Tainted Love

When the San Francisco Chronicle finally let the cat out of the bag this week and detailed the testimony that several sports figures, including baseball’s Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi, gave in the BALCO investigation, it was no surprise to what people had long suspected. In fact, the proverbial bag was more like the plastic recycling bags that the sanitation department requires so that they can see exactly what we are pitching to the curb; the revelations did nothing more than prove what many had known for some time.

Bonds is well on his way to clobbering Henry Aaron’s career home run record by the early part of the 2006 season, but it will be an empty accomplishment. Even Hammerin’ Hank, as detailed in an article for theAtlanta Journal-Constitution today, has lost his admiration and support of the San Francisco slugger’s pursuit. “Any way you look at it,” he carefully pondered, “it’s wrong.” As for Giambi, the Yankees are looking to void the remaining $80 million contract that the New York slugger signed before the 2002 season that will keep him in pinstripes for the next four seasons, although most of the motions being made are merely academic and it would be difficult to show a correlation between his health problems in 2004 and his admitted drug use.

The steroid scandal is about to blow up in the face of Major League Baseball and the time bomb has been ticking long enough and loud enough for anyone to hear it clear across the country. Fans have been casting a suspicious eye on the field for the better part of recent years as the balls fly out of the park at an alarming rate and these stories only further lends discredit to the players. Now the federal government looks to act on the matter; Arizona Senator John McCain, who has warned baseball in the past to do something to police the players, has threatened to introduce legislation that would force the hand of the league to act on the issue.

Baseball will survive this latest scandal because the love of the game will conquer all. The fans love baseball in the purist sense: the smell of the grass, the color of the infield dirt and the uniforms, and the drama of a season from the early moments of spring training to the final out of the World Series. Every play and every game has the potential to be something magical. Whether it’s a line drive into the gap, a flashy double play, or a close call at the plate that makes or breaks the game, we rise from our seats to watch and either groan at misfortune or cheer in triumph. Those moments reveal the child that still thrives in each and every one of us that admires the bold beauty of the sport that has become an American icon.

However, to keep that fantasy intact, the owners and the players must now end the charades and agree together on a stronger policy that will hold players accountable for actions unbecoming of the game. Baseball’s dirty little secret is no longer that and it’s time for action to speak louder than words. It is not a matter of personal civil liberties as the Players Association has long argued; even most players now feel that they must answer the critics and submit to drug tests just to prove that they have followed the rules. The cold, harsh reality is that a percentage of the product that Major League Baseball puts on the field is tainted. In the past, it may have been about business, but the league can no longer do what it takes; it must do what is right.

There are plenty of arguments for stronger drug testing: Jose Canseco, Daryl Strawberry, and Ken Caminiti are three reasons that instantly come to mind. There are also those high school players who are hurting themselves more than they know because they believe that drugs are the answer to a career in professional sports. Most of all, the strongest argument is that it must be, at the most basic element, for the love of this game. As James Earl Jones’ character Terence Mann in Field Of Dreamsasserted as he looked over Ray Kinsella’s baseball diamond in that Iowa cornfield: “The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball… This field, this game; it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again.” Come on, baseball; make us once more enjoy and believe in the good of the game.