Friday, June 02, 2006

Dear Ann Killion: Won't You Join This Side of the Fence?

Again, not to pick on Ann Killion, but in Sunday's newspaper, she wrote a column about her thoughts about Barry Bonds chances for the Hall Of Fame. This column shows one of the aspects I like about her, she sees both sides of the matter and sees the conflicts inherent with both sides of the argument. She evens says that she is on the fence and is struggling with all the negatives regarding Bonds.

Since it is easier to react to points made, I will address the two major points she made in her article regarding the how the HOF selection depends on Integrity, Sportsmanship, and Character, and those are her obstacles and she addresses points she hears from others that she disputes.

Plenty of Others Who Fail This Test, Why Single Out Bonds?

She says that since she didn't vote for any of those guys, that's out of her hands, but she is able to vote for Bonds. She views it as bigger than Bonds, that it is about messing with the integrity of the game. She notes:
Well, because I didn't vote for those guys. I'm a little too young to have seen Ty Cobb's name on my ballot. All I can do is what I think is right. And the voters who will decide the legacy of the steroid era have a greater burden than past voters. This is an issue that isn't just about the integrity of a single person, but about messing with the integrity of the game.
First, if it is bigger than Bonds but rather about the integrity of the game, then why is Bonds being singled out? Because we don't know who used and who didn't and clearly there were a lot of users, you cannot wimp out and just not vote for Bonds, you have to not vote for anyone who played in the era of steroids to make a statement. As we saw with Puckett, McGwire, Caminiti, Sosa, and Palmeiro, players who generally had good reputations turned out not to be so clean after all, it is just a matter of timing when things are discovered, released, or admitted, which determines how's a player is viewed when HOF voting happens.

Next, she needs to think about the logical conclusions of her statements and think about those ramifications, though that may not necessary change her feelings, I think this is a point many people are missing when they make this charge. She says this about cheating:

This is different than shrugging and saying there are plenty of other cheaters
in the Hall. Using your own saliva on a baseball to change its motion is a far
cry from injecting a substance that is illegal in the United States and will
change your body.
This is one thing that the against-Barry side throws out is this cheating with illegal substances part. What they forget is that baseball has had a culture of this type of cheating for over 60 years now and it started with the veterans of World War II who brought into the game the use of amphetamines. Jim Bouton's book detailed some players usage of this illegal drug. In particular, Willie Mays was a player who was accused of using some red liquid amphetamine to get his boost.

This is where it should get harder for Ann, which is where it gets hard for many of us Giants fans who follow and admire Barry Bonds: Willie Mays is Ann's Barry and if she is going to go down hard on Barry, if she is to be consistent, she needs to go down hard on her baseball idol, Willie Mays. Don't know what her reaction will be, but this is where it gets hard for Giants' baseball fans' feeling for Barry and this would hopefully give her an understanding of how we Barry backers feel.

In addition, given the prevalence that amphetamines have had in baseball, and the performance enhancement it has provided in extending players' peak performance within a season, any talk about a steroid wing in the HOF, as she said that might result from this, there should then also be an amphetamine wing covering the post WW II years, from, say, 1946 to present day, since amphetamines just finally got tested for, even though its usage has always been illegal within societal rules, just as the point that had been made about steroid's usage.

HOFer Before Alleged Steroid Use

This was actually her first point but I'm covering it now as it flows better. She feels that this makes any transgressions even worse, that he stained his own achievements. Again, she needs to weigh this against her baseball hero/legend, Willie Mays. Her words regarding Bonds applies equally to him. If she is to be consistent with her stance on Bonds, she has to come out with a column denigrating Willie's acheivements and chiding him for using illegal performance enhancers when he would have been a HOFer without help, without doubt, whereas for Bonds, Killion only wrote that he probably was using, which could mean she sees some doubt to that assertion (or perhaps was doing it for legal reasons, but there is that doubt inherent with her statement).

Also, she needs to view this within the context of his dilemma. Here he is, considered one of the best of his era, if not the best to some, and yet his fame gets easily eclipsed by McGwire's and Sosa's homerun record chase. As any competitive person can tell you, that won't sit well with your insides. Is it better to be clean and considered the lesser of these two (apparent) cheaters or to even up the game and show the fans what you're capable of?

Personally, I'm pretty competitive myself but my long term health would have come first. But I can see someone competitive feeling the pull to cheat. Particularly when it is pretty easy to cheat. Others within the MLB also felt the same competitive pull to bring yourself equal to the competition.

I cannot corroborate this story I read on the Internet, but if it is true, it shows that other greats of the game felt the pull and that intentions would trump usage. I read somewhere on the net that Hank Aaron wrote in his biography that he used amphetamines once but stopped because he didn't like the way it made him feel. His intention was to get a boost, but he only stopped because he didn't like the way it made him feel. Obviously, Mays felt that need too, someone testified that he was offering some sort of red liquid amphetamines to that player.

