Baseball and the Deal With the Devil

By Frank R. D’Onofrio

Last year, the Baseball gods delivered their opinion.   A-Rod was officially found guilty, and like Pontius Pilot over 2000 years ago, the owners and writers have washed their hands of the decision, verdict and sentencing.   Well the punishment is now over.  After 1 year, and over 20 Million pieces of silver later, with Opening Day less than a month away, Alex Rodriguez lost whatever reputation he came to the game with.  He is a tarnished player – washed up. Word has it from MLB radio is that he can’t hit the fastball from good pitching.  He’s washed up.   In 10 or so years from now when he becomes officially eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame, whatever good Alex Rodriguez did for the game of baseball will be washed away, and the game of baseball will continue with its dignity intact.  He like Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmiero, Roger Clemens and even Pete Rose will possibly never enter the hall of fame. This year Mike Piazza one of the greatest catchers to ever play could not receive the total of votes necessary for induction (57.6%).  Barry Bonds – the record holder for the most Home runs 37.4%)

Is it because they were considered cheaters. Bud Selig commissioner of baseball called Rodriguez’ suspension “for the good of the game” Bonds and Piazza are left out of the Hall of Fame… probably for the same reason – But by whose definition?

As I write this I laugh to myself, and I am almost filled with contempt for anyone who looks down upon these individuals.   It is the worst kind of hypocrisy that I have ever seen.   The Owners, they will reap the benefits that they held a blind eye to with riches beyond imagination.  Baseball franchises are now worth billions of dollars.  Baseball Writers will be sanctimonious about the game, only they never quite reported they smelled something until it was way too late.  The fans like myself, we sat back, as these guys broke record after record, filling stadiums, watching it happen.  All of us are part of the deal with the devil.

Rewind back a number of years almost 25 years.  Mark McGuire, and Sammy Sosa are running neck and neck at a 28 year record, Roger Maris’ single season home run record.  Mark and Sammy were bigger than life creatures.   They were hyped by Major League Baseball, they were pushed to the forefront.  There was a press conference nightly on the chase for the record.  Roger’s family was present on the field (Roger had passed many years before) the night Mark McGuire broke the record. The media ate up every moment of the race.  Exploiting and milking every picture.  Sammy Sosa, was a darling with his kisses after his mammoth Home Runs. McGuire with his Popeye arms, and home run swing took us to new heights.  The Home Run was back, and so was baseball! It was an epic run like Mantle and Maris, or DiMaggio and Williams.

During the race for the record, every home run hit by these men was celebrated by the game.  Major League baseball ensured that unlike Roger Maris’ run, this would be a celebration, both of the run, and the memory of Roger Maris.  Baseball was about to right a 28 year old wrong, at the same time as the game began be revived.  One New York Sportswriter wrote a bestselling book about the run, and the effect that time had on his family as well as baseball.  America’s pastime was suddenly renewed.

The Hype was created because Baseball NEEDED it badly– the hunt for the record was a tonic of sorts for the game itself.  Prior to that season the pundits were talking about 1/2 empty stadiums, and the possible demise of the game. The demise was a self-inflicted wound by two sides, one greedier than the other.  Players who were making millions of dollars playing a game many of us played for free as children were at odds over a pot of gold in BILLIONS presided by the devious owners. You could not write a better script about greed.  The owners and players were fighting, and they could not care less about the fans – who meted out money for tickets, and watched on TV.   They were so greedy that they gave up an entire season, and were willing to give up on another.  Neither would budge, and the fans… just walked away.  In a word, they were not coming back.

