"Spring training starts in February

The baseball steroids scandal is like a big ball of yarn: You pull on it, and the thread gets longer and longer and longer.

According to the Mitchell Report, it appears that performance enhancing drugs pretty much define a lot of what baseball fans have been watching for the past 20 years. Twelve of the 20 players selected as Most Valuable between 1995 and 2004 have been accused of being users, among them Barry Bonds, the most recently crowned home run king, and his pitching counterpart, Roger Clemens. More on them in a moment.

George Bush Jr. owned a team, the Texas Rangers, in the days when juice was apparently a clubhouse commonplace. He has belatedly expressed his dismay at how the game’s been “sullied” — a curiously Victorian word choice for a fellow who used to call his chief advisor “Turd Blossom.”

But then this entire episode seems to have been strained through the weirdness filter that passes for our sense of history these days. Suddenly baseball is “the national pastime” again. Although more people went to games last season than ever before, baseball’s popularity pales compared with pro football or NASCAR. And while what will be called the game’s “steroids era” has certainly skewed baseball’s statistics and thrown Hall of Fame considerations for a loop, baseball has seen plenty of other changes over time, from significantly changing the elevation of the pitcher’s mound to breaking the color barrier, that have also profoundly affected player performance.

Perhaps the oddest aspect of this whole imbroglio (with apologies to Ernie Broglio, the sore-armed pitcher my beloved Cubs traded future superstar Lou Brock to St. Louis for in the early 1960s — they had to be high on something to make that deal!) has been the display of self-righteous posturing put on by the sports media. After all, they’ve been on the scene — in the locker rooms, on the sidelines, you name it — the entire time. Somehow, though, they managed to miss this story. Until, that is, a sourpuss named Barry Bonds came along.

Bonds had a claim to being the greatest ballplayer ever. The trouble, especially in mediagenic America, was that Bonds was — and is — a jerk, definitely the wrong guy to be our home run king. From the point in the late ’90s where it became apparent that he was on track to break Hank Aaron’s holy record, to his actually doing the deed last summer, Bonds was reviled for what so many suspected: His record was thanks, in part, to chemistry. He was a cheater.

But at the same time that Bonds was pumping up and blasting balls out of parks, Roger Clemens was doing much the same thing on the pitcher’s mound. Clemens became a middle-aged wonder, a 40-year-old guy who could still throw an intimidating fastball, arguably the greatest pitcher of all time.

Clemens is also a jerk. But his hair-trigger temper and bullying demeanor only made him more colorful to the sports press — a good thing, evidently, since Clemens is otherwise white.

You would think that after all this time — all this history — the sports media in this country would be colorblind. But if the steroids story tells us anything, it’s that this ain’t so. For almost a decade the sports press — from daily newspapers to ESPN — vilified Barry Bonds. According to them, he was surly and rude and a good bet to be doping. Meanwhile, the surly, rude (and allegedly doping) Roger Clemens was a living legend. An ageless wonder who kept coming out of “retirement” to sign big money deals with his hometown team, the Houston Astros, and the headline hogging New York Yankees.

It’s been tempting to draw a cultural line between the Bush Administration’s reckless embrace of shock and awe and pro athletes’ readiness to pop themselves in the derriere with a jolt of something that makes them bigger, stronger and faster. The trouble with this gloss is that evidence suggests locker rooms most resembled laboratories in the 1990s — the Clinton years.

This actually makes sense. Surely steroids rhyme with the irrational exuberance associated with the dotcom bubble and a president who insisted he neither inhaled nor that blowjobs equal sex. At the same moment presidential politics was becoming soap opera, baseball, along with all our other spectator sports, was morphing into a brand of stadium rock. No wonder so many players reached for a boost — guitar slingers had been doing it for years.

Like any junkie, Major League Baseball swears it’ll get its act together in time for spring training. We’ll see. Another Clinton is running for president. 



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