Needles and Spectacle

I was sitting in a dugout last week, waiting for the fine Waipahu mist to pass across the mountains and out to sea. On my left was a Dodger fan, on my right a chemistry professor. The topic of Bonds and steroids came up.

The Dodger fan offered rumors. His best friend knew a guy who knew a guy who knew that of course Bonds did steroids. That everybody knew it. And that it pissed a bunch of people off.

This is the typical gossip that seems to surround bulking power hitters, Bonds especially. But these sewing-circle accusations are spectacle and sound and little substantiation in between. Maybe there are times, in the windy offseason, when Barry's daily line drives are months separated, that I wonder whether I should care about reports of his attitude and off-field behavior. But that is as far as I'm willing to go.

The chemist and I talked about baseball's steroid policy. He offered literature. Two articles: "Abuse of Performance-Enhancing Drugs in Sport," written by the Senior Managing Director of the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), Larry Bower, and published in Therapeutic Drug Monitoring; and "Hormones in Sport," an article from the 2001 Journal of Endocrinology. The first gave the initial 1963 definition of doping: "The administering or use of substances in any form alien to the body…with the exclusive aim of attaining an artificial and unfair increase in performance competition." That means even the Yellow Beauties big leaguers take to "get up" for games, as reported by Tony Gwynn, fall under this criteria.

The other article dealt with the ethics of performance enhancers. Its author, an M Verroken, states that "to ensure consistency, the framework that exists in sport is rule-based. The rules must be obeyed by all participants. In other words, the determination of what is right or wrong behavior cannot be based solely upon personal views." That is, don't put the cat in charge of handing out the milk. Because if personal interest establishes the codes for good and bad, then "the rules that form the practical application of those codes would be merely the voice of the majority or those in positions of power."

So if those in power determine right and wrong, then the rules will merely serve them. And who's in power in Major League Baseball? Darth Selig has not consolidated the entire sport; his eternal grapple is with the Players Association, the MLBPA. And how are the rules on performance enhancers established? Through collective bargaining between the two.

In his article, Verroken goes on to discuss consequences for steroids within a fair punishment system, but baseball never made it that far. It may be difficult to compare the rules of our national pastime to other governing bodies, like the USADA, because of unions and compromise. But what kind of excuse is that, saying, "We were going to outlaw all kinds of murder, but our murderous dictator was too powerful, so we could only make manslaughter a no-no." Claiming that something is the best possible solution amidst a bad situation is not the best possible argument.

Don't get me wrong, this bargaining has had obvious advantages for the wellbeing of ballplayers; my father signed a first round, secondary phase contract with the Royals in 1975 and considered himself blessed to receive a 3500 dollar signing bonus. But the issue of steroids infringes on the sports competitive regulators, like number of outs and fence distances, because players are perceived to circumvent the webbing of the game itself. And the MLBPA doesn't always espouse concern. The new collectively bargained steroid program will go into effect next year. The entire thing would have been discarded had less than two percent of players tested positive. But up to seven percent did (though nobody will be punished since it was only a "survey" test). Now, all players on the 40-man roster will be subject to testing and a degree of penalties ranging from a treatment program on the first infraction to a one-year suspension—on the fifth positive result.

So what needs to be done, to make things better? How much of a problem is steroids? Does it really jeopardize the efficacy of the game? How is it different than other kinds of cheating, like stealing signs the way the 1951 Giants did? Is there anything we can do, as fans, besides wearing outrage on our sleeves? Are we even outraged?

Each of us wants something from baseball; our enjoyment is selfish because we take much more than we give. I want that success-based validation: the feeling of Brian Johnson's homer against the Dodgers in '97 or Kenny Lofton's base hit in the NLCS. I never look forward to hearing about the business of baseball, and the gossip surrounding players seems other-worldly; they already have on-field personalities. Fernando Vina is a moxie slap hitter who wears inside pitches and hustles from first to third. A report of his squabbles with Tony LaRussa muddles this. Conversely, I'm happy that JT Snow donated a portion of his last contract to charity, but that doesn't give me anywhere near the rush of a Bonds at-bat in the 9th with the game on the line.

I still get chills thinking about those two games against Atlanta this year, in August, when Barry hit a pair of walk-off homers. What if he had been on the juice? Would a clean Bonds have driven those balls into the wind, only to have Jones or Sheffield reach up at the wall? If by some lightning bolt of journalism we found out definitively that Bonds did steroids, would his accomplishments, and those of the Giants over the last gleaming years, be diminished?

Of course. And maybe that diminishment would be necessary to help the game, to correct the compromise of right and wrong spurred by the current power structure.

But my selfish relationship with baseball, and that of many others, would be crippled. My memories would have asterisks. The emotional payoff would seemed forged, like winning tons of chips in a no-money poker game. The attention and emphasis I place on my hometown team—already too much, most of my friends say—would have to wane, because there are always more important things in life than whether or not the Giants take two out of three from the Padres. And a disgraceful cheating scandal would only wake me up to that.

So I will protect my baseball rush any way possible, in the same way the MLBPA will do anything to support its players. Is it naïve to choose to be naïve? Yes. Is my personal relationship to the game more important than the game's wellbeing? No. But sometimes I wish it were.

No one can justify the claim that Bonds has ever used steroids. No evidence has been found. He will be tested the rest of his career. Nobody has stepped forth with accusations. He is much more likely to be innocent than guilty. After he retires, the same stories I hear now will persist, and probably from more reputable sources. But barring some widening THG revelations, it will never be definitive. And baseball will survive this innuendo. As sketchy as the MLBPA is, the bare minimum might be enough to carry the sport, limping a little as it has before, to a high point just around the corner, similar to Cal Ripken's streak-breaking celebration, or Mark and Sammy's race. Or Barry's 700th homerun…

An admission by Bonds would taint the future as much as the past. And it would be a personal ruin for the city of San Francisco. Let's hope that day never comes. Seriously. No matter how you feel about Bonds off the field. That's what my Dodger-fan friend wants more than anything—to see the franchise taken down by the franchise player. But until such scandal, I can joke with the chemistry professor about how hormones change the size of your jowls, Placido Polanco style. I can say Bonds sure look bigger, a ha ha ha. I can retell rumors with a smile. And I can continue to believe in Barry's innocence. Because you would have to stick me with the needle too before I ever believed otherwise.

Tim Denevi is a raving Giants fan who can't decide if he would rather have Mike Aldrete or Marvin Biz-nard pinch-hitting with the game on the line. E-mail him with your opinion on any issue at

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