Over the last 100 years, sports management has done much to put bodies on the field hurt or under the influence (anyone remember cocaine and Willie Stargell – Inducted in 1988)?  The owners did not concern themselves about the well-being of the players.  If the players played hurt, or If the act of playing was career ending (in football and hockey it could even be life threatening), the owners took a blind eye.  If these young men, boys when they had started, became addicted to drugs and alcohol, unhealthy lifestyles, foist upon them because of the accolades; public relations; easy money, it was their own fault (Steve Howe).  If the players needed drugs to stay awake, or to mask pain, there were enough pills to get them on the field. After the game if they drank themselves to a stupor, it was overlooked (Mickey Mantle). The ball players were an example of vanity.  Free meals from restaurants, adoring fans, women and the trappings of success for playing a game.  Sometimes players without any family role models ruined their careers without any guidance on their new found riches, and began lifestyles that could never continue without tragedy.  Baseball writers (the individuals making the determination to the Hall of Fame) were culpable in the process. They didn’t report issues, bad behavior, and blotches on the game, because this was their livelihood.  If you did, you may never get a player to provide another quote, or exclusive interview.

Mickey Mantle recalled how his lack of self-control cost him more records, his health, and how this lead ultimately to his premature death from liver disease.   Owners habitually would throw players onto the scrap heap (anyone remember the homeless 98 mile an hour pitcher J.R. Richard).  The owners would say these players earned their money, and they take no responsibility for their individual lives.  It was the player’s responsibility and the owners wash their hands of the player who have left it out on the field.  If they were injured and no longer could perform prior to being eligible for a large contract and lifetime security; that was not an owner’s problem.  However, the longevity of a baseball player can be short, not all these young men make millions.   This behavior of using up player goes back to the Babe who was promised a larger role in managing the Yankees while HE hit mammoth home runs.  After his great run was over, the Babe was discarded.  But players like J.R. Richard Mark the Byrd Fidrich, and Shane Spencer are usually gone before they can make large amounts of money, and then are left with a large lifestyle they were never raised to accept.  Players in the 1990’s and 2000’s were shooting themselves up in order to get their piece of the pie.  It was no wonder with all of those riches at stake that players would do what they can to win at all costs.  Some doing it so they can stay in the game for as long as possible, earning big paychecks.  Others to get that elusive dream.  Some players like Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden were given a second chance, after admitting drug use, because they could hit a baseball or throw a 98 Mile an hour fastball.  Once they were done, the writers the teams, and the fans forgot who they were.  Most of them who were not the immortals disappeared.  Some disappeared tragically, (Billy Martin, Steve Howe).  Most disappeared quietly.  Others had trouble follow them years later (Lenny Dykstra, Jim Leyritz), mostly because of the way the world treated them – like gods on a pedestal.  Many sports figures use their positions or their names to get special treatment, baseball was no different.

The Major League Baseball Players Association, turned a blind eye to PED’s as well illegal drug use.  What these players did on their time was fine, as long as the player received their paycheck, and increased the Union’s power.  If a few got out of line like Rodriguez, the lawyers would come it and demand that the contract be honored. Taking drugs, or PED’s is not violating a contract to the union (Those of us in the real world might disagree as we would be fired for being under the influence at work).   Players like Brady Anderson who hit 50 home runs in 1996 were the epitome of what PED’s could do.  Only 12 players in the 100 plus year history of the game before Anderson hit 50 or more home runs in a season.  Only 2 in the 20 years before him.  Anderson never admitted to using steroids, and I am not accusing him.  However, it is curious that this lifetime .250 hitter was one day hitting home runs like no one before.  What people were watching before their eyes was the changing rules of the game – the deal with the devil was cast.   Baseball was no longer just skill, but possibly skill after a little juice. Put yourself in a player’s head for a moment.  Knowing that the player sitting next to you competing for your job is juicing – gives you an incentive…  to try it.

As to the effects of these drugs in the systems of young men they represent.  Why should the players union care?  The Union profited from PED’s as well all of the other players.   The more popular the game, the more money would come into it.  The higher the contracts, and economically speaking, a high tide raises ALL boats.   Every player would eventually benefit.  They were sharing the pie with the owners – the result of collective bargaining. If the game got bigger, so would their pie.

