August 07, 2007

Jason Giambi leads Commissioner Selig through the darkness of Barry Bonds

Neifi Perez, reserve infielder for the Detroit Tigers, was suspended on Friday for 80 games for testing positive for a banned substance by Major League Baseball. The positive test and suspension came as Perez was serving a 25-game suspension for the same violation.

If Perez’s legacy was in question before Friday, it most certainly is open for debate after the second violation. He had one homerun this season for the Tigers and had two last year for the Chicago Cubs. He has 64 career homeruns going back to his rookie year in 1996, long before MLB began testing for controlled substances in 2002. Maybe we should put an asterisk next to his 64 in the Baseball Encyclopedia as well as next to his .267 career batting-average.

If there is such a feeling within Major League Baseball or among its fans to censure Perez, it is certainly no louder than a whisper. News of Perez’s latest positive-test registered and died on the news-wires. It is now a single line on Perez’s ESPN.com player profile. That is the sound of baseball crickets, chirping in the silence of indifference.

Meanwhile, in San Diego this past weekend, there was plenty of talk of asterisks and homeruns where the San Francisco Giants were playing the Padres. On Saturday, August 4, Bonds hit homerun number 755 to tie Hank Aaron for Major League Baseball’s career homerun record. San Diego fans met Bonds with more asterisk signs and boos.

We do not care about Neifi Perez; we care about Bonds who, according to Bonds himself, is misunderstood; to Giants fans, a hero; to non-Giants baseball fans, a cheater; and to this writer, a piece in a much larger puzzle.

Reporting for the Associated Press on August 7, Tim Dahlberg wrote that fans at Petco Park in San Diego “booed Bonds when he returned to left field and booed him every time he came up to bat. It was mildly amusing afterward when Bonds thanked San Diego fans for being so good to him. Maybe he missed the giant asterisk hung on a high-rise condo balcony overlooking right field or maybe he was just happy no one threw a fake syringe at him like last year.”

When we look at a player like Perez, or Jason Grimsley, or now even Jason Giambi all of whom have either tested positive for or admitted to using performance enhancing drugs, we do not shout for the expungment of career records or statistics. Which is strange if you think about how baseball games play. A critical hit or homerun by a Neifi Perez can change a game as significantly as a hit by a perennial All-Star like Bonds. The same is true for a pitcher.

As I wrote about last week, we have recreated the current-player Barry Bonds as a totem of our juiced up ambivalence about the proliferation of steroids in the game for so long. Perhaps we might also consider the responsibility of Commissioner Bud Selig in this steroids mess. Granted, it is hard to boo a pro-sports commissioner when he never steps up to bat or jogs out to the field. More so, we do not vote for commissioner so there is no public referendum.

Kate Zernike wrote in the New York Times how president George W. Bush has been likening himself to former president Harry Truman. Trumas was “an unpopular president when he left office, but one applauded by history.” On the 2008 Presidential campaign trail, while Republic candidates contort themselves to be Reaganesque, Democratic hopefuls also look to Truman.

If only Commissioner Selig would look as well to the former president. Truman had a sign on his desk in the Oval Office which read, “The Buck Stops Here”.

Commissioner Selig would have himself be a distant observer in the Bonds homerun record chase, casting a disapproving eye on the whole spectacle. This was indeed his body language in San Diego on Saturday night. As Bonds circled the bases, Selig stood in his place with his arms folded across his chest, his face locked in a frown.

He issued the following statement of, well, congratulations but very shadowed congratulations, after number 755,

"Congratulations to Barry Bonds as he ties Major League Baseball's home run record. No matter what anybody thinks of the controversy surrounding this event, Mr. Bonds' achievement is noteworthy and remarkable.

"As I said previously, out of respect for the tradition of the game, the magnitude of the record and the fact that all citizens in this country are innocent until proven guilty, either I or a representative of my office will attend the next few games and make every attempt to observe the breaking of the all-time home run record."

Uh, hello? “No matter what anybody thinks”?! “All citizens in this country are innocent until proven guilty”?! Commissioner Selig might have just stated, “We all know that Bonds did steroids, I don’t like this one bit, but he is breaking the record and there ain’t nothing I can do about it.”

Bonds has not helped Selig out either, continuing to deny having used steroids.

One steroids-era slugger who has come clean is the New York Yankees’ first baseman Jason Giambi. Playing for the Oakland Athletics, Giambi hit 33 homeruns in 1999, 43 in 2000, and 38 in 2001. Giambi became a free-agent at the end of 2001 season. He signed with the Yankees and increased his annual salary from $4.1 million in 2001 to $10.4 in 2002 (according to www.baseball-reference.com). It pays to use the ‘roids.

In May, Giambi was quoted by USA Today saying, “I was wrong for doing that stuff. What we should have done a long time ago was stand up — players, ownership, everybody — and said, ‘We made a mistake.’”

Finally, a ballplayer had the courage to put words to the truth that we all knew. It was gravy that he took some degree of responsibility.

Commissioner Selig responded to Giambi’s truth-telling by threatening to suspend Giambi unless Giambi spoke to former-Senator George Mitchell’s Commissioner-sponsored steroids investigation.

Basically, Giambi tells the truth and is threatened with suspension. Bonds continues to deