As you may have guessed, I need to talk to you about the Mitchell report.
First of all, I'm not quite sure whom I should address this to. Is it the players, or maybe the players' association, union bosses, and agents? Is it the corporate paymasters, the owners, the advertising dollars? Is it the broadcasters and reporters, or is it the Commissioner, supposedly at the top of the whole organization? Or is it the real people in charge of the sport, the fans who have bought record numbers of tickets in recent years?
You see, I have to include the fans in this, because they're what addiction counselors refer to as "enablers." Sports radio may buzz with outrage over the cheapening of baseball's gaudy records, but the outrage doesn't extend to the box office or the souvenir shop. People are going out to the ball park in droves to see 40-year-old flamethrowing pitchers with HGH-healed bodies face down big-headed, roided up batters. They're buying jerseys with their names and numbers on the back. And they're cheering juiced-up homers and strikeouts in record numbers.
My point is, we're all culpable here. We're all to blame, but I'm going to take my medicine first, before I hand any out to anyone else.
Steroids in baseball is my fault.
I was drawn back to interest in the game by the 1993 Phillies, then the 1995 Indians. We've known for years now that both teams were led by chemically enhanced stars. (To be fair, John Kruk and Curt Schilling never exactly had the bodies of an Adonis.) Red Sox fandom came later, from the timeless smell and feel of Fenway, so very different from the stew of entitlement I experienced in New York. I seldom bought tickets, but I bought hats and jerseys and coffee mugs, MLB Showdown cards and the like, I watched a lot of ball on TV and discovered SportsCenter. I probably bought a lot of things advertised in games. And in 1998 I watched with everyone else as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa smashed Roger Maris' home run record. I cheered and hollered and screamed with excitement as if nothing smelled funny here. It was fun, and it was exciting as hell. It's not just chicks who dig the long ball.
So it is with complete acknowledgement of my part that I address the rest of baseball nation.
Players: Just stop. Stop. Put down the needles, spit out the pills. Stand on your own two feet or fall, like a human being does. Sports attract us because of their purity, the unerring "our guys did it better than your guys" factor, the score at the end being the undisputable result of superior preparation and effort on a level playing field. I can't shoot myself up with something to make me a better actor, administrator, musician, leader, teacher, or writer. You're not just cheating in your game, you're cheating the allegory. Baseball isn't a George-Will-ian microcosm of life if you can only succeed at baseball by cheating.
I know it's impossibly naive of me to expect you to stop because of poetry, but I'm asking anyway. Stop because stopping is the right thing to do. Stop because if you can't make it as a major league baseball player without cheating you aren't really a major league baseball player. To fail as a man is infinitely better than to succeed as a sham.
Commissioner Selig: Give total amnesty to offenders who confess before pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training. This is your fault as much as theirs. You knew this was happening, Bud, you knew. And you did next to nothing until Congress - Congress, for crying out loud, the most useless and impotent body this side of the U.N. - made you. Give amnesty and start again. If, after the amnesty offer, players fail tests, strike their stats from the records. Erase them from history. All their stats, even their names, gone from the record books as if they never played. It's the only way; it's the only penalty that makes sense. Of course you can't know if steroids helped Jason Giambi to 20 home runs or 200, but you know it helped him to home runs. So if, after offering the carrot of amnesty, players merit the stick of erasure, drop the stick on them. Hard.
Yes, I know the Barry Bonds thing isn't addressed by the above scenario. He's never going to play again, so he'll never test positive. That's fine. Let his numbers stand as a monument to your own stupidity, as a cautionary tale. Let his so-called records tell us, "When we sacrifice integrity for money, this is what happens." Leave his seven hundred whatever up there to remind us all to never let this happen again. We all know the home run king is Hank Aaron.
Baseball Fans: Go to minor league games until you're convinced that Major League Baseball is actually substantially cleaned up. Better yet: if you've got an independent league team, like the Northern League, nearby, go there. Trust me; a live minor league game is the best sports experience in the world. The seats are closer, the tickets and beers are cheaper, the lines are shorter, and the whole experience is just more pure. Yeah, the minor leaguers are roided up too, but at least they're not making millions, or most of them aren't. Go to high school games, go to college games.
If you absolutely must follow your favorite team (and, I must admit, it's going to take a lot more than this to make me stop following my beloved Red Sox and Phillies), watch them on TV or listen on the radio. Don't buy tickets, don't buy that new jersey, don't buy a new hat. Wear the old ones. Until you're convinced that baseball is taking real steps to end the culture of drug use, stop giving them your money.
And while I've got you listening, fans, educate yourself about the game. There's a lot more to cheer for than the home run and the strikeout. A ground-ball pitcher's duel is one of the most sublime and beautiful things in sports. Watch the beauty of a 4-6-3 double play and cheer. Shout out loud for defense and the struggle for control of the strike zone. Stand up and applaud your team after they score a run on a walk, a sac bunt, a steal, and an infield single in a tough inning. In my opinion, that's way more fun than a home run. It's the most complex and beautiful game in the world; there's more to love than just the fireworks.
Fix it, baseball. Do the right thing for a change, not just because of money or PR, but because it's right. You're baseball in America, and you should be right.
Yes, the Mitchell report is largely a political document. Yes, it's largely non-prosecutable, and most of the offenses detailed in it are from four-plus years ago. Yes, much of the information came from dirtbag drug dealers with plea deals. But this is your chance, baseball. This is your chance to start something new.