Collateral Damage

added 12/6/2004 by Scott Barzilla

Columnist Note: I would like to thank everyone that took the time to email me after my last column. I would especially like to thank all of the accountants that set me straight on some cloudy issues. I made a few broad statements about some specific accounting practices last week that were either not completely factual or misleading. Overall, I would like to clarify one point. Amortization is only a tax relief tool and not a tool to hide profits. More importantly, businesses only can deduct a fraction of that for tax purposes for a limited time. Of course, there are many other deductions, but I will leave that topic to someone else.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about the steroids scandal that has hit Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, and perhaps Kevin Brown. Fortunately, the scandal has not rolled up on the Astros door, but the story has not been flushed out completely, so we just don’t know. Just like any story of this magnitude, there are many facets that we could go off on. I will try to speak to all of these in a brief way and if I can tie in the Astros, I will.

The first major facet of this story is in regards to what effects this might have on the testing procedures. I think all of us are grown up enough to recognize that people will cheat regardless of the testing procedures. However, baseball’s policy is laughable in two different areas. First, the testing is done once a year. Obviously, if you know when the test is you can work around your doping schedule to accommodate the test. You don’t need THG or any other masking agent. You just need to know when the test is and how long it takes performance-enhancing drugs to clear your bloodstream.

The second problem with baseball’s testing comes in the penalty phase. Even with the predictable nature of the testing, five percent still tested positive the first time because there was absolutely no penalty for testing positive. If you count the preliminary testing, a player could test positive three times before they see ANY suspension time. It will take four or five positive tests to get significant time. The most important thing is that MLB will keep all positive tests confidential until they have to suspend the player.

The players’ worst enemy here is Gene Orza. Orza (Donald Fehr’s chief deputy) went to the Clayton Williams school of public relations. If this guy keeps talking, the Players Association will talk themselves right into a Congressional Act on steroid testing. It could very well lead to the elimination of the anti-trust exemption. I’m sure that are people on both sides that are prepared to tie Orza down and lock him away until the coast is clear. As bad as Orza might be, he represents the prism by which the Players Association views this issue. It isn’t about players' safety or even the integrity of the game, but about fears of what will happen if a test result is leaked. I’ve always said, if you want to remain anonymous then you shouldn’t break the rules.

Of course, this spills us into the question about the integrity of the game and how it will effect the fans. Call me a skeptic, but I just don’t see this having a large effect on the fans. The NFL hasn’t been adversely affected by the steroids scandal they went through more than a decade ago (kind of makes you wonder what baseball was thinking about when they saw the likes of Lyle Alzado and Mark Gastineau). The NFL is at peak popularity and didn’t see that much of a dip at the time. The NBA hasn’t had a steroid battle yet, but they have had seemingly every team have at least one drug related arrest. The game is at a low level right now, but it has more to do with a dreadful level of play than it does about the “wacky tobacky”.

Focusing on the game’s integrity is na%EFve at best. First of all, most fans knew that players like Giambi and Bonds were juicing before the revelations. Sure, we wanted to believe it wasn’t true, but you couldn’t ignore the bulging muscles or the lame excuses about “wisdom teeth” without reaching some sort of conclusion. Additionally, there have always been cheaters. Integrity has been as much a part of baseball as good penmanship has been for stock car racing. From stealing signs, to doctoring the ball, to corking the bat, some players have always been looking for an edge. The truth of the matter is that most players avoid stooping to those levels, but there is always an ultra-competitive faction in the game that will look for any advantage they can get. I’ll leave it to you to determine whether that is a good thing or not.

Finally, this brings us to those individuals that found that edge and have now been caught. The folks who claim that Bonds would have never reached HOF numbers without the help are ignoring the blatant facts. Bonds had more than 400 home runs and three MVP awards (not to mention a .400+ OBP, and .500+ slugging percentage) coming into the Aughts. That is Hall of Fame quality even if he quit on the spot. What Bonds did this past week is deprive us of a debate between him, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, and the other all-time greats. He cannot be included in that discussion anymore because we simply cannot know for sure where his numbers would have been.

The debate about his Hall of Fame suitability is too long to be discussed completely here. Should cheaters be in the Hall of Fame. Well, Gaylord Perry didn’t seem to have a lot of difficulty. Others have committed various acts of indiscretion and still gotten end. The folks this hurts the most are Jason Giambi and Gary Sheffield. Both were borderline Hall of Famers (or on a pace to be) before the scandal. We have to put those dreams aside. Personally, I would have banked on Sheffield getting the numbers before this event, but he gets little sympathy from me after pointing the finger at Roger Clemens last off-season.

Meanwhile, guilty players that are caught would be wise to follow the lead of Jason Giambi. Yes, he broke the rules and breached the trust of the fans, but he didn’t confound his troubles by spinning a yard about how he “didn’t know he was taking a steroid.” Right. I still can’t decide whether Bonds and Sheffield are bigger idiots for thinking we would let them slide on that or if it is because they sound stupid saying it. Would any of you put something in your body or on your body that a casual acquaintance gave you? I didn’t think so.

Baseball can do very well for itself by ironing out a real agreement with the Players Association that has some teeth. Meanwhile, if you’re caught red-handed then take your medicine, be contrite, and get off the stuff. Pulling a Clinton is not going to help matters. After all, playing the “I didn’t think it was…….” didn’t help him either.