In 1998 these 2 giants hit home runs one after another.  Also there was the Iron Man Cal Ripken Jr., who unlike Sosa and McGuire, went right past revered legend Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak.  He did it without any kind of “help”.  HE was clean, no PED’s or drugs were in his regimen. Ripken is epitomized as the player who played by the rules.  The example the Major League Baseball would turn to support their conclusion that records can be broken without “cheating”.  However, as the renaissance of the game had begun, performance enhancing drugs (PED’s) were overlooked, ignored, and hushed up. It was the price to pay to rebuild the game.

However, Ripken’s achievement provided a window to the future. We the fans failed to look closer, but cynicism set in, as it always does with our heroes.  The pedestal we placed Bonds, Piazza, McGuire and Sosa must have some cracks, and they must have been doing something that gave them an advantage.  At the time neither baseball, nor the writers said anything about it.  It was a wink at what could be considered cheating – but who knew.   These men were loved and revered. Baseball writers, owners, players and the league itself, paid homage and pushed it aside.  They were saviors of the game – for a while.  The baseball writers applauded these achievements day after day. A new York Sportswriter wrote a bestselling book about the McGuire / Sosa chase. A-Rod renegotiated his contract based on his “potential” to break the home run record.   10 years and $275 Million.  Was it worth the risk?   The game of baseball, the fans, the baseball writers, as well as the players made their deal with the devil.   It was a deal that was to save the game, but every deal with the devil has a payment, and that payment would not be due for a while.  However, it would change the game of forever.  Ultimately, it would change the lives of these saviors of the game.  How we look at it from the Hall of Fame perspective.  Today it has affected one of the game’s best players. It affected how we see the players of an era not very long ago .  What was once a sure shot for baseball immortality, suddenly became a scarlet letter of such, and the records of an entire generation of baseball players was now suspect.   Even some players not linked to the steroid use, are being implicated (Jeff Bagwell). Even though the use of some substances was not even banned at the time.

What about Barry Bonds?  Bonds was not as well liked as Sosa and McGuire. Some would say arrogant in how he approached the game.  But then again, he was bigger than life.  Who wanted to pitch to him with anyone on base?   Pitchers walked him than to pitch to him.  Sometimes with the bases loaded.  There was also others like him such as Manny Ramirez come to mind.  These players were aloof, and not the darlings that Sosa and McGuire were portrayed to be. However, like Bonds these men were super talented, and they knew it.  Their hubris and their conceit was for all to see.  It was also assumed that these players also were taking performance enhancing drugs.   In relation to players of this era, Bonds was not loved and cheered, like Babe Ruth, Mark McGuire, and Sammy Sosa, even members of their own team did not like them – except when they delivered in the clutch.  Bonds was booed and disliked by many in baseball.  The writers disliked him because he was acerbic, and conceited, and refused to speak to them.  Why should he, when his team, baseball, and the players union all insulated him from the real world.  Similar to Ty Cobb, Bonds was revered, feared and hated.  Revered and feared because of his ability to hit home runs almost at will, and hated because he was not considered a very nice person.  He would refuse to talk with the press, he was rude on and off the field and he made the player’s clubhouse his own personal domain, not caring about anyone but himself.  The proverbial god had his throne, and woe unto them who came near to him.

However, in order to maintain his physical advantage, Bonds needed to use many of these PED’s.  He did this to attain and to maintain his superiority of the game.  This behavior was the start of the consciousness of PED’s in baseball.   Could Bonds be that much better? As I said earlier it is normal to look for cracks, even more normal to look for cracks when the person is disliked. There must be something causing this almost super human behavior. When Bonds eclipsed the records of McGuire, and was embarking on the greatest record in the game, the sacred 755 Home runs held by Hank Aaron, the deal baseball made with the devil became due and now the sacred records were at stake.  In 2007 when Barry Bonds hit the record tying 755th home run, Bud Selig the baseball commissioner was there.  However, he did not applaud the accomplishment.  Instead Selig chose to practically ignore the achievement by keeping his hands in his jacket pockets, looking around as if he was unaware that one of the greatest records in the game was tied.  The look of contempt on his face, could only be attributed to the fact that Bonds eclipsed a revered player in Hank Aaron – Also Selig’s friends (Kenesaw Mountain Landis / Roger Maris anyone?) .  Selig’s contempt could also be attributed to the fact that Selig felt that Bonds did not achieve these results honestly.  However, Bud Selig has chosen never to discuss this matter. In addition Bud Selig did not attend any other games especially the San Francisco Giants’ baseball game on August 7 when Barry Bonds broke Aaron’s record by hitting his 756th home run.  Selig released a statement congratulating Bonds after the achievement.  Resemblances to Roger Maris’ pursuit of eclipsing Babe Ruth’s 60 Home Run mark notwithstanding.  A mere 10 years later, baseball was indicting the PED ERA, and its contempt of the players that participated in it.

