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OH, TO ENJOY AN ENTIRE BASEBALL SEASON WITHOUT A SCANDAL
A sport that delivers nothing but bad news now deals with the potential of another doping debacle, which could lead to whopper home-run numbers that no longer are believed by weary fans
Not that prayers should be wasted on those who halted the sport for 99 days — why not a round 100, boys? — but I’m hoping against hope that we finally can focus on ballgames this season. All that’s at stake here is the muddled future of an industry that has lost most of its TV viewers, much of its attendance base and its place in the pecking order of sports relevance.
Can you say niche, bitch?
That’s what the NFL and other leagues are shouting at Rob Manfred, the feeble commissioner who joined out-of-touch owners in nearly kicking Major League Baseball to the doomsday curb. After a labor impasse that resolved little — other than allowing teams and players to keep making money for five years, until the next bloody negotiation — the last thing anyone needs is, oh, another scandal. Or, the resumption of crossfire about the last scandal.
Give me Shohei Ohtani’s revolution, Vlad Guerrero’s joy, Walker Buehler’s spin rates. Give me the bleachers at Wrigley, a matinee in San Diego, an entire section to myself in Pittsburgh, an Acela-bopping excursion to Fenway and Philly and, for a change, both New York ballparks. Even give me the Chicago White Sox, whose owner called me a “pissant’’ and whose former manager called me a “f—ing fag’’ and whose fans wished death on me with nails in my tires and threats on my voice mail, as they try to win only their second World Series since throwing one 103 years ago.
Please don’t give me a new doping debacle. But that could happen, as a direct consequence of the ownership-imposed lockout. When work stopped on Dec. 1, so did MLB’s drug-testing program. That gave players almost the entire winter to load up with their preferred performance-enhancing drugs, if they so desired. And while testing resumed March 10 with the advent of the new collective bargaining agreement, the juicing was done, the advantages were gained, and the most skilled enablers were making sure substances were out of players’ systems beyond the point of detection.
Remember Victor Conte Jr., the godfather of the BALCO scandal that kept Barry Bonds out of the Hall of Fame and symbolized an era of cheating still infecting the sport? He suspects a reprise of the same script MLB followed after the last labor disaster, which led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. Conte thinks those three-plus months, along with the obligatory MLB-manipulated juicing of balls, could lead to a revival of the disproportionate-to-reality power explosions that brought back fans before.
“You might start seeing some 50-home run seasons again,” Conte told the New York Times. “In terms of performance enhancement, gains that could be made would be enormous. So they would just do very intense explosive type weight training. And this develops fast-twitch muscle fiber, and the benefits that will come will carry over. It’s not just that they got this boost.”
This time, of course, fans would see right through the sham. The owners, via their complicity in the late ‘90s and beyond, have diluted and pretty much destroyed the thrill of the Great American Home Run. A game that had been perfectly fine and quite interesting for decades, as it became the national pastime, got lost in clumsy attempts to sensationalize it and keep up with the natural appeal of football and basketball. Would Manfred be so foolish to greenlight in 2022 what temporarily worked when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa dueled in what was revealed as a fraudulent clout circus?
The drug testers are back. But are they too late? And moving forward, will they only nail players who are irrelevant? This week, MLB announced the suspensions of three players for 80 games each: Danny Santana, Richard Rodríguez and José Rondón. Who? And all tested positive for the substance Boldenone before the lockout. There’s a better chance of union chief Tony Clark engaging in a love hug with Manfred than a star player — someone you’ve actually heard of — being punished with a substantial PED ban this time around.
Keep in mind, too, that MLB routinely participates in its own cheating scheme. Balls are doctored into projectiles, most recently in 2019, when homers became so commonplace that fans all but stopped cheering them. We’ll know soon, with Opening Day upon us, whether they’re actually going to try playing baseball or turn every game into Home Run Derby.
Said Yankees relief pitcher Zach Britton: “I hope guys respect that, just because there was a period of time where we weren’t being tested, doesn’t mean they should go out and try to cheat and get an advantage over other guys are doing it right. Kind of check your moral compass for a second.”
It would be easier to push PEDs into the past had Manfred done a better job of adjudicating and enforcing recent scandals — and fixing existential issues corroding the game. Does anyone trust this man? The spring has brought more accusations that the Houston Astros weren’t the only team illegally stealing signs in 2017, as they won the World Series. Don’t forget the Yankees and Red Sox and God knows who else? Carlos Beltran, among the players who willingly participated in the scheme, acknowledged in an interview with his new employer — the YES Network, owned by the Yankees — that the Astros cheated only to employ the same dirty methods used by other teams.
