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Baseball's Biggest Problem

Mark Heisler
Contributor
Mark Heisler, who avoids writing about himself in the third person when possible, preferring the royal “we,” is a regular Truthdig contributor and a former NBA-at-large reporter for the Los Angeles Times…
Mark Heisler

In the bad news for baseball, drugs aren’t the problem.

If only it was that simple. Baseball’s biggest problem, which keeps it from addressing its other problems, is baseball.

With a token commissioner exerting only the powers delegated by the ruling Major League Baseball Players Association — which just consented to tests during the season — MLB has only begun trying to clean up, 25 years after the halcyon 1988 season when the Bash Brothers, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, began injecting each other in the bathroom.

Nor should it be a surprise in baseball’s harmonious era if the union enjoyed tacit support from the Yankees, bluest of bluebloods, no less dedicated than the players to a status quo that let them spend $200 million annually for Alex Rodriguez et al.

Happily, justice is finally being served, nightly, every time A-Rod runs onto the field in Yankee pinstripes.

This isn’t the “justice” everyone is prattling about with A-Rod as archfiend and MLB hailed for finally getting it right … again.

Despite all the headlines proclaiming he’d be banned for life if he didn’t come clean, A-Rod refused to leave in disgrace.

So, radioactive as he is, he’s still a Yankee, pending appeal.

If you’re disappointed he didn’t confess, you have to get in line behind the Yankees, who are hoping for a divorce settlement for pennies on the $100 million they owe him.

Now old and decrepit, the Yankees can’t even rid themselves of this seemingly guilty cheat.

How much more just does it get than that? No team or player profited more from the way things were than the Yanks, who cherry-picked stars for prices only they could afford, and A-Rod, who got the two biggest U.S. sports contracts ($252 million for 10 years in 2001; $275 million for 10 in 2008).

Not that it was a secret. No less than The New York Times’ Murray Chass laid it out in a 2002 piece headlined, “An Unholy Alliance, Steinbrenner and the Union.”

So, if it seems we’ve seen this MLB cycle of profiteering, regret and self-congratulations before. …

Was it only seven months ago?

In January, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig hailed the long-awaited dawn of testing in the 2013 season as a “proud and a great day for baseball,” which was now “a leader in this field.”

The lead lasted 28 days until the scandal surfaced that players had obtained performance-enhancing drugs from the clinic Biogenesis, with 13 athletes suspended for a total of 334 games, thus allowing diehard fans as erudite as George Will to trumpet that the game is really getting it right this time!

Baseball polices itself, as people in the game like to say.

It will have to. No one in charge has any idea what’s going on.

In a reasonable, if unmemorable comment, low-key Dodger Manager Don Mattingly said, “I’d like to see testing get really, really good, where guys can’t get away with anything [and] they know they can’t get away with anything.”

Donnie Baseball (as Mattingly is known), the humble pre-performance-enhancing-drug Yankee star, could be the face of the game’s innocence.

Sensible as his comment is, it reflects the world of sports as it was in the ’80s, when the problem popped up everywhere.

Since Ben Johnson was found out in Seoul in 1988, the International Olympic Committee, which has no unions to worry about, has hurled itself into the fray, with cutting-edge research from the World Anti-Doping Agency.

In 2012 in London, the cheating was still systemic and ongoing. “We’re lagging behind,” Canada’s Dick Pound, a former IOC vice president and WADA’s first chairman, told The Toronto Globe and Mail. “We know that with all the tests we’re doing, 1.5 to 1.6% of them are positive. There are far more people out there using drugs than we’re catching, so why is that?”

A Belarus shot-putter was stripped of her gold medal for steroids. A Turkish woman who served a two-year ban in 2004 won the 1,500-meters, prompting two competitors, Britain’s Lisa Dobriskey and the United States’ Shannon Rowbury, to complain that drug cheats still get away with it.

Late to the notion of cleaning up the game by two decades, baseball lags even further behind.

In the game’s defense, it was preoccupied with bigger issues — like survival.

Actually, that was hype too. From the dire days of 1994, the game is now awash in cash as multiplying media platforms seek programming, of which baseball has more than anyone. There’s a renaissance in long-lost Pittsburgh, short-lived as it may turn out to be with the No. 27 payroll.

(To put it in perspective, the $162.7 million gap between the Pirates’ $66.3 million and the Yankees’ $229 million is bigger than No. 3 Boston’s $159.6 million payroll.)