Baseball is an endurance game, it is a grind whose success relies more on physical endurance, hand-eye coordination and finesse more than strength. Night games, time zones, jet lag, lack of sleep, long schedules, and aging bodies all work against a player maintaining his peak performance for an entire season.  With large money contracts in the hundreds of millions (Giancarlo Stanton’s recent contract was for over $325 Million) the stakes were now even higher.  In order to stay at top condition, players work out all year even in the off season to maintain peak performance.  A regimen of vitamins, and nutrition are examples of many things that would help the players perform better and longer. As players age, like most people, they break down.   In order to recover they turned to testosterone and other drugs to help them maintain muscle tone, concentration, and strength.  Muscle growth hormones which were created by our societal desire for the fountain of youth, are used for body building, and maintaining a good looking well-toned body.  Creating muscled bodies in middle age became more and more important to our generation, and so these drugs are now more available.  Drugs such as steroids, which promoted extreme muscle growth to help those who needed to rebuild were abused.  Players would use these PED’s to gain a competitive advantage, the desire to get a larger contract, and to keep up with other players who were also participating as well.   The owners, the baseball writers, and even the fans would look the other way as long as the game was being served.

Baseball was never a popularity contest and not all players were always nice, and the game had its good guys and bad guys.  Sometimes some players reputation as a “good guy”, were fabricated.  Ask many youngsters spurned by ballplayers when they met them on the street.  Joe DiMaggio would only provide an autograph for a price, and Mickey Mantle would be sometime so hung over, that he would not be “polite” to youngsters who asked for an autograph. These men were portrayed by their press releases as perfect role models. Like professional wrestling, you even rooted for some guys because they were good guys(or portrayed as that by their PR), Cal Ripken Jr, Craig Biggio, Derek Jeter, and Ken Griffey, Jr. come to mind.  You also rooted for or against bad guys, like Barry Bonds, Manny Ramirez, Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens come to mind.  If they were on your team good or bad, they became your heroes.  If these players were your arch enemies you hated and revered them even more.

During the last 15 years, the game of baseball decided that whatever was causing this home run renaissance was cheating.  All of a sudden, since the game was now revived they no longer needed these players to keep the fans in the seats.  These same players that the game held up in high regard as saviors were now suspect.  All of their records were now suspect as well.  Remember the game needed these players and their records to survive.  But baseball waned to claim purity, and also, the longevity of those on these PED’s could not be sustained. Those days are over, and what some might believe is the owners need to save themselves tons of money on contracts they should never have offered (Alex Rodriguez).

The game has gone on a vendetta against these players.  Some of them were in the past; Sosa and McGuire, as well as Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Rafael Palmiero, (who would in another era be natural 1st ballot Hall of Famers)  and a host of others were also assumed to be “dirty”. Some of them such as Craig Biggio, who was never considered to have taken performance enhancing drugs, are now overlooked by baseball writers for induction, only because they were part of this era.   In 2005 Congress held hearings and brought some of these men in to testify under oath to swear that they did not take these drugs. Players were forced to testify under oath about their PED use.  The current players were forced by their clubs because of the threat of losing their special reserve clause status. Many of them such as Mark McGuire had their career reputations at stake. McGuire was retired, and admitting to using drugs which at the time they were used were not considered illegal, was more an indictment of his achievements so needed by Baseball. PED’s was a new stain on the game, and even associating  with its use even though it was not illegal was enough for McGuire to decline he has taken them.