“We felt that when teams are coming to our ballpark, we felt that some teams have something going on,” Beltrán said. “So we felt that we needed to create our own (system), you know, and that’s what happened.”
Echoing Beltran was Chris Sale, the Boston ace who was roughed up by the crooked Astros that postseason. Sale is tiring of chatter that Houston should be forced to vacate its title. “Here’s the thing, and I’m giving you my honest opinion: If the Astros were the only team doing it, then yeah. Give it back. Take it back. I know for a fact they weren’t,” Sale told a Boston radio station. “All these people pointing fingers, well, hey, take a check in the mirror real quick. Make sure you and your team weren’t doing something.”
Among the most vehement whiners are the Yankees, among teams guilty of using their video replay room to steal the signals of enemy catchers. Why, even if Houston’s crimes were more egregious, is the pot calling the kettle black in 2022? Yankees general manager Brian Cashman, still dwelling on a seven-game loss to the Astros that postseason, told The Athletic: “The only thing that stopped (us) was something that was so illegal and horrific. So I get offended when I start hearing we haven’t been to the World Series since ’09. Because I’m like, ‘Well, I think we actually did it the right way.’ Pulled it down, brought it back up. Drafted well, traded well, developed well, signed well. The only thing that derailed us was a cheating circumstance that threw us off.”
In that the Yankees, Astros and Red Sox are three top contenders in the American League, it’s fair to assume these salvos will follow them into the regular season. The Yankees have gone so far to appeal the public release of a letter that details their wrongdoing, believed to involve use of a dugout phone. The Red Sox used an Apple Watch to transmit signals. Why weren’t those teams and others suspended, even if their sins paled in comparison to the Astros’ trash-can banging at Minute Maid Park?
To MLB’s credit, the devious art of sign-stealing could end this season, when pitchers and catchers can use technological advances — via a device called PitchCom — that eliminate the sign system and possible sabotage. "You literally just press a button and it delivers the pitch call to the pitcher,’’ MLB strategy officer Chris Marinak said of the innovation. The league also is cracking down on pitchers who conned the system late last season, when some continued to use illegal sticky substances and avoided inspections by umpires.
Everywhere you look, baseball is ravaged by self-immolation. Despite talk of a 20-second or 14-second pitch clock, as experimented in minor-league parks, we’ve been hearing about this for years without movement in the commissioner’s office. The games will continue to be too long and devoid of action, with the same defensive shifts that swallow rallies and the same 45 to 55 seconds between pitches.
Also intact is the same competitive imbalance that already has ruled out 20 of 30 teams as serious contenders, if not more. It’s official: Union man Max Scherzer’s $43.3 million salary this season is higher than the payrolls of the Oakland Athletics, Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates. The disparity between haves and have-nots never has been more lopsided, thanks to higher luxury-tax thresholds that allow big-revenue teams to spend at their leisure and incur affordable taxes. “Listen, $290 million is a lot of money to spend overall and I’m OK with it,” new Mets owner Steven Cohen said of the highest threshold, “but I don’t feel like it’s so confining that I can’t live with it.” Try telling fans in have-not markets, after hearing such bluster, that his or her team has any chance to compete. In that vein, no fan wants to hear — beyond Los Angeles — more chest-beating about the long-term possibilities of the Dodgers.
“I can argue,” said Andrew Friedman, the team’s president of baseball operations, “that the next five years’ outlook is better than what we have accomplished over the previous five.” Better than a World Series title, three National League pennants and two regular seasons with 106 victories? All that does is widen a very real psychological gap, especially on Opening Day, when each team has high hopes. Same goes for the championship guarantee of manager Dave Roberts, who has the luxury of adding Freddie Freeman to a mon-star lineup including Mookie Betts, Trea Turner, Max Muncy, Justin Turner, Will Smith, Chris Taylor and, way down there in the eight hole, Cody Bellinger, only three seasons removed from an MVP trophy.
Living in L.A., I have the choice of watching the Dodgers in Chavez Ravine or hitting Orange County to see the Angels. They are blessed with optimum entertainment value, when Ohtani actually can out-glow the greatest player of the era, Mike Trout. But they’re also tainted by a trial in which their ex-communications executive, Eric Kay, is accused of supplying pitcher Tyler Skaggs with the drugs that killed him in 2019.
That would be another ongoing scandal.
Please, no more.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.