with the A’s until September 1998. Ultimately, the financial inequalities proved too much for him. He battled against the trend, even bringing Canseco back to Oakland in 1997. A year later, about the time Alderson’s former star first baseman was smashing Maris’s record, commissioner Bud Selig, guardian of the game’s integrity, appointed Alderson as vice president of baseball operations (and potential successor). Alderson had important responsibilities, including player discipline. He made important contributions. He was instrumental in curbing the abuse of steroids by the exploiters of young teenagers in the Dominican Republic.

Still, the larger point about steroids was hard to miss. Alderson might or might not have known that steroids were seeping through his team. Either way, he was put in charge of player discipline at the very time McGwire and Sosa were beating Maris. Alderson’s degree from Harvard Law School was not required to decipher Selig’s message.

The baseball establishment pronounced Alderson and La Russa as spotless. They are role models. Their integrity is unquestioned. Canseco reports that six to eight A’s were juicing by the time he was traded to Texas. But the stain did not wear off onto the men who assembled and managed them. La Russa later conceded some of his A’s were juicing, but he cut Canseco’s number in half and exempted McGwire. La Russa’s reputation remains untarnished. McGwire and Bonds are considered cheaters and their records are questioned. But nobody suggests that La Russa should not be credited as manager of the 1989 world champs.

1998 was the second decisive juncture. It’s the year when steroids fueled a chase for a treasured record. All of baseball cheered, including the guardians of tradition and the champions of fair play. Baseball was joyous; it recaptured the national imagination; it was innocent. The race, the banter and good-natured competition, banished unhappy memories of the 1995 strike and the lost World Series. All was well in baseball again, like boyhood. Bob Costas, the scourge of steroid abusers and the conscience of the game, was thrilled. “Baseball’s summer of ’98 provided authentic moments of poetry and passion, the kind of stuff that shines through all the crassness and nonsense, to remind us all why we can still care.”[1] He saw no evil and heard no evil.

Costas and like-minded insiders wanted the omelet without breaking the eggs. Without questioning the sincerity of their indignation, it sure looks like their denial was willful. McGwire was a former Oakland A. His manager was the hyper-competitive, never-miss-an-edge Tony La Russa, his former manager with the A’s. Sports Illustrated reported that McGwire stored Androstenedione, which produces testosterone, in his locker.[2]

So the stage is set for the indictment of Bonds. The charge is, he began cheating after the 1998 season because he was consumed with envy after watching baseball drool over McGwire and Sosa. Resenting that inferior players were gaining the acclaim that was rightly his, he decided to cheat. His cheating was especially unbecoming because he already was a great player, clearly the best National Leaguer of his generation. It is one thing, imply his accusers, for a marginal player to hold onto his major career by getting a boost. But for a great player to launch his statistics into the stratosphere – 73 home runs in a season, 762 in his career – is immoral, unethical and disqualifies him from the Hall of Fame. By besmirching the game, he forfeited his place in Cooperstown.

We disagree. We do not think that steroid use is good or laudable. We wish the game were free from them. We wish steroids never had been used in baseball. But we also recognize reality. When the genie escaped the bottle, it forced players to choose between using and gaining a competitive advantage, and not using and suffering a competitive disadvantage. Using also endangers the player’s health and imposes the same choice on other players. Not using risks losing games and jobs (and the 1989 World Series). Some players will cheat at every opportunity and others will honor all rules no matter the temptation. But many players will play within the rules as the guardians of the game define and enforce them. But if the enforcement of the rules signals a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude, the blame originates with those sending the signal.

Barry Bonds Home Run King

That’s why the response of baseball insiders is revealing. Take Bob Costas, the outspoken critic of steroids and Bonds. As Costas said on the Today show as Bonds approached Henry Aaron’s record in 2007, Bonds “wasn’t the only one who used. There was atmosphere in the game. The owners, the commissioners, the players association and the players themselves are all complicit in that.”[3] It’s a beginning. But it begs four questions.

First, why’s the media left out? The media had a great story and milked it relentlessly. They were not mere chroniclers. They helped create Costas’ “atmosphere” too. Wanting to fall in love with baseball again, they saw what they wanted and ignored what they didn’t want. Reporters were in every clubhouse every day. Are 63.8 percent of Hall of Fame voters embarrassed at what they chose not to pursue at the time? Is their indignation now a reflection of their feelings of guilt for turning a blind eye then?

