He can expose Alex Rodriguez as a Nixonian disgrace, catch Ryan Braun in massive lies, tell whoever’s listening that baseball is “cleaner than it ever has ever been.” He can gun down those Biogenesis ‘roiders like a packed-and-loaded, 79-year-old action hero, announcing to one and all that Major League Baseball, after serving for decades as the performance-enhancing version of a Farmers Market, now wields the toughest drug policy of America’s four major sports leagues.
“As a social institution with enormous social responsibilities,” Allan H. (Bud) Selig declared triumphantly, “baseball must do everything it can to maintain integrity, fairness and a level playing field. We are committed to working together with players to reiterate that performance-enhancing drugs will not be tolerated in our game.”
Wait, Rambo Bud was just warming up. “Those players who have violated the program have created scrutiny for the vast majority of our players, who play the game the right way,” Selig said. “We continue to attack this issue on every front — from science and research, to education and awareness, to fact-finding and investigative skills.”
Too bad the man, as he pulls out his shoulder joint slapping himself on the back, is about two decades too late. Truth be told, the commissioner was caught red-handed years ago in his own steroids duplicity and lost all credibility on a topic that always will be his fatal flaw. Please remember this as he furiously tries to scrub the game of PEDs, a never-ending crisis that should have alarmed him and the owners in the 1990s but mysteriously eluded them as baseball was making much-needed riches off bloated sluggers. Now that the sport is exploding with TV billions and unprecedented prosperity, Selig can flaunt muscles he never had as a 98-pound weakling.
As if finally awakening to his rep as a pushover who let steroids users and the union have their way with him — I used to call him Bud Light, and he once politely asked me to stop — Selig has become a bully in the twilight of his commissionership. In issuing sweeping suspensions and banning two of the sport’s biggest names, Bud Heavy has controlled the message this summer. And that message is powerful, healthy and long-overdue: Baseball will not stand for dopers. He has used former FBI agents and an ex-Secret Service official and allowed law-enforcement tactics that border on unethical, reportedly offering large sums for documents and witness cooperation. He somehow changed the clubhouse culture, turning players against ‘roiders and ending the traditional support system known as “the code.” And he enforced justice even if it altered pennant races, with Texas’ Nelson Cruz and Detroit’s Jhonny Peralta among the dozen players who received 50-game bans. In Rodriguez and Braun, we’re talking about would-be Hall of Famers who now have zero induction chances because Selig and his hunt dogs snuffed them out. He has turned Rodriguez into the most pathetic symbol of The Steroids Era, an idiot who apparently kept using steroids with the Yankees after fiercely apologizing for previous steroids use. He has made Braun, the star of the Brewers franchise that Selig brought to Milwaukee and owned for years, look similarly small.
“It took a long time. I said we would aggressively enforce that program,” Selig told the media in Milwaukee as the penalties were coming down. “Obviously, if you have a tough testing program, you have to do that. Given the whole history and what we’ve accomplished, having the first testing program in baseball history … I’m proud of what we’ve done. We will continue to enforce the program.”
Which sounds wonderful, in theory, until you grasp the totality of “history” — and realize Selig and the owners were much too slow to the steroids enforcement game to be lauded now as bad asses.
No matter how Selig attempts to salvage his legacy as The Steroids Commissioner by morphing into a hard-line cop — by no coincidence, he’s due to retire in 16 months — the timeline remains that he and the establishment either were oblivious stooges or, more likely, complicit head-turners when PED-fueled home runs were reviving a post-strike-ravaged sport. Selig can try his hand at revisionist history now that MLB is flush with stunning revenues — the average franchise value has exploded to more than $750 million, with the Yankees worth $2.5 billion — but some of his old sound bites won’t allow that. If he knew anything about the Internet and actually tried to use e-mail, he’d know that all his contradictory quotes are easily obtainable. His efforts are better late than never, but the past cannot be expunged.
