Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
May 31, 2002
BASEBALL: Gay Ballplayers and Steroids
Originally posted on Projo.com
Somehow, it's always baseball. My mind came back to this, last week as the papers carried two reports on the same day: Mike Piazza denying he was gay, and Barry Bonds denying he uses steroids. For now, we must take both men at their word, and in Piazza's case in particular there is really no reason to inquire further if that is the answer he wishes to give. But the questions were being asked, and on the steroid issue, they are just getting warmed up. And that's baseball, and it's another reason why, for all the mega-ratings popularity of football, for all the pop culture cache of hoops, this is still America's game. People have higher hopes and expectations for baseball, and they expect it to solve its problems. Let college football wallow in hypocrisy, as it has done for all its existence. (Really, we're just students who like to play a game on Saturday! Nobody's making any money here!) See the NBA's popularity soar without the league having done a single thing about the various shames that have been reported about its players in recent years. But if baseball players are on steroids, sooner or later, people want to know. And they will know, even though nobody in the game really has a strong incentive to blow the whistle. Maybe, as he has threatened, it will break with Jose Canseco. The SI-Ken Caminiti expose means the process has already begun.
And if there are gay professional athletes out there - and we know too much about human nature to say there are not - people look to baseball to deal with it, to bring someone into the open and test exactly how much the public is willing to accept. The first rumblings started with the whole story about a year ago about a gay writer who hinted, vaguely but tantalizingly, about a ballplayer he had had an affair with who played on the East Coast and wasn't the biggest star on his team (the writer has since scoffed at the suggestion that he was talking about Piazza, who is very obviously the biggest star on his team) and who was thinking of 'coming out.'
There's a long tradition here. Baseball invented the color line, as far as sports were concerned, and baseball broke it; no other athlete did more to change the country than Jackie Robinson (Muhammad Ali fans to the contrary). Baseball started many of pro sports' traditions in honoring and disciplining players and others in the game; baseball was looked to for an example in wartime, and led the response after September 11. Baseball pioneered free agency, player unions and labor disturbances. Baseball grappled with the fixing of the World Series; as Bill James memorably wrote in the 1986 Abstract, "the reaction of the public in the period after the War to End All Wars was, in essence, that it was one thing when the police were corrupt, that it was one thing when juries were bribed and judges kept on retainer, that it was one thing when elections were rigged and politicians let contracts go to the highest briber, but when baseball players started fixing games, well that was just too much; something had to be done about it." James was writing about the Pittsburgh drug trials of the 1980s, and he wrote in the aftermath that nearly everyone in the game who'd used drugs in the late 70s-early 80s had been publicly exposed as such. Meanwhile, Art Rust jr. famously remarked in the 1970s that "if cocaine were helium, the whole NBA would just float away." But the NBA had no messy public reckoning. It's not like they were baseball players, after all.
Of course, the way the Piazza story broke was a particularly shabby episode, with a gossip columnist who knows nothing about sports running an item that was pointed enough to suggest Piazza, the most ostentatiously single Met, but does not appear (from the public reports) to have had much in the way of support from credible sources. This would appear, among other things, to violate the gossip columnists' code of ethics (if there be such a thing): don't make a 'blind item' so specific that everyone knows who you're talking about, unless you've really got the goods. Piazza will be heckled about this for the rest of his career, and there's not a damn thing he can do about it. Whatever you think about the merits of a gay man in baseball coming out publicly, I can't possibly imagine a worse situation than 'outing' the star of a contending team in midseason against his will. A week of the season was consumed by the story, and if there had been more support to it, the whole season would have been overshadowed. Remember, Branch Rickey didn't bring Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers in June, and he didn't bring him against his will, either.
Now the steroid story is the front-page saga, hitting the cover of Sports Illustrated with Ken Caminiti's extremely un-shocking confession that he used steroids in his transformation from a 30-year-old who slugged .390 in 1993 while tying his career highs in homers (13) and doubles to the muscle-bound player who slugged .621, cracked 40 homers and drove in 130 runs in his 1996 MVP campaign. If you were surprised that Caminiti was on steroids, well, there's also some bad news I should give you about pro wrestling.
As with the gay question, there are people throwing around percentages and unproven innuendoes about specific players without a lot of support; in some cases, the same names come up in both debates. On this one, though, the truth should come out, and eventually the dam will break, because it can't hold forever. The SI story will naturally push a lot of people to ask questions they'd shied away from asking before. For my money, the use of steroids doesn't make the homer explosion of the last few years illegitimate any more than the spitball made Ed Walsh's exploits illegitimate or the rampant and varied cheating of the 1894 Baltimore Orioles made them less than true champions - it's just another facet of the competitive conditions of the era. But, like those earlier abuses, it has to be changed. And it's up to the players to change it. The league can police the issue once there's a testing plan in place - but the impetus will have to come from the players themselves, because as long as the owners can only get testing at the bargaining table, they will always have priorities that have more importance to their own interests that they would rather seek as a concession. Can you blame them? At some level, the health of the players is their own business. But sometimes the public has a role, when people need a little outside pressure to resist peer pressures to disregard their own health. You and I can be a part of that, and can give moral support to the 'clean' players who want to re-level the playing field.
The two issues of condemning the use of steroids and accepting (or not accepting) gay players involve very different underlying considerations, and perhaps some day I'll go back to untangle some of those in this space. (I'd probably be crazy to do so on the issue of gay athletes, but that day will come). But for a moment the two got intertwined: the issues are hot at the same time, the media (in all its various forms) is using the same methods to push them towards disclosure. In doing so, all I can say is, please, folks, tread cautiously.
In the steroid debate, those methods, however ugly, may prove a necessary evil; even so, we can hope that reform will come without anyone's reputation getting slimed unfairly. As Bonds argued, false accusations of steroid use don't just hurt the player; they also contribute to the perception that everyone is doing it and that steroids are the road to success. But when innuendoes and unsubstantiated rumors are used to expose or distort people's sexual preferences against their will, well, that's not right. Because who is or isn't gay is at bottom a social/political issue and not a baseball one, and baseball players shouldn't be forced into social/political debates if they don't want to be.
But people will always try. After all, they are baseball players.