Others players like Sosa, Palmiero, Clemens and others on the last ends of their careers were brought before congress and one after another refused to admit to PED’s.  Barry Bonds was indicted in order to score political points – to prove for some reason that his records were not earned legitimately.  Roger Clemens swore that he did not take PED’s as well.  So horrible was his crime that the justice department went on a vendetta to prove that he lied to congress.  Now Clemens may or may not have used PED’s, he may have masked them or not, however, the fact that Roger Clemens was possibly the greatest modern day pitcher is not even debatable.

That brings us to the present and the suspension and return of Alex Rodriguez (A-Rod).  It can be said that A-Rod is an example of the worst part of PED’s, or it could be an example of the witch hunt in baseball.  The game now does not need PED’s to increase the fan base any longer.  Baseball is now at a new high in attendance and viewership worldwide.  It no longer needs players like A-Rod, so it labels these guys as cheats, suspends them and prevents them from playing or being honored as great. The Yankees are conspicuously absent in supporting their player. No doubt if he was still hitting 50 home runs, they would be in his corner to keep him on the field… (Roger Clemens anyone …)

Now is what these players did cheating? It can be debated… But the fact that A-Rod is a villain is something that bothers me. They seem to have made A-Rod the poster boy for PED’s.  Is there not anyone in the world that looks for a competitive advantage in order to win?  The league has changed the rules in mid-stream but still are benefitting from the records these players made.  The expectations for better stronger and bigger was lauded and required by management    The money in the game and the desire for greater records and higher performance has created the atmosphere for the rise of PED’s.  If the Yankees were dumb enough to give A-Rod a 10 year guaranteed contract extension, they own that decision.  It does not seem that they did nothing but look the other way over the last 6 years when he was hitting 50 home runs and driving in over 125 runs.  The goal of the contract was the Hope that he would eclipse the record held by Bonds in a Yankees Uniform. Now that he is slowing, the Yankees are silent, using this as an escape from paying him a negotiated contract.   Worrying about the 61 Million left on his contract.  Debating if they should release him and walk away.

In the Post season of 2012, the New York Yankees gave Derek Jeter a cortisone shot (a steroid which masks pain) in a move that was perfectly legal behind baseball PED standards and he broke no rules for taking it. But that masking of pain actually led to the broken ankle that prevented him from playing in the remainder of the playoffs and most of last season.  Now, A-Rod and others have taken other forms of steroids and Human Growth Hormone to stay strong and healthy during a season -more preventative than masking- and then they are thrown under the bus.

Is A-Rod worth the almost $62 million owed to him for the next 3 years? He is a shell of the player he was even 2 years ago.  Can he return to form and be competitive? That is up for debate.  He certainly is no longer an elite player, and therefore not worth the money he is due purely based on an analytical level.  If A-Rod hits 6 more home runs, he gets a $6 Million bonus for breaking Willie Mays’ record of 660.  But the contract was negotiated based on current and future value of a player, and no one held a gun to the Yankees head to sign the contract.  I believe they knew exactly the player they would be getting. The Yankees owe the contract regardless of A-Rod’s current abilities.  5 years later, the Yankees are complicit in both creating and ruining the reputation of one of their players, and washing their hands in the process.

Bud Selig is on a vendetta to rid the game of these people who in his mind cheated. This stance is laughable at best.  He looked the other way, and sanctimoniously 14 years later decides that this is not in the best interest of the game.  The cheating the players did get Bud Selig $250 million for his franchise in 2006, a king’s ransom for a franchise that was bankrupt at the time he bought them.  No one has asked Bud to give back his rewards.   This kind of behavior goes back to Shoeless Joe Jackson, and his suspension in 1917 in order to “save the game”.  Negating the results that these ballplayers achieved is reprehensible, especially when they were used to line the pockets of the owners, the sponsors, and all of baseball.  I feel sorry for the game. No one worries about the players especially the players association, whose sole purpose is to look over the well-being of their members.  They fought drug testing tooth and nail, and only succumbed because of the outrage from fans and politicians.

