Check the phones and the internet connection: someone’s listening. I’m not being paranoid here, nor am I being a partisan liberal. The fact is that one of the rarest commodities in modern society is trust. When Ronald Reagan spoke of an arms agreement saying “trust, but verify”, he had no idea that the “verify” part would be the only one anyone paid attention to just twenty years later.
When baseball instituted not just one, but three new drug policies over the last two seasons (each more draconian than the last), the inevitable cry was that testing was needed to “restore trust.” The problem is that in practice, nothing could be further from the truth. Testing gave us twelve names last season and two – both in the minors at the time – this season. Only Rafael Palmeiro registers with the general public and only because of his Clintonesque denials. Trust is still hiding from the lords of baseball, if they ever expected it back.
Albert Pujols, at time of writing, has 24 home runs and is on pace to break the single season home run record of 73. Pujols, a hulk of a man at a listed 6’3, 225 (and likely much bigger than that), finally began to hear the same sorts of whispers that Barry Bonds and others have for years. “He’s too good. He must be on the juice.”
Trust? Oh no, the American public would much rather speculate.
Pujols had a ready response; he’s been tested for half his career and never tested positive. The speculators will point, rightly, to the holes in the tests, to undetectable drugs, and to masking agents. The speculators will point to pictures of Pujols in his minor league career: and compare them to what we see today. Quite the change, though if we could spot steroid users by looking at them, we could save all this money spent on research and testing.
This isn’t to focus on Pujols. The speculation and lack of trust is systemic. Bonds’ time as the target has come and gone, for now, and Pujols is the latest target. Every generation believes that their heroes were the best and that no one could ever do more without cheating. No basketball player will ever jump higher than Michael Jordan, no horse will run faster than Affirmed, and no hockey player will be better than Wayne Gretzky, at least in my head. My father would argue for Wilt Chamberlain, Secretariat, and Gordie Howe. The attacks on Pujols today will shift to whoever exceeds that bar. Americans like a hero, but we like a comeback better – and you can’t have a comeback without a fall.
So if testing hasn’t accomplished a re-establishment of trust nor has it pushed performance enhancing drugs out of the game, what has it accomplished? A post-9/11 mindset allows us to say that the testing is pre-emptive and necessary. A feeling of protection, no matter how illusory, is often needed to sleep at night, but doesn’t make us any safer. The testing program and, more importantly, its rapidly increasing penalties and fear of the pillory, has cost us the opportunity to truly change the culture of sport.
If you accept the principle that a sport governing body has the right to ban substances – and I know some of you do not – then it follows that the goal of that policy must be to root out entrenched users and prevent future players from becoming users; thus, raising the cost of temptation. By focusing on the testing and penalty portion of the policy (one that demonstrably does not restore trust), the opportunity to educate is lost. Instead of pointing out that 11 of the 12 positive tests were for players that have, at best, journeymen careers and that 12 positives means that there were over 3500 negative tests, the policy has instead fueled the media’s hunger for scandal.
Trust, in essence, is a public relations question, not a testing and enforcement initiative. The NFL does this right, allowing the public to ignore 350 pound men running sub-5 second 40’s and benching Buicks in order to strap a wedge of cheese to their head. Americans are a forgiving lot. Just ask Jason Giambi. His famous non-specific apology before the 2005 season has kept him from being pilloried with his fellow BALCO client, Bonds. Giambi has paid a price, both with a pituitary tumor and with a reduction in marketing opportunities; but he doesn’t face the scrutiny and scorn that Bonds has. Or that Pujols will.
Pujols taking on the mantle of Bonds (both in the positive and negative connotations) will be an interesting test of the theory that PEDs are a public relations question. Bonds is a surly, spoiled superstar who looks down on his teammates and even his own fans. His prima donna attitude has been chronicled back to his schoolboy days. Pujols, on the other hand, is an immigrant made good. A hero in both his Dominican homeland and his adopted Missouri home; he never misses an opportunity to greet fans, sign autographs, or raise money for his Pujols Family Foundation. Seeing Pujols stand on the field with his daughter, a Downs Syndrome child, is a touching moment for many and certainly makes him harder to attack.
“The color of impropriety,” one baseball GM told me, “is more important that the actual offenses.” Just being able to state that (even behind the curtain of anonymity), proves that the Lords of Baseball understand that the problem is not drugs, but the perception of baseball as more than a microcosm. Society has a problem with drugs, legal and illegal; so does baseball. America is engaged in a vigorous debate about immigration; at the same time, Latin stars like Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, and Manny Ramirez are revered. “Baseball is America,” Ernie Harwell famously said. For better or worse, he was right.