Category Archives: steroids

Bonds, Clemens, fame and notoriety

This shouldn’t be complicated. According to the dictionary definition of “fame,” neither Barry Bonds nor Roger Clemens requires the blessing of self-important baseball scribes to qualify for inclusion among the sport’s most widely known players.

Still, the annual Hall of Fame voting this week raised the topic again. Should Bonds and Clemens eventually be inducted into Cooperstown? Are they getting closer each year?

Listen: Bonds and Clemens already have their fame. By doing what they did, as arguably their generation’s most dominant hitter and pitcher, they long ago achieved far-reaching acclaim. And they did so, according to overwhelming evidence, powered by banned substances, which only served to raise their public conspicuousness. (“Fame” also can mean recognition of an unfavorable kind; notoriety.)

So, a couple of modest proposals:

1. Take away the St. Peter-at-the-Pearly-Gates function of the Baseball Writers Association of America. The organization was founded in 1908 to improve the writing conditions of baseball reporters. To subsequently empower its members to canonize ballplayers—to make news, rather than reporting it—is a perversion of journalism.

Too much attention is paid to the BBWAA members’ arguments over what weight should be       given to players’ moral behavior, especially since the writers have demonstrated a sliding           scale of acceptance, as indicated by the yearly increase in the number of votes for Bonds and     Clemens. Baseball historian John Thorn has argued that the system “permits sportswriters…to   see themselves as guardians of a sacred portal, the last best hope for truth and justice. And       it’s all hogwash and baloney.”

2. Take away the “sacred portal.” In no way should Bonds or Clemens get a pass for having cheated their way to grand statistical accomplishments. (Just as Major League Baseball should not get off the hook for having turned a blind eye to steroid use for years after other sports organizations tested and penalized juicers.) So, by demystifying Cooperstown—by dispensing with the venerated status for really good athletes by hanging their plaques in a reverential hall, conferring on them the title of Great Men—there would be no need to confuse exceptional baseball skill with a place in Heaven. (Angels—from the Los Angeles team—could still qualify for acknowledgement.)

The museum aspect of Cooperstown’s Hall already is a fabulous depository of baseball history and artifacts, good and bad. Even persona non grata figures Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose have some personal items in the museum, so the records of Bonds and Clemens—the complete records, with statistics alongside reports of their misdeeds—would have their place.

Baseball is unquestionably a significant piece of our culture, something to celebrate. But hero worship is a risky thing, just as consigning reality—good or bad—to the dustbin solves nothing. Better to skip the BBWAA’s editorial judgments and accept that Bonds and Clemens already made their own fame.

This sounds familiar: Olympic doping and politics

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An Olympics without Russians? This feels like where I came in.

In 1984, my first of 11 Olympics, the Russians and their 14 fellow Soviet republics staged an Eastern bloc boycott of the Los Angeles Games. That was in retaliation for President Jimmy Carter’s politically motivated snub of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, a disorienting back-in-the-U.S., back-in-the-U.S., back-in-the-U.S.S.R. tit-for-tat.

(1980 Moscow Olympics)

(1980 Moscow Olympics)

(1984 Los Angeles Olympics)

(1984 Los Angeles Olympics)

This time, it isn’t Ronald Reagan calling the Olympics’ No. 2 superpower “the evil empire.” Now that the Court of Arbitration for Sport has let stand a world track and field federation ruling, Russia’s athletes in that sport face a blanket ban from next month’s Rio de Janeiro Games. Based on the July 18 World Anti-Doping Agency report on state-sponsored cheating, the International Olympic Committee could extend the Rio embargo to Russians in all 28 sports.

The difference in 1984 and 2016 may seem obvious: One nonattendance voluntary, the other imposed. Except, in both cases, it can be argued that two troublesome Olympic staples, politics and drugs, are simultaneously at play.

Take the second instance first: There is documented evidence that almost half of all positive drug tests at the past two Summer Olympics belonged to Russian athletes. (And that was before the former Soviet lab boss blew the whistle on his country’s dastardly operation to manipulate testing at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.) Still, Russian officials have couched the potential banishment from Rio as just one more American attempt to humiliate their nation. So: Politics?

