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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Steroid Era

Not Guilty as Sin

So the Rocket walks and baseball’s long twilight struggle with performance enhancing drugs slips slowly, slowly away, while the real guilty parties are still very much at large.

As Mike Barnicle, one of the few people who will actually admit to liking Roger Clemens suggested this morning that the government failed to convict the big right-hander of lying to Congress because the line-up for those guilty of that offense is just too long.

Of course most everyone thinks Clemens did use the stuff, but 12 jurors obviously thought lying about it was the sports equivalent of “I didn’t have sexual relations with that woman.” And besides, why nail the Rocket when everyone else it seems was juiced, too? There is even a website devoted to the steroid era. You can look up your favorite abuser.

It’s time, in the view of this baseball fan, to call a halt to more federal government efforts to prosecute these cheaters. They deserve – Clemens, Bonds, McGuire, Palmeiro and all the rest – the judgment of history more than the judgment of courtroom and I say that as one who believes the cornerstone of our justice system is the simple act of telling the truth.

So now the discussion turns to whether Clemens, Bonds and others will get the hallowed pass to Cooperstown. I’m of two minds on the Hall of Fame question. On the one hand, these guys cheated and sullied their own and the reputation of the greatest game. On the other hand, if Roger Clemens was pitching with an unfair advantage then guys were hitting against him with the same unfair advantage and perhaps we should leave it at that. Call it the baseball law of all things even out.

And there is this: like most revered American institutions, baseball hasn’t exactly displayed a historic level of purity that would compare the locker room or the area between the lines to a convent. The game has been dirty in one way or another since African-Americans couldn’t play it at the ultimate level, since the Black Sox threw a World Series and before Curt Flood broke the no-free-agency strangle hold of the owners.

One reason we love this game is that baseball is a window into the larger American experience. Our history is full of scoundrels, cheats and nasty, greedy owners. Ty Cobb, just to name one scoundrel, is in the Hall and my mother wouldn’t have let him in the house. And maybe the steroid era is just the unavoidable late 20th Century response to the larger society’s fixation with the notion that a pill – or an injection – is available that will fix everything from your erectile dysfunction to your depression.

Want to hit a few more home runs? While there may be a few nasty side effects, the fences are reachable. You half expect to see the commercials during the network evening news. “I’m Roger Clemens and when I need a little something extra…”

Sport has imitated life.

The real villains of the steroid era, of course, really aren’t the Rocket or Bonds or McGuire, but the owners and traffic cops of baseball who looked the other way or elected to bury their heads. Remember the juice-stoked McGuire-Sosa home run competition in 1998? Most of us ate it up. So did Bud Selig.

“I think what Mark McGwire has accomplished is so remarkable, and he has handled it all so beautifully, we want to do everything we can to enjoy a great moment in baseball history,” said the Mr. Tough-on-Drugs Commissioner.

The fans – yours truly included – loved those big bashers. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in our lust for strikeouts and the long ball. We all share some responsibility for celebrating accomplishments that we can now so clearly see really were too good to be true.

I don’t vote for the Hall of Fame, but if I did I’d mark a ballot for Clemens and the arrogant Bonds, too. They were dirty, but so was so much of the game. Here’s hoping the owners and their lackey commissioner really have taken the steps necessary to clean the game. But as for wiping the slate clean in the steroid era, well that’s for the fans of baseball to reckon with.

Twenty-five or 50 years from now when we look at the record book we won’t need an asterisk to tell us that for a few juiced up years the game was played by players with skills enhanced beyond all reason and unfairly so. Such a realization is now a part of the game that we still love.

Baseball is bigger than Roger the Rocket or Barry the Jerk. Always has been. A bunch of pumped up, big ego players and greedy owners can’t kill it even though they have tried over and over again. Baseball is like the country. With all its faults, it carries on and on.

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