Second, who benefited from the “atmosphere”? Why would the powers-that-be foster it? Money, perhaps? There was lots of money to be made from home runs. The home run hitters made fortunes. So did the teams. Why, exactly, would baseball executives want to kill the goose that was laying the golden egg? And the money, remember, spread throughout the industry. The media got its cut too, in the form of higher rating, bigger audiences, more hits, and greater revenues.

they saw what they wanted and ignored what they didn’t want

Third, who did what when? Saying steroids were in the “atmosphere” sounds wonderfully open-minded and positively non-judgmental. It makes sense if the goal is to issue a blanket amnesty. But that is not Costas’ intent. If some players, like Bonds, are to be held accountable by the Hall, then it matters when steroids were used. Steroids tilt the playing field. When the first user uses them, he forces the second to choose between either suffering a competitive disadvantage or leveling the playing field with the first. Of course, if the second levels the field with the first, he gains an advantage over the third. At some point around 1998, players who did not want to use were forced to make an unfair choice. Would they use, whether to retain their jobs, help their teams win or maximize their production? Or would they not use, and maybe lose their jobs, games and pennants? Of course, becoming a user both risks the player’s health and tilts the field even more. Which raises the real question: Are the players who used steroids for the purpose of correcting the competitive imbalances as responsible as those who introduced the imbalances in the first place? As competitors, what were they to do?

Are players who used more culpable than baseball officials who turned a blind eye?

There’s a fourth question, which Costas evades. Are players who used more culpable than baseball officials who turned a blind eye? Are they equally culpable? Less culpable? The position of Hall voters, especially those blaming Bonds and celebrating La Russa, faults players more.

But is this appropriate? Professional athletes are paid vast sums to compete. They do not set the rules, and the rules that prevail are not necessarily those that are written. The rules are those that baseball enforces. And “baseball” means the commissioner, the leagues, general managers and managers, and even esteemed members of the media.

What are players supposed to do and what are commissioners, owners, general managers and managers supposed to do? This is why we highlight Alderson and La Russa. Both were making decisions, consciously or not, that condoned steroids and both are heralded as exemplary figures. It is why it is eloquent that Commissioner Selig appointed Alderson as his top assistant and heir apparent. This appointment was not akin to FDR appointing Joseph Kennedy to head the SEC on the grounds that it took a crook to catch a crook. Alderson was not directed to clean up steroids. Given that Alderson had assembled the original steroid team and that his star McGwire was setting the home run record, the reasonable inference was that baseball did not object to steroids. Either that, or baseball condoned them.

Bonds did not set the rules. He played within rules that were set by the guardians of the game.

As Giant fans, we wish Bonds had not used steroids. We wish he had overcome the massive disadvantage of batting left-handed in Pac Bell Park and had set the home-run mark with no taint of suspicion. But there is a critical difference between adapting to a tilted playing field and tilting the field in the first place. Bonds did not set the rules. He played within rules that were set, implicitly and tacitly, by the guardians of the game.

The purpose of rules is to establish and enforce level playing field. But if rules are written but are not enforced, like when umpires call a letter high pitch a ball, they are not real rules. Players must adjust to the game as it is called. When baseball celebrated the 1989 A’s without reservation, when it glorified McGwire and Sosa, and when insiders chose not to see evidence that would dash their illusions, they sent a clear message to Bonds and those who came late to steroids.

Bonds responded to the incentives that baseball insiders set. It is legitimate if you have a problem with the choice Bonds made. But you should have a prior problem with those who forced the choice onto him and every other player. Before blaming how latecomers responded, first blame the authorities that established the incentives. Then, but only then, may voters to the Hall feel free to turn to Bonds. If the 63.8 percent has not done that, they have no business taking out their dashed illusions on Bonds. They should blame themselves. Or, if they want, they could distribute their justice on La Russa when he stands for admission.

About the Author

Michael Macdonald is the author of two books, Why Race Matters in South Africa (Harvard University Press, 2006), and Children of Wrath: Political Violence in Northern Ireland (Polity Press, Oxford, 1986). He is completing a book on the second Iraq war. He teaches political science at Williams College, the alma mater of George Steinbrenner. His son, Colin, is a recent graduate of the University of Vermont.