Certainly, A-Rod and Braun are frauds of Armstrong-like scope. And it’s refreshing so many of his contemporaries are voicing anger about his lies, a departure from the old rally-around-the-embattled-comrade stance that haunted baseball for years. Said Selig: “I appreciate all the players who’ve been complimentary of the process. We’re doing this in a very a disciplined, thorough, fair and sensitive matter.” Yet every time I see the continuing Steroids Era leave a toxic spill on another baseball season, I think back to the days when all of this could have been nipped in the Bud. The record shows Selig as being all over the map then, forming a phony timeline for a plague that continues to infect the sport to this day. He let the juice flow from the early ’90s into the next decade before recognizing — with the prodding of Congress and the work of newspaper columnists and reporters, back when newspapers mattered — that he is responsible for the sport’s integrity.
Here’s where the man lost me:
In February 2005, Selig claimed to have had no knowledge of steroids use in baseball until 1998 at the earliest, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were hailed as the game’s saviors and reviving the popularity lost during the ugly labor impasse of 1994. By all accounts, steroids began surfacing in the majors in the late ’80s. Selig didn’t become interim commissioner until 1992, but he had been a team owner for years. He didn’t know about steroids for an entire decade? He never heard of steroids until 1998? That’s what he claimed in 2005. Said Bud, in response to a book by steroids godfather Jose Canseco that blew open the scandal: “I never even heard about (steroids) until 1998 or 1999. I ran a team and nobody was closer to their players and I never heard any comment from them. It wasn’t until 1998 or ’99 that I heard the discussion.”
Mark that down: He says he heard no discussion on steroids until 1998 or 1999. Now rewind to July 1995, when Selig told the Los Angeles Times that he’d actually participated in an in-house steroids discussion in … 1994. In an interview then with the prolific baseball writer, Bob Nightengale, Selig said he had privately discussed steroids with the owners a year or 18 months earlier, which puts us in 1994, and that all concluded there was no reason to be concerned. Said Selig: “But should we concern ourselves as an industry? I don’t know. Maybe it’s time to bring it up again.”
So, did he first hear of steroids in 1998 or did he discuss it with the owners in 1994 and think in 1995 he should revisit the topic? The gap in the infamous Nixon tape was 18 1/2 minutes. Selig’s time gap is four years.
There’s more. in 2006, Selig told Congress that baseball had “proposed a program for such substances to the MLBPA” in 1994. Wait, I thought there was no discussion about steroids until “1998 or ’99” and that owners had seen no reason to be concerned in 1994. They actually had proposed a program to the players’ union in ’94?
This is why I have difficulty hailing Selig’s attack-dog approach in what now constitutes garbage time. All the damage was done years ago, and he’s not going to overturn the mess he helped make even if baseball now has one of sport’s toughest drug policies. The players, the union, the commissioner, the owners — for a very long time, all deceived the public about a subject that has dampened much of our appreciation for the game. Selig is no hero. His current stance is the long-term result of age-old Congressional hearings that made him look soft and hapless and forced him to clean up the sport. It’s a good thing baseball is played in shiny, destination-happy palaces in the summer, when people can hang out and drink beer and not be terribly concerned in most cities about whether the local club wins or not. As competitive trust goes, baseball will have to stay scandal-clean for at least a decade before the masses believe in it. And face it, baseball won’t stay steroids-clean, as shown by the numerous names in the Biogenesis scandal. The only question is what we’ll call the next scandal.
Selig remained in a time warp when he was asked at the All-Star Game if MLB, in the ’90s, wasn’t proactive enough when PEDs were becoming all the rage. “People say, ‘Well, you were slow to react.’ We were not slow to react,” he said, per the Associated Press. “In fact, I heard that this morning, and it aggravated me all over again.” The truth hurts, Bud. You were deathly slow to the switch.
Later, during a question-answer session with fans, Selig continued to protest that he dawdled for years. “Some people say now that I’m over-vigilant because I’m worried about my legacy. That’s nonsense,” he said. “That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. This is in the best interests of baseball. I was brought up to understand that you are to do what’s in the best interest of this sport no matter what, even if it’s painful, and we’re going to do that.”