True or not, to be fair, he needs to explain, just like Bonds has been asked to explain, how else his homerun rate increased significantly when he has in his late 30's without chemical assistance. The same arguments people have been throwing out for Bonds has to be addressed by Aaron as well because his homerun rate did go up at a time when his direct contemporary, Willie Mays, took a precipitous drop and never recovered. Somehow Aaron cheated aging, somehow he raised his homerun rate in his late 30's where most players degrade greatly. How was he so special?

All this cheating doesn't make it right but it is what it is. For better or worse, this is the steroid era. Just like pre-Babe Ruth, it was the deadball era, where all sorts of cheats were allowed, explicitly or complicitly or implicitly. Just like pre-Jackie Robinson, it was the pre-integration era. Or Post-WW II to just recently was the amphetamine era.

Baseball's History of Cheating

Baseball has always historically applauded cheats and innovations that could have been considered cheats, particularly by people before the cheats were implimented. The deadball era had aggressive base running that bordered on assault and batter, with Ty Cobb sliding in feet first, sharpened spikes aimmed at the infielder, pitchers putting on all sorts of substances on the baseball to throw spitballs, and John McGraw was known to be a dirty manager who was willing to bend the rules in the name of competition. And those early in the game of baseball might have felt that it was cheating to use hand gloves to catch the baseball, let alone the monsters we use today, because baseball started life with infielders bare-handing the norm when the game first begun.

Some in the deadball era felt that changing your swing to an uppercut to hit homeruns was a type of cheating that ruined the purity of the station to station play that dominated the game up to then. Before Babe Ruth started jacking them out of the yard regularly and pulling in the fans, many players and reporters felt that this was the way the game was meant to be played. They felt that the new game as espoused by Babe Ruth was deterimental to the integrity of the game.

And what about stealing signs? That is probably as old as baseball and that is clearly cheating, but it still goes on to this day. Here is what Ann had to say about the criteria for the HOF that raises her hackles over voting Bonds in when the time comes:
As voters we are told that selection shall be based upon the player's record, ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the teams on which he lpayed.

Integrity. Sportsmanship. Character.

Those are the big obstacles in my path to voting for Bonds for the Hall of Fame.
Here's how I view stealing signs given these HOF criteria. Stealing signs is not a sign of integrity. It most definitely is not good sportsmanship. And it shows a lack of character as well. So should many baseball players not make the HOF then? I would say that many players do this.

Where Does Science Ends and Cheating Begins?

And the line is very gray regarding medical advances. Glasses are innocuous enough but without them I would be blind as a bat and unable to hit any baseball but with them I could spray line-drives. They allow me to do something that my body was not able to do for itself. My body is unusual in that I don't get tired very easily. I can pull off multiple almost-all-nighters without chemical help, I had it much easier in college than other students in this way. That would be a natural advantage I have over other people, but to equal the score, these other people could take amphetamines.

What if my body was such that I could throw a baseball all my life and never wear out much and yet could strikeout batter after batter? Plus my ability to not be tired, I should be able to set all sorts of seasonal and career records and that would have been true years ago. Today, there's Tommy John surgery, some of them using the tendons of dead cadavers, to restore the careers of players I should have outdone easily, but now they are equal competitors again. Is that natural or is that cheating?

Of course, I'm using hyperbole here to make my point. There is no question that players who have been doing this type of cheating should make the HOF. And yes, it is not as big a deal as doping up on steroids. But what I'm trying to show here is that baseball has always been about cheating to get that extra edge, whether it is as innocuous as stealing signs or using the classic hidden ball trick or dropping the pop-up to try to get a double-play or as dangerous as sharpening your spikes to maim infielders, using amphetamines to allow you to get over your tiredness, or using steroids and human growth hormones to allow you to build your muscles to what your body could have done, had it the supplements in your body to support that strengthening.

What if my body didn't create enough chemicals to allow me to build up my muscles like others (and there must be, I've been skinny like a stick all my life, I tried weight-lifting but could not add on any weight at all), how is that all that different from getting glasses to help me with my vision or a dead cadaver's tendon for Tommy John surgery? In each of these cases, my body had a limitation that science enabled me to overcome.

The difference, like with how alcohol and tobacco are legal but marijuana and cocaine isn't, is that society drew an arbitrary line there where steroids is illegal but the others are not. There has clearly been widespread usage in the major sports and yet no major health problem has cropped up that could be detected. Which limitations are allowed to be fixed and which are not?

And not that this justifies usage, but sports are always playing catch up with these illegal drugs, and I am not sure that this tail-chasing will ever end, much like it never ends for the dog. I don't know what the right path to take is regarding the use of these performance enhancing drugs, some say legalize it but control it and others just say ban everything. But acting like this bandage they set up testing for some but not all known performance enhancers is wimpy of MLB management, as usual.

But it is not like baseball has been this pure paragon of integrity and sportsmanship, and that is the standard that Bonds is being measured against by many people. If you want to say he was using illegal drugs and therefore he should not go into the HOF, then I can accept that. But to blame him for the ills of the game seems to be harsh to me, he was a product of his times, a product of his sport, no more, no less, no holier than thou attitude. To crucify him for the ills of the game seems unfair and extreme.

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