The Russians point to information that other countries—Kenya prominently among them—are guilty either of implementing elite athletes’ drug use, or turning a blind eye toward the practice. Without—so far, anyway—any consequences. (The Russians say that some of their individuals may be guilty of juicing, as athletes are throughout the world, but their leadership does not condone it.)

As for ’84, when the whole idea of the Soviet boycott of L.A. appeared thoroughly political, at least one fellow didn’t think it was that clear-cut.

That spring, Bob Goldman released his book, “Death in the Locker Room/Steroids and Sports.” In a telephone interview discussing his research, Goldman proposed to me that, among the various and complex reasons the Soviets chose to stay away from L.A. was the fact that “those guys have realized they aren’t going to get clean in time. They know they’ll get caught in L.A.” for steroid use. So, then as now: Politics and drugs?!

The previous summer, at the Pan America Games in Caracas, there had been the biggest drug bust in sports history. Nineteen athletes from 10 countries were nailed for failed tests in a makeshift Venezuelan lab, and we reporters found it a bit suspicious that 13 U.S. track athletes immediately boarded flights home on the eve of their competition. (Some returned days later, perhaps having been reassured in private screenings that they were not vulnerable.)

The seismic Caracas event seemed to indicate either a belated push by international sports pooh-bahs to get serious about steroid use, combined with new diagnostic tools to do so, or merely a signal to Eastern bloc players who might be contemplating chemical assistance at the ’84 L.A. Games. Or, more cynically, a public relations move, so there would be no second-guessing of Los Angeles’ ability to catch any bad actors and, therefore, no questioning of test results. Talk about a political move.

Since forever, the Olympics has been a so-called “war without bullets,” a theater for demonstrating national superiority (minus potential bloodshed) that was particularly embraced by Communist nations. Even with the balkanization of the old U.S.S.R., its Olympic team kept emphasizing victory: In 1992, its team comprised of Russia plus most of the recently separated Soviet republics, it piled up medals under the banner of the Commonwealth of Independent States. (We called them the “Commies” for short.) And, after that, even without Lithuanian basketball players and Georgian wrestlers and Ukrainian weightlifters as Olympic mates, the Russians soldiered on quite well.

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Have they been winning through the decades because of systematic, government-backed fudging on doping? In “Death in the Locker Room,” Bob Goldman asserted that an American doctor, John Ziegler, had witnessed the Soviets using “straight testosterone” in the 1952 Olympics and felt that U.S. athletes deserved a more level playing field. Ziegler’s answer was to approach a pharmaceutical company to help him develop anabolic steroids and synthetic grown hormone.

Goldman wrote that Ziegler introduced those substances to American athletes “with the best intentions and saw his baby grow into a monster that frightened him.”

Best intentions. So, now that we have fostered our share of dopey dopers, a partisan, holier-than-thou attitude is not helpful. (That’s just more politics.) And the Olympics, while armed with nice ideas, has been proven to have rubber teeth in these matters.

In the case of the former East Germany, for instance, none of its athletes ever tested positive at the Games, but a series of trials and court testimony years after the dissolution of that country revealed an extensive government-mandated steroid operation. (It’s all in Steven Ungerleider’s book, “Faust’s Gold.”)

As an Olympic patriot, a believer in the Olympic ideal of promoting international goodwill through a sort of United Nations in Sneakers, I will miss seeing the Russians in Rio—if it comes to that. But I continue to root for all Olympic efforts striving for fair play in a setting that can be tempting to gold-diggers.

In that Bob Goldman book, he told of how he asked 198 world-class athletes, mostly weightlifters and their weight-throwing counterparts in track and field, “If I had a magic drug that was so fantastic that if you took it once you would win every competition you would enter, from the Olympic decathlon to Mr. Universe for the next five years, but it had one minor drawback—if would kill you five years after you took it—would you still take the drug?

More than half, 103, said yes.

So this feels like where I came in.

