Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Rocket's Red Glare

"Well yeah, my balls got smaller but I can still throw 96..."

I’m tired of hearing about HGH and steroids. I’m angry that Congress is involved. It’s a waste of time, resources and money. Athletes will do anything to gain an advantage over the competition. They’ll cinch their urethras closed to boost ureic acid in their bloodstream, they’ll risk serious medical complications by pumping a little extra blood into their bodies to increase platelet counts. Of course they’ll risk everything to take steroids and hormones. And then they’ll lie about it. Even when they tell the truth they qualify it with a lie. Now the most popular lie is that they broke the law and cheated only for a little while to recover from injury.

And Bill Clinton didn’t inhale.

Roger Clemens is an ass. That’s being polite. Most major league pitchers are jerks. Curt Schilling, Randy Johnson, Nolan Ryan, Bob Gibson...these are guys who built their careers around breaking the rules to gain an edge. Look, it might be part of the game but it’s still against the rules to throw a fastball at somebody’s head and every one of these guys is known for using the dreaded high and tight fastball to keep hitters off balance. Bob Gibson and Nolan Ryan were ruthless when it came to drilling hitters and Randy Johnson milked his reputation as a wild hurler long after he got control of his 100 mph heater. When you consider the velocity of these pitches it’s not a stretch to call it lethal force. A 95 mph fastball can kill, but this form of cheating is largely accepted and pitchers seldom try to connect with the noggin. It happens but not too often.

Steroids and HGH aren’t on par with high cheese but a pitcher who would put another man’s life in danger just to gain an edge on the next pitch probably won’t hesitate to inject a little extra mojo into their bodies to gain an edge on every pitch. Especially when the pitcher in question is an egomaniacal drama queen like Rocket. After what he did last year, holding out for the best contract in baseball only to throw like a girl all season long, Rocket has got to be loving the attention the steroid scandal has given him. Most people wouldn’t want their integrity questioned but Roger has taken the spotlight and run with it.

Like the arrogant whiner who threw a chunk of shattered bat at Mike Piazza a few years ago, Clemens is throwing an epic media tantrum. He’s making threats, calling people names and kissing every butt that might have a chance to help him save his reputation. The problem is that nobody believes him. He’s a liar and a cheater. A selfish bully who wants to have his way. Unlike fellow cheater Mark McGwire, Clemens refuses to accept his legacy and wait for people to forgive and forget.

The thing is all of it is for nothing. The hype over steroids and cheating is just a show. Years ago people made a stink about steroids in the NFL, so the NFL fell on its sword and adopted a testing policy many former players have characterized as a sham. The public takes the NFL’s side because every year or two a couple of players serve a paltry four game suspension but the fans are willing to believe that bloated freaks like San Diego’s Shaun Merriman and journeyman drug addict David Boston come by their athletic prowess naturally. Fans actually believe that a player can stop taking steroids and maintain the same level of performance. Or they want to believe it.

Even if professional sports leagues in this country drafted aggressive testing procedures like those used in the Olympics and the Tour de France, players would still take their chances. Marion Jones did it, and actually beat the system. She was able to reduce her risk of getting caught and felt that the ends justified the means. Unfortunately she left a paper trail.

So there are no fool proof methods. However, the IOC and the Tour de France offset the technological gap by imposing steep penalties. Floyd Landis and a host of other bikers thought they could beat the system used by the Tour de France but when they got caught they paid a steep price. When you get caught cheating on the international stage your suspension is measured in years, not days. They don’t care about excuses or reasons. If you test positive you get stripped of all titles and sit in limbo for a significant portion of your career.

More over, merely being associated with cheating can cost you dearly. International athletes who find themselves linked to labs or doctors who aid and abet cheaters are typically suspended until they can prove themselves innocent. It’s accepted that athletics are not the real world and the notion of due process is checked at the door. So international athletes have to be cautious. Domestic professionals do not. NHL player Bryan Berard was suspended from international competition for two years for testing positive for a steroid leading up to the 2006 Olympics but the NHL couldn’t suspend him because the Olympic test exceeded the scope of their program. I wonder how many MLB or NFL players could pass the Olympic smell test.

Steroids are illegal but law enforcement officials don’t care about steroids. Criminal penalties for steroid use are virtually non-existent. Steroid distributors are a different story but mostly because they don’t pay taxes. Nobody arrested Shaun Merriman when he tested positive a couple of years ago. In fact, he even made the Pro Bowl. The NFL virtually encourages steroid use. And why not? The money keeps rolling in. If fans weren’t ready to boycott the NFL over Michael Vick, Roger Goodell would have worked with prosecutors to enroll Vick in a work release program.

Major League Baseball should go back to 1990, which is the year most people agree that steroids became a commodity in baseball, and just compartmentalize the whole era. Players saw Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco parlay steroids into MVP caliber seasons and got in on the act. Ironically that was the same year steroids were criminalized by the US Government. Sure, not everybody was taking them but players knew about it and they did nothing. Just take every player who played the majority of his career between 1990 and today and disqualify them from the Hall of Fame.

Going forward professional sports leagues in the US should impose a minimum suspension of one year and not let the player return until the beginning of the season following the suspension. Then impose a stiff fine and a reinstatement fee. And forget about appeals and excuses. If you test positive or your name comes up in a provider’s black book you get suspended and if you text positive for any performance enhancing substance a second time you can kiss your career goodbye. Players might be able to afford those designer steroids that don’t show up on every test but would they want to take chances if the price was that high?

Some would. That’s why Marion Jones is going to prison…and she didn’t even test positive. She was linked to a steroid scandal through a law enforcement investigation. And technically she isn’t going to prison for taking steroids, she was stupid enough to lie about it under oath.

Roger Clemens should take notes on that. Right now he’s in the middle of an inquest and he’s denying any wrongdoing. By the time it’s all said and done, Rocket could be watching his own Hall of Fame induction from a television in his minimum security prison cell. We all know he cheated, but now he’s making matters worse by committing a felony.

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