There was never a crosswalk period for the steroid era, which would help those players who were already part of the PED crew.  Baseball would say that they created enough time for players to rid themselves of the drugs. I am not sure 5-6 years is enough time.  But it is difficult to players used to achieving top level results to just stop.  What should have been done would be like the spitball era.  Have those who used PED’s own up, and slowly rid the game of these players. Do not prevent normal use of testosterone, and other PED’s that help players recover from injuries.  Get rid of the PED’s that hurt the player’s bodies in the long run.  But find out truthfully, how these drugs affect players, and their bodies.   After a generation or so with the right devotion to education and preventing use, the game would rid itself normally.

However that being said, the players should be afforded the achievements they had made over the last 15 years.  The results and championships will not be erased, and therefore the game did not “suffer”. Everyone profited.   If the owners benefitted, we do not expect them to return their gains, why should the players?   No wonder the players do what they can to win at all costs. It’s hypocritical. Baseball should be ashamed of itself to what it has done to the reputations of some of the greatest players who played the game.   While the era should be considered “different” such as the “dead ball era”, or the spitball era, and termed possibly the “PED Era”.  These records should not be suspect, and possibly separated in the record books, but many of the achievements performed were watched with awe.   I don’t believe that 2 sets of records should be made.  While many of these records were suspect, as players become stronger, these records will someday be eclipsed.   No one ever though that Lou Gehrig, consecutive game streak would be eclipsed, but Ripken pushed that aside.

Comparing any of the current records to other eras is like comparing a horse and buggy race to a NASCAR race. The players are different more physically fit.  The equipment and training is also different.   It is apples and oranges.   Babe Ruth never faced Roger Clemens, and Barry Bonds never had to face Cy Young.   To say that these players should be stacked against each other is not real, but rather a hopeful imagination.  Baseball cards are compared, and it would be great to see Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio at bat against Roger Clemens or Mariano Rivera in their prime.  It cannot be done.  However, statistically if a player shows longevity, and consistency, then it may be obvious that talent had more to do with the outcome and the player’s abilities than drugs.  While the numbers may be inflated, it does not take away that over the era that they had played the game they were the best.    Telling the fans that these records do not count is a lie.  Having players suffer for looking for the edge in a game that does little to support them for putting it all out on the field is disingenuous.  We ask our players to play all out.  However, the tolls on the body need to be overcome.  Is it cheating?  I do not believe so.  I believe they try to be the best at all times.

I am not an A-Rod fan, but I watch the players, and my team – the Yankees.  I root for them, love when they win, and like all fans get upset when they lose.  The owners on the other hand take advantage of the fans loyalty, and so do the sports writers. Ticket prices are rising and moving the ordinary fan out of the stadium.   Supply and demand, the seats are in great demand.   But through it all I am sorry but I did not root for George Steinbrenner, or Bud Selig any more than I rooted for Mike Lupica or Dick Young.  I did however root for Don Mattingly, Dereck Jeter, and even Roger Clemens when he donned a Yankees uniform.  Bud Selig’s vendetta against PED’s, is a larger issue, and his vendetta against players and using them as examples with punishment is unhealthy for the game itself.  It is also not good to hold players who played in this era by standards that they could not be reasonably able to uphold.  Why Selig would go after players, is unfortunate.  It takes away any ability to come up with an answer.  The baseball writers need to be part of the solution as well. Coming up with discussions on how to preserve the records of the last 15 years.   As a fan, I am upset. I feel cheated, and what they all did may be wrong, but it is an absurd way of handling the problem.   Everyone tied to the game played with the devil, and now the payment is due.  Unfortunately, we as fans will all lose.  Isn’t that always the case?