To give Selig his due, he has presided over this tidal wave of prosperity, which explains why he’s still on the job 21 years later.

Unfortunately, he also presided over the 1994 labor cataclysm that canceled the World Series, currying favor with the players by not locking them out.

They played without a contract until August when they walked out with the postseason looming, leaving the owners to choose between folding their position or their season.

To Selig’s credit, the owners didn’t collapse … until April of 1995 when the threat of an antitrust suit sent them scurrying back to start a 144-game season.

The owners haven’t come close to messing with the union since.

The consensus-seeking Selig, a voluble real-life car salesman, was overmatched by doughy-faced Executive Director Don Fehr’s MLB Players Association membership, fused into a battle-hardened force by owners who went to war whenever contracts were up, thinking they could break the union.

That made Selig perfect for Yankee owner George Steinbrenner.Like the cartoon character drawn by the New York Daily News’ Bill Gallo, lampooning Steinbrenner as a portly Prussian general with spiked helmet, smoke was coming out of The Boss’ ears after Fay Vincent, the last in the line of activist commissioners Peter Ueberroth and Bart Giamatti, suspended him — for life — for paying a “part-time gambler” (read: lowlife) named Howard Spira for dirt on Dave Winfield.

(Winfield, a Yankee star, was good, not great, wouldn’t accept a trade and, worst of all, didn’t kowtow to Der Big Guy.)

Of course, “lifetime” turned out to be one year after an owners’ vote of no confidence prompted Vincent to resign with three years left in his term.

Steinbrenner was only hiding out until the heat was off, knowing he could unseat Vincent. The cabal of five owners who led the revolt included key Steinbrenner allies Jerry Reinsdorf of the White Sox … and Selig, of the Brewers.

Having tried the “modern” approach that worked for the NFL with Pete Rozelle and the NBA with David Stern, the owners opted to return to the days before commissioners bossed them around.

So, who better than one of them?

The self-effacing Selig said he was only interim commissioner — which is why they let him pass the operation of the Brewers to his daughter, starting his reign with a massive conflict of interest.

In year 13, they sold the team. Now in year 21, Selig is three behind the longest-serving commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

Along the way, Selig may have promised to pass the torch to any owner who expressed an interest in it, as he did with the Texas Rangers’ George W. Bush, who dreamed of being the next Landis.

Vincent says W. told him Selig was grooming him for the job — “and he tells me that he can deliver it.”

Vincent said he thought Selig wanted the job. Replied Bush: “He told me that I’m still his man but that it will take some time to work out.”

Happily or not for Bush, he tired of waiting and became president of the United States. (Although in 2008 when he was about to leave office, a childhood friend insisted to Vanity Fair’s Gail Sheehy that W. still hoped to get that call from Selig.)

If the tentacles stretch into the White House, this wasn’t a minor tacit alliance, but it’s more like “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” or “Beverly Hillbillies” than Oliver Stone’s next project.

Compared with A-Rod, cheaters who confessed errors in judgment, etc., like Texas’ Nelson Cruz, look like heroes.

“We’ve got his back and we love him and we’re going to support him as a family,” shortstop Elvis Andrus said of Cruz. “That’s what we do.”

Unlike the Giants who wouldn’t let Melky Cabrera play last postseason, the Rangers will welcome Cruz back this fall.

By accepting this season’s 50-game suspension, Cruz, who left with 27 homers, will be free and clear as a free agent … or hello, mega-bucks!

In Detroit, everyone said similar things about Jhonny Peralta, even if former pitcher Denny McLain said he should have fought the suspension but was “more concerned with next year, starting clean, rather than helping the club this year.”

Peralta will also be a free agent. McLain, of course, is McLain, tipping his real concern by noting that he lost $45,000 in his three-month suspension in 1970, since he was making only $90,000.

“Today, that’s what they make in a day,” McLain lamented to the Detroit Free Press on his own behalf.

Unfortunately for McLain, the paper ran a picture of him at the ballpark with another former Tiger, Jon Warden, next to slender starter Justin Verlander, who looked like a flagpole with two blimps.

What does this mean, aside from the fact that MLB could pick a fan from the stands who might be able to run the league as well as Selig?

For sure, it means there are fewer heroes than people think there are.

Also fewer competent people in high positions.

Not that the National Pastime won’t always have a place in our hearts, even if it’s like the circus coming to town.

Oh, and judging from the picture of McLain and Warden, playing in the big leagues, as well as being commissioner, or owner, just may be hazardous to your health.

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