Friday, October 24, 2008

Book Wrap Up (Steroid Edition)

Mention the word “steroids” to me 6 months ago and the first word that comes to mind is “cheater”. As sure as I am that it permeates all professional sports, I have such a love and respect for the game of baseball that that is where most of my frustration lies. We’ve gotten to the point in our culture where if anyone does anything special athletically we assume they’ve been juicing and, sadly, most of the time they have. Professional sports today are as close in reality to what we know pro wrestling to be then ever before. It is my fear that if the veil was truly drawn to show the masses what the inner workings look like, we’d be disgusted to find out how gullible we are and that we’ve been taken for a ride for a very long time.

Jose Canseco states, unapologetically, that the line between sports and entertainment is so fuzzy that performance enhancing drugs are absolutely necessary in order for an athlete to reach their true potential and for a fan to get the most bang for their buck. Critics have lashed out against Jose calling him an opportunist and a fame whore by writing the book that “named names” and gave credence to the bubbling steroid suspicion. According to him, and this was written in 2003 before we knew what we know now, most of the league, including all of the people who’ve been accused (McGwire, Sosa, Giambi, Palmeiro) are unequivocally juiced, most of them by Jose himself. What is painfully obvious while reading the book is the assurance that Canseco is telling the truth, something many critics just don’t want to believe. He’s so candid how could he not be? So, either he’s telling the truth and this book is a must read, or he’s lying and it’s total trash. I agree with the former.

One reason why few believe him or like him is because of some of the problems he’s had in the past around domestic abuse and self promotion. Both are addressed very honestly and you come away feeling like the guy got a raw deal. You position yourself as a larger than life personality, which he was in spite of his inherent shyness, then you invite others to knock you down. His claim, and this one I’m not sure I agree with, is that baseball largely shut him out because he was Cuban and they’d rather promote an American, homegrown hero. I’m not aware of a lot of Cuban prejudice in this country, let alone baseball, so I’m not totally buying that. He does make strong arguments that guys like Cal Ripken and Alex Rodriguez are just as slimy as all the rest, but they play the media better so they make them icons, which is a role they’re happy to take on.

He also touches on his well publicized relationship with Madonna (not as juicy as you’d hope, but does paint a picture of her that you know had to come from first hand experience), the (now) shocking declaration that the one player who he never saw cheat on his wife was Roger Clemens (which we now know to be completely untrue), the owners (including George W. Bush), managers, and commissioners complicity with what was going on, and, what he feels is his subsequent blackballing from baseball (which appears to be true since Barry Bonds is also currently unemployed). The one thing he doesn’t say is whether he’s still on roids today. This was not answered until I watched the A&E special on him this week “Jose Canseco: Last Shot” which shows the aftermath of his career and his book, which is pretty desperate. On the verge of bankruptcy and with his house foreclosed, Jose is seen working with doctors to get off the juice and regretting that he ever wrote the book that blew the lid off this problem. So, what he praised in the book has now come back to bite him. It’s a sad tale of a man who traded in the rest of his life for 10 or so years of wealth and fame. But, how many of us might have done the same thing?

“Game Of Shadows” by SF Chronicle sports writers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams is a much different read. Where “Juiced” was obviously the writing of an athlete, GoS is academic in it’s reporting of BALCO and the athletes linked to the place. Barry Bonds (who has to be one of the least likable people ever to walk the earth and that’s putting it kindly) isn’t the only one, though he’s the most focused on. Marion Jones comes away blemished for life, as are a handful of other Olympic athletes. What the book reports, and it’s confirmed by the immortal words of BALCO founder Victor Conte, “it isn’t cheating if everyone is doing it”. Pretty much the entire book can be summarized in the five segments of Conte's appearance on 20/20.

Expanding beyond the corruption in baseball, the writers paint a picture of a body of Olympians completely overrun with cheaters from the top down. I have to think the only way you’ll get busted for cheating is if you’re caught because it looks like everyone is on something and everyone knows it, but put on a face for the media. The most common excuse given by those in the know as to why the cheating is that “it’s entertainment”. My feeling on that is, if you leveled the playing field back to normal, the viewer may be even more aroused by seeing talents on display that could be just barely out of their own grasp. There will always be the athletic aberration, the one who breaks the records and sets a new bar, but drugs accelerate that process rather than letting it happen naturally. The result is not just, as the best movie of the year so far has said, “bigger, stronger, faster” athletes, it’s everything all at once right now. That’s the world we live in today, I guess, so maybe sports just mirror the global attitude.

So, I’m left with an understanding of steroids that I didn’t have before. I know why they’re used, and I can’t say I blame anyone for it anymore. It’s unfortunate but it’s like with Canseco, trade in respectability and long term success for buckets of fame now. So, I say either allow it across the board and let sports become the rigged freakshow it probably already is, or implement stronger testing and stiffer penalties for cheating. By now, however, the problem is likely out of hand and going to have to fix itself. Notice the way numbers in baseball have gone way down the last couple years. It’s because either roids are finding their way out of the sport, or the players know how to mask what they do better.

The writers of both books deserve too be commended for their reporting. Think of these books as the "All The Presidents Men" of sports literature. The way you can assess their value is that most everything they've said has come true.

1 comment:

Marilyn said...

So who are you rooting for in the World Series? I had previously heard so little about the Rays that I guess I'm cheering for the Phillies. It feels more comfortable somehow. But I admire the Rays - going from worst to best in one year. They are young and determined, and it's exciting. BTW, what is BALCO?
I love that you love baseball; we have pretty great baseball memories of your childhood, going to Dean's baseball card store, you playing games on the floor with your cards, etc. Fun times!