Why the Al Jazeera report on doping is not shocking

peyton

This is not meant to cast aspersions on Peyton Manning or any of the other prominent athletes implicated for obtaining banned performance-enhancing substances in the recent Al Jazeera report. (Those named all denied the allegations, and two have filed defamation suits.) And this certainly isn’t intended to condone doping in sports.

But a matter-of-fact reaction to the Al Jazeera piece is to recall a 40-year-old declaration by two-time Olympic weightlifter Mark Cameron. It was around 1976 when Cameron suggested that if his fellow competitors were told that eating scouring pads would make them stronger, there would not be a clean pot within miles of the gym.

mark

About that time, on an assignment to cover the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, I was so bombarded with heavy hints of widespread doping that I began to wonder if it was possible for anyone to qualify for the Olympics without a prescription. In the weight events, particularly, American athletes were claiming that virtually all of the top international competitors were engaging in prohibited chemical activity. And so they must as well. Discus thrower Jay Silvester, who had won a silver medal in the previous Games, estimated that “99 to 100 percent of the world-class weightmen use steroids.”

When asked directly if he was in that category, Silvester said, “No comment.” The discus winner at those trials, Mac Wilkins, responded to the same question with this wink-and-nod quote: “Aren’t steroids supposedly illegal?”

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Some things are a mystery, but some things are abundantly clear. Irrefutable evidence of doping violations is difficult to pin down, but elite athletes have been seeking an edge—by almost any means—forever. And it has only been during the current century, when the high-profile sports of baseball and football finally began to take serious anti-doping measures, that real penalties—and therefore a stigma—were attached to juicing.

Long before Major League Baseball or the NFL paid attention to this stuff, the U.S. Olympic Committee hired its first drug-control chief, Dr. Robert Voy, recognizing in the early 1980s a need for aggressive testing. The first major drug busts in sports were at the Pan American Games of 1983, in Caracas, and 1987, in Indianapolis, and it was then that Voy said significant anti-doping progress only would commence “if the NFL would go back to fielding 235-pound linemen, instead of 285-pounders; if the NFL would face the steroid problem; if Division I college football would wipe out steroid use, which they could do for the same money they spend on tape.”

Now, 30 years later, New York Times columnist Michael Powell has made the same point in his sober reaction to the Al Jazeera undercover documentary naming Manning (among others)—that the “shock would be to discover that more than a few men in this morally compromised sport are completely clean. In the last two decades, the weight of NFL linemen has jumped by 50, 60, 70 pounds, and men the size of linebackers play wide receiver.”

Powell quoted University of Colorado professor Roger Pielke’s observation that “football and doping kind of go hand-in-hand.”

This is not the kind of information the typical sports fan—or the typical sports journalist—much cares to think about, and that has enabled sports authorities to mostly look the other way, especially since theirs is an endeavor in which “doing anything to win” is a maxim.

These days, at least, we have tentatively accepted that the first step in resolving the doping issue is to acknowledge the extent of the problem. So that stars fingered by Al Jazeera, as in the the BALCO and Biogenesis scandals, are inclined toward passionate repudiation—instead of instructive parables about scouring pads and clean pots.

 

 

 

Baseball records, discounted

Baseball and steroids isolated over a black background.

First of all, we need to lose the term “steroid era” in baseball. All that label describes is the period of time when the sport’s leadership weaponized the use of performance enhancing drugs by ignoring their long-obvious presence among elite athletes.

Only with the Balco revelations in 2002 and the 2007 Mitchell Report was Major League Baseball at last shamed into doing something about doping. That was four decades after Olympic sports began policing illegal substance abuse. Even then, it took years before baseball’s commitment to testing resembled effective international standards.

Furthermore, we need to be grown-up enough to admit that the improved drug screening and stiffer penalties have not magically eliminated banned substances. Just this year, more than two dozen players in the major and minor leagues have been busted for various steroids, including repeated cases involving Stanozolol, an old, old favorite that got sprint champion Ben Johnson spectacularly stripped of his gold medal at the 1988 Olympics.