So why didn’t he undertake what was in baseball’s “best interest” in the mid-’90s?
Then there was this justification by Selig: “Most players on their team didn’t do anything. They were as clean as could be. So the Steroid Era in short to some people implies, well, everybody did it. That’s wrong, and it’s unfair.” Oh, so because the biggest stars were using and other players were not, that absolves Selig for burying his head instead of acting like a robust commissioner then and forcing the issue?
The commissioner didn’t pay close attention until it was obvious the McGwire-Sosa circus, followed by the Barry Bonds farce, was a scam that permanently tainted the game and its hallowed record book. Donald Fehr and the union did Selig no favors in pushing back, of course, and it took years for reform to kick in. Drug testing started in 2003, and eventually it was bolstered by the Mitchell Report and, a year ago, HGH testing. The system is in place, finally, but it also is revealing that too many players aren’t afraid of Selig’s policy and continue to juice. Not only is Braun a repeat offender, but potentially, according to reports about baseball’s investigative evidence, so are other stars such as Rodriguez, Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon. In one sense, catching drug rats means the system is working. Then ahain, it shows many players aren’t taking the testing seriously, and that a lot likely are getting away with doping.
For all the tough talk, deterrents still aren’t strong enough to scare a player from trying to beat the system. Braun may be shamed after being caught in his 2012 lie — “I truly believe in my heart and I would bet my life that this substance never entered my body at any point,” he said — but he’ll still be back in spring training next season, continuing to collect from a guaranteed $105-million extension that runs through 2020. He forfeits $3.4 million this year, not too painful when the Brewers are out of contention and his thumb is injured. He’ll slip away — according to the L.A. Times, he’s scheduled to be married in the fall — and his career will resume amid boos. Peralta will be back for the playoffs in October if the Tigers qualify, and, most likely, so will Cruz if the Rangers advance. And when Cruz becomes a free agent in the offseason, he’ll be handed a $30 million deal by someone.
If Selig and the union are bullish about ridding the game of steroids, they would shoot for extreme penalties. Why not a one-year ban for a first-time offender, a lifetime ban for a two-timer? The penalties simply aren’t stiff enough to intimidate players and the teams themselves, which don’t seem to care about suspensions; Cabrera was given a $16-million, two-year deal by Toronto, and “Moneyball” idol Billy Beane quickly resigned Colon to a $1-million raise in Oakland. Only A-Fraud looks done, but even after the suspension, he’ll still be owed about $61 million by the Yankees.
Selig cut the deal with Braun’s camp to have a big first fish for his 2013 Steroids Bust Room. It also gave him leverage against Rodriguez and other Biogenesis dopers; it became difficult for the ever-softening union to attack the credibility of the scummy Tony Bosch, owner of the now-defunct Biogenesis anti-aging clinic, after he supplied evidence MLB used to nail Braun and, now, Rodriguez. We’re not even specifically certain why Braun was suspended, but all Selig needed was a confession. He got one. “As I have acknowledged in the past, I am not perfect,” Braun said in his statement. “I realize now that I have made some mistakes. I am willing to accept the consequences of those actions.”
How nice if he also apologized to Dino Laurenzi Jr., the poor urine-sample collector whom Braun successfully argued didn’t follow protocol when, in fact, he did his job well enough to bust a cheater.
Once one of baseball’s shining stars, Braun is the latest example of why no player should be assumed clean. With a baby face and lean body, he didn’t have the physical “steroids profile” as A-Rod did, but no longer is perception a tell-tale sign. So sadly, every ballgame continues to be covered in suspicion, as Baltimore’s Chris Davis is realizing in his breakout slugging season. For that cloud, you can thank the ’90s, when Bud Selig began his commissionership. Given the opportunity to take a bold stand against steroids, he failed, then hemmed-and-hawed and made up his own stories when asked about it. I’d like to tell you he’s some sort of superhero fighting off the villains.
In this story, there are no heroes. Everyone is culpable. Hopefully, the PED cloud finally is blowing away and leaving baseball with sunshine for the first time in decades, but you know, I kind of doubt it.