Hitting Them Where It Counts
I don't tend to blog much about current events - well, to be honest, I haven't been blogging much lately at all. But I wanted to share a couple of thoughts about the baseball scandal that has made front page, let alone sports page, headlines this past week. In case you've so uninterested in baseball that you've totally ignored the news - or else love it too much to have listened - the long-awaited/dreaded Mitchell Report has implicated some 80-90 current and recently retired players in using illegal performance enhancing drugs, mostly steroids and human growth hormone (HGH).
I'm not looking to make a moral judgment about the players involved. "Al tadin chavercha..." as chazal wisely tell us, don't judge another unless you are in his place. And I can safely say that I will never be a major leaguer, not even with the help of all the 'roids I could swallow, inject, or bathe in. But I'd like to make two points about the current scandal, in terms of its impact on "The Game", and a suggestion for a fitting response by the baseball powers that be.
Will this scandal spell "the end of baseball", as many sports pundits put it? In a word or two, No Way. The "end of baseball" has been predicted many times before, especially during the last three decades or so. A partial list of the events within my memory that were supposed to spell the final doom of America's Pastime include: expansion clubs and teams moving West (60-70s), the rising popularity of Football (70s), the advent of playoffs and leagues splitting into two divisions (early 70s), free agency (late 70s), high salaries (every year), the strike of 1981, the strike of 1994, the Wild Card format and leagues splitting into three divisions (mid-90s - one that I myself admittedly decried), and interleague play (ditto). And let's not forget the Designated Hitter rule.
Baseball has somehow weathered all of these storms, perhaps with a rain-out or two, and will survive the current one as well. Though certainly, a swift and decisive response by Commissioner Bud Selig would very much help in the healing process, for the players and especially for the fans.
Which leads me to my second point - what should be done to the players involved? I've given this a good bit of thought for the past few days, especially since my baseball-fanatic son has been able to talk about little else since the report was issued. I believe I have a solution which is not perfect, but has some key advantages over most of the other approaches I've been reading about, most especially in making the "punishment" fit the "crime". Those words are in scare quotes because, of course, except for those who perjured themselves in court, no US laws were broken by these players. What they violated were the rules of the sport. And by that token, the response should be simple and to the point, and should hit the offenders in that same field of play - pun intended - the baseball world.
Here's my proposal. Each player who has been proven, over a given period, to have used performance-enhancers that were illegal at the time, should have all personal baseball statistics over that same period, and some fixed interval afterwards, wiped from the record books. Thus, hits and home runs by Barry Bonds, or strikeouts and victories by Roger Clemens, that they gained while juicing, or while still physically benefiting from doing so previously, simply don't count. They never happened - end of story.
The elegance of this approach is multi-fold. It focuses punishment where it means the most to the offenders - their baseball achievements, their very legacy. It penalizes players who used drugs just once or twice to an exactly proportional lesser extent than those who used them regularly for years. It allows former users who are still active to continue playing, to have the opportunity to atone for their past mistakes and try to win back their fans, with no further penalties as long as they stay clean. It also means that players who later prove their innocence, and that their inclusion on the report was erroneous, can simply have their records restored, with - to borrow another sport's metaphor - no harm, no foul.
And most importantly, more than any other suggested response, this one can help restore the integrity of the game in the fans' eyes. Nearly 25 years ago, George Brett had a home run wiped out because he used too much pine tar on his bat (yes, I know this decision was reversed later. Shush!) The steroid-tainted homers deserve no less of a penalty - but no more of one either. With this approach, all player records (team records should be left alone) which were blemished by that player's illegal actions are wiped clean. The sport will weather another storm, and can move on to better - if no longer "bigger" - things.