Monday, January 21, 2008

Mr. Miller will have a word with you now, Lance

The current flavor of the month for the media right now — when they're not too busy mocking Congress for doing what the excessive media coverage of the Mitchell Report encouraged Congress to do in the first place — is asking ballplayers what they think about steroids, testing, and the future of America's erstwhile back-acne-free youth. Theoretically, there's no problem with the media doing this, since I can't imagine there are many better topics for reporters to ask ballplayers in an offseason. However, the reality of the situation is that when a player is evasive or wishes not to comment, the writer has the power to make it appear that the player's motivation for his recalcitrance is more sinister than simple — and advisable — discretion. On the other hand, honest/loudmouth players who spout off create a serious problem when it comes to that player's union maintaining a unified front.

Lance Berkman is an example of the latter. He's been full of self-aggrandizing chatter this offseason, reaching his zenith with this whopper when asked about his willingness to offer a blood sample for an HGH screen, even though a reliable test has yet to be created:

"Absolutely, there's no question," he said. "I think anybody that wouldn't submit to that has something to hide."

I suppose Berkman deserves plaudits for offering up his sangre so freely, but his taking it a step further and casting suspicion on any player who's a little less trusting when it comes to his bodily fluids is a breach. I would like to think that when spring training rolls around, one of his savvier teammates will pull him aside and ask him, politely, to keep his fucking mouth shut when it comes to other players' business.

But, more importantly, it got me to wondering if we would be reading comments like these were the union's leadership made of stronger stuff. I realize that at one point in time, MLBPA honcho Donald Fehr was seen as being a strong rep for the players, but it's clear that his appearances in front of Congress have turned him into a pussycat, relatively speaking. Marvin Miller, the man most responsible for the union's power at the bargaining table, probably would have informed players at the outset of Mitchell's investigation that breaking rank would result in being stranded by the union the next time that player found itself in hot water. And that's the way it should be.

Comments like those offered by Berkman move the onus on the players, and the players alone, when it comes to handling the steroid issue. And while our proud Rice grad might think it's a black-and-white issue — players shouldn't do steroids, period — responsibility for PED use in baseball has proven to be anything but clear. It's imperative that the administrative and ownership arms of baseball not be allowed to wriggle it's way off the hook if we're going to talk about the past. And, in terms of the future, a strong union is the only thing that can prevent PED testing from turning into a complete farce, because the owners will be more than happy to set up a rigged system if it means that they won't be pushed in front of the cameras again. Every time someone like Berkman opens his trap, it makes it more difficult for Fehr or his successor to hold strong against the lopsided demands of ownership that are sure to come during the next collective bargaining negotiation.

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Here's an awesome interview with a very awesome baseball writer who took a pass on voting for the Hall of Fame this year (hat tip to Rob Neyer).


Pepe said...

When I first read this post's title, I was really hoping it referred to Lance Armstrong, who, I think, makes for a pretty interesting figure (or, more accurately, complete and total non-figure) in the midst of this whole PED furor and its attendant discussions.

But I like the post anyway.

Pepe said...

Also, that is an awesome interview. It shouldn't be so refreshing to hear honesty and self-awareness like that, but it is. I especially liked this line:

"The whole idea of sports writers standing in moral judgment of anyone is a bit hard to take."

big c said...

Lance Berkman is spot-on. I completely agree that all of the time and money spent on this whodunit PED witch-trial is better spent on developing concrete, reliable testing methods and putting forth clear rules and procedures when it comes to PEDs in baseball. Harping on the past benefits neither the fan nor the league, and, as both you and Stephen Brunt have pointed out, is an exercise in hypocrisy.

Berkman and Oswalt are correct to assert that the focus surrounding all of this needs to be on future policies and testing. In this context, the quote of his that you presented makes perfect sense. If the Mitchell report has done anything (beside waste my coddamn tax dollars and bemuse critics), it has put out an informal memo that PEDs are no longer a kosher part of America's pasttime. Any player who continues his use of such substances at this point is being intentionally naive enough to justify his imminent defamation.

I don't think that Berkman was trying to stir up shit or throw anyone under the bus. He was pretty much stating the obvious, really; that there is reason to suspect that anyone not willing do undergo drug testing, at this point, is likely to be juicing. Try telling your next employer that you choose not to take a drug test, and watch how fast they choose not to hire you.

Now, I know how you are going to counter that last argument and I'll tell you right now that you have a good point: Testing for HGH hasn't yet been totally nailed-down, and there is the potential for false positives. But, in this environment of guilty-until-proven-innocent perception, one would think that a clean player would be eager to clear his name, as Berkman clearly exemplifies. And there is no logic behind the assumption that MLB would intentionally rig the testing to produce false-positives. Baseball needs less scandal, not more.

To suggest that Berkman needs to keep his mouth shut concerning this particular issue is disturbing, in my view. And on just what, exactly, does the player's union need to present a 'unified front'? The preservation of ownership's ability to cast aspersions on a player's current drug use without physical evidence? It just raises my unibrow every time I hear one of my AFL-CIO-hating friends use the term 'break rank', or imply that a person's right to voice an opinion be repressed.