With the curtain pulled back on this ongoing nefarious behavior, then, there is the persistent riddle of statistics, and just what effect juicing should have on baseball’s precious records. No other sport is as obsessed with averages, means and medians to theoretically collate career accomplishments of men who played the game in different decades—even different centuries.

Two recent posts on the FiveThirtyEight web site considered this pickle, citing a SurveyMonkey Audience poll asking Americans whether some players’ stats should be subject to a “steroid discount.” (Another dilemma here: Would a discount be applied to players merely accused of doping by credible sources as well as those who have admitted drug use or have failed tests?)

FiveThirtyEight reported that 41 percent of poll respondents believed all records should stand as they are; 23 percent said dopers should have their records wiped out completely; 36 percent suggested some reduction percentage. FiveThirtyEight subsequently settled on three charts, one reflecting actual home run totals, another with home run numbers reduced by 20 percent and another downgrading long-ball stats by 33 percent. (Other batting stats and pitching records were not considered.)

According to those calculations, the notorious Barry Bonds drops from No. 1 in all-time homers (762) to No. 4 (657) via the 20-percent discount and No. 6 (588) with a 33-percent penalty. (Bonds, it should be noted, played the last of his 22 Major Leagues seasons in 2007 and never failed a drug screening, while MLB did not commence “survey” drug testing until 2003, and did not establish even moderate penalties for positive tests until 2004.)

barry

Alex Rodriguez, who likewise never failed steroid screening though he has twice confessed to doping, would have his homer ranking slip from No. 4 (674) to No. 7 (598) and No. 11 (548) in the FiveThirtyEight models.

Here I acknowledge the absolute impossibility to know just who has cheated and who hasn’t, as well as an aversion to canonizing ballplayers based simply on their athletic skills—naturally produced or not. (A modest proposal: Skip Hall of Fame enshrinements and limit a demystified Cooperstown to its fabulous museum aspect, housing a full record of player history that includes any proven moral turpitude. This would minimize the danger of affording venerated status to really good athletes by hanging their plaques in a reverential hall and allowing their grand statistics to confer on them the title of Great Men. And would address the problem of deputizing a group of baseball writers to determine which players are worthy of entering the Hall’s pearly gates.)

I confess, with baseball’s ever-proliferating formulas—WHIP, WAR, VORP and so on—being numbed by numbers. So I give the last words on the subject to my friend Tony Spota, whose elaborate set of impressive quantitative measurements enable him to rank every player in baseball history.

Tony Spota in his statistics lab

Tony Spota in his statistics lab

(Among the Spota equations are Ye=(G/300) + (Ab/1000) and C=[2(W+Sb)-K]/(Ab+W), which conspiracy theorists might mistake for nuclear codes but which are carefully devised and weighted to consider, beyond the usual batting and slugging averages and defensive numbers, what he calls “productivity” and even “cunning.”)

Bottom line: “Records should stand,” Spota has concluded, though his overall evaluation of players does not ignore the doping quandary. For ranking purposes, he applies a 10-percent steroid penalty to what he defines as each player’s “quality” (as opposed to “longevity”). And he places that level of punishment not only on players who have had a positive drug test, but also to those included in the Mitchell Report and those who have admitted doping. Even, he said, “a guy like Ivan Rodriguez who, when asked about using steroids, said, ‘God only knows.’”

Arbitrary? “It’s my formula,” Spota reminded.

Fair enough. In the end, by making his various integers and digits dance, he figured that Barry Bonds’ widely accepted use of steroids—though never legally proven or acknowledged by Bonds—knocks the mighty slugger down from No. 1, all-time, to a less-heroic No. 8. (Still not so bad. Spota’s top six are Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Hank Aaron, Cy Young and Stan Musial.) Likewise, via the Spota rules, Alex Rodriguez falls from 23rd to 52nd, Roger Clemens from 27th to 60th, Rafael Palmeiro from 31st to 66th.

“By the way,” Spota warned. “All of this gets blown away when we start genetic engineering.”

Ah. The “bionic era.”

To Alex Rodriguez: Sorry, that’s been done

Surely this latest Alex Rodriguez mea culpa is a variant of the old Pete and Repeat joke. Rodriguez apologized and what was left?

