Monday, December 06, 2004

John McCain's Grandstand Play

This is Your Brain Trust on Drugs

Editorial Note: cross-posted on The Diamond Angle's blog page.
Grandstand Play: 1. Any play that is staged to elicit applause. The play may be a simple one but it is embellished and made to look difficult and even heroic. 2. adj. Descriptive of a flashy style of playing. "When necessary, bench a man for each attempt at grandsand play. Most coashes need a little courage in this respect." (Coleman R. Griffith, The Psychology of Coaching, 1926.

-- Dickson's Baseball Dictionary

The old bait and switch is underway with the alleged "steroid scandal", and the "integrity of the game" is not at the heart of the matter. If we look past the huffing and chuffing at what's actually going in, there's utterly no new evidence of widespread steroid use in the sport. I'm not saying this might not be the case, but what has the collective sports establishment's panties in a twist is some leaked grand jury testimony that was sworn out months and months ago, focussing on one provider of the 'roids (Balco), which was already pretty well-known. Oh yes, of course the big new name associated with the case is Barry Bonds, the biggest figure in the sport, guaranteed to attract attention.

There are a few things about the present circumstances that make me deeply suspicious about both the motives and methods directed at "cleaning up" baseball. Senator John McCain of Arizona, who clearly is gearing up for a Presidential run in 2008 -- after having been a good soldier for the present administration in the 2004 election campaign, despite obvious personal misgivings about the integrity of the campaign -- will introduce legislation in Congress next month to deal with the "steroids issue". You'll hear this touted in the media soundbytes as "anti-steroid" legislation, but in reality it will be a bill that will selectively override portions of the collective bargaining agreement dealing with drug testing and imposing a Federal set of drug tests on a specific sport.

Congress long ago should have removed baseball's anti-trust exemption. It's unique to the sport, and has resulted in an oligarchic management structure that has been immune from many market forces, most especially most fair labor standards practices. The players have organized an effective union as their only recourse, as many traditional avenues for redress against ownership are not open to them in the court system. One need only look at the history of collusion among the owners to see this -- as far as I know, Steve Garvey is still trying to collect the balance of his award from the 1980s collusion case.

There has been a crime committed here. No, it's not Bonds using Steroids. As with McGwire using andro, which is a legal substance now and was not banned by baseball when he took it, it's probably the case that whatever Bonds took was not an illegal substance nor banned by baseball at the time. The facts may trickle out eventually, amidst all the speculation about who did what knowingly when. I'm under no delusions that Bonds didn't think he was trying to get an edge up by playing around with some gray areas, and that, like Giambi, he was taking an idiotic risk with his health and reputation. But scandalous cheating? Rampant illegal activity?

No, the crime that was committed was the leaking of sealed Grand Jury testimony. The confidentiality of testimony in such cases has always been an essential part of our criminal investigative system. In order to establish the culpability of Messrs. Anderson, Conte, et alia in manufacturing and distributing illegal drugs -- and possibly administering dangerous drugs to people like Bonds without their knowledge -- grand jury proceedings typically give minor offenders and/or victims the blanket of confidentiality for their testimony in order to get the "big fish".

The problem here is that from a populist perspective -- not a legal one, and not a factual one -- is that Bonds is the "big fish" as far as the politicians are concerned. John McCain isn't going to make political hay by going after Victor Conte. He is by going after Bonds, who is extremely visible and not well-loved by many. I don't have time to go into why Mark McGwire is not being similarly exorciated by the media and the pols, but let's just leave it that he doesn't make as inviting a target as the hard-to-love Bonds.

And the proposed solution wouldn't just change the labor agreement baseball and the player's union spent a long time working out. It would establish a precedent for the government intruding into such agreements, which could be extended to virtually any workplace in the future, in response to a problem that seems to be vastly overstated with respect to both its extent and its possible effect on the competitive integrity of the game. (And for that matter, while as a baseball fan I'm kind of ticked off at the idea, I have to ask myself: who dies if a bunch of baseball players cheat? Who dies, say, if there's not enough flu vaccine because Congress has wildly inconsistent laws about not requiring drug manufacturers to provide a sufficient supply?)

This is a great opportunity for the populist reactionaries in Congress to appear to be doing something about cheating and drugs and overpriced baseball players -- something few people in this country are going to rally to support! -- and at the same time getting the foot in the door to be able to completely dismantle sports unions, something that would suit the Senators' buddies in the front offices just fine.

Let me propose an analogy. Let's say you're working at Starbucks, and you're paid a bonus based on how many people you serve. A couple of your co-workers are, in violation of company policy, drinking double lattes laced with Vivarin in order to get extra energy to serve customers faster. A couple of these employees were the best in the store to begin with, a couple were pretty good but seem to have gotten better awfully fast and awfully supiciously.

The news breaks about the great Barrista Scandal of 2004, in which it is leaked that several -- it's unclear how many -- of your co-workers have been taking the Vivarin solution to try to get that performance bonus. Your friendly neighborhood Senator then passes a law saying you -- who have never taken a Vivarin in your life -- will have to undergo mandatory caffeine testing. The contents of your urine will be chemically analyzed and released to whom, you do not know. Everything in your bloodstream, from birth control pills to the residuals of that poppy seed muffin (which can false-positive test for heroin) is going to be in a database someplace utterly inaccessible to you. You'll only hear about it if you're going to be suspended or fired for a Positive Caffeine test, and you won't necessarily be able to appeal to try to prove the caffeine came from a source that was not a forbidden Vivarin tablet. Your health insurance may be cancelled without warning because your HMO gets a hold of the suspected drug results. You can be fired without recourse or even severance because of the result of just one bogus test.

Federal testers will show up and demand urine tests from you while you're at home asleep, on vacation, at a job interview, or in the middle of the work day in front of all your colleague barristas -- you can't be certain when, because they'll have the right to make you pee in a cup whenever they want. If you happen to practice really hard at mixing Cafe Mochas and improve your performance dramatically, you'll receive special scrutiny from the Federal Pee Investigators.

In exchange for this, as a barrista you'll have the moderate possibility your co-workers who have been cheating won't find a new way to cheat and will stop using the Vivarin, returning some small level of parity to your competition for that bonus.

That's roughly what the various legal proposals for "dealing with the steroids scandal" entail. Whether you work at Wal-Mart or for the San Francisco Giants, that's the kind of treatment you can expect. But it's being sold as "cleaning up baseball." Who could oppose that?

Does Congress have anything better to do? Well, there are record deficits, two wars going on, a health care crisis, terrorist threats, an active plan to reform the nation's intelligence agencies hung up in a political dispute, and a frozen omnibus spending deal rife with pork and even larger deficits. So I'd rather modestly suggest the Congress might put its attention elsewhere.

Or is that the point? Is the point of making steroid use in baseball to distract the public's attention from real problems, to make a grandstand play on a populist issue that few people would disagree with?

There's been a lot of talk about putting an asterisk next to Barry Bonds' name in the record books, or disqualifying him from the Hall of Fame for cheating. Yet the last I heard, baseball is a team sport. I haven't heard anybody suggest that the Boston Red Sox be retroactively awarded the 2003 American League pennant. What?? Well, Jason Giambi hit a homer in Game 7 of the ALCS -- without that homer, the Red Sox would have had a two-run lead, there would have been no extra innings and no Aaron Boone walk-off. If we're going to do over the record book, we should do-over the game results too.

Yes, it's ridiculous. The whole thing is becoming absurd.

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