Not belief.

His hand-written letter “To the Fans” is a virtual echo of his Feb. 9, 2009 press conference, when Rodriguez belatedly denied his own denials of steroid use six years earlier. Properly contrite, he assured then of a road-to-Damascus conversion, welcoming the world’s judgment of his righteous actions going forward.

Repeat.

In his missive this week, Rodriguez segued quickly from taking “full responsibility for my mistakes” to declaring himself “ready to put this chapter behind me.”

If that doesn’t remind everyone of Yogi Berra’s redundant old line about revisiting déjà vu, it certainly conjures Oscar Wilde’s “Importance of Being Earnest.” You know, the play about protagonists maintaining fictitious personae to escape burdensome social obligations. About pretending to be a person other than oneself.

Repeat.

In 2009, Rodriguez buttressed his apology by insisting he had sworn off doping before joining the Yankees in 2004. And here (in my Newsday report below) was steroid expert Terry Todd’s immediate and, it turns out, thoroughly reasonable reaction:

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“Anytime anyone says something like that to me, I’m always very skeptical.”

A former Olympic weightlifter who founded the center for physical culture and sports at the University of Texas and whose research includes hundreds of interviews of steroid users over several decades, Todd said then that Rodriguez “damn sure could have been taking testosterone” right up to his pubic 2009 confession.

In fact, we learned soon enough, Rodriguez damn sure was still doping at least up to 2013, when the Biogenesis scandal further slimed him. Too, there was the question, Todd said, of whether a former user of performance-enhancing drugs continues to be “advantaged over someone of equal ability and talents who never has taken any drugs at all. Most of the people I’ve discussed this with, who have wide experiences with steroids, seem to believe that you do have an advantage that never goes away.”

The theory is that, since ability in any sport is to some degree psychological, when a new level of performance is reached while doping, that new standard is “no longer a bridge too far in your mind,” Todd said. “And the fact these drugs took you to that place you couldn’t have gotten to on your own, just the fact that your muscles handled this new speed or weight means, in a physiological way, you have created perhaps subtle changes in your muscle structure, in the tendons and ligaments, that did not completely dissipate.”

To Todd, not only is that argument logical but, more to the point, “there definitely are personality types who, once they’ve experienced improvements in strength or muscle size that is greater than they felt they could have gotten [without steroids], they feel this [stronger, larger person] is them. And they are loathe to give that up.”

Sounds like our boy.

Adding to that toxic mix is whether fans can abandon their own addiction—to embracing a winner, no matter his methods. For all the talk-radio bluster now skewing toward making Yankee Stadium a No-A-Rod Zone—a reminder that Rodriguez is a truly exasperating presence for reasons beyond doping—it is worth remembering the 2013 season, when Rodriguez, playing through his pending suspension, was lustily cheered whenever he produced with his bat.

I was there, too, in early 1999, when the Knicks made a controversial trade for the disgraced Latrell Sprewell, who had been forced to sit out the previous season for attempting to choke P.J. Carlesimo, his coach with the Golden State Warriors. The very week of that Knicks’ transaction, then-Madison Square Garden president Dave Checketts called Sprewell “the poster boy for bad behavior in the NBA,” and there was plenty of sentiment among Knicks’ followers that they wanted nothing to do with a bad actor such as Sprewell.

Then, in his first game as a Knick—an exhibition against the Nets—Sprewell scored 27 points. Garden fans showered him with two raucous standing ovations and, during a practice session open to the public the next day, Sprewell was the most sought-after player for autographs and adoring chit-chat.

No wonder the border between admirable athletic feats and personal goodness appears so fuzzy to a fellow like Rodriguez, the object of praise all his life for his on-the-field skills. While he certainly takes his baseball performances seriously, his continuing doping regimen—even as he was serving as a spokesman for the Taylor Hooton Foundation’s campaign against steroid use, cautioning young players against demon drugs—established his conviction that his only obligation to the public is to hit the ball over the wall. Using whatever means available.

So he has again declared himself clean and enlightened. An ongoing joke, right? A gotcha riddle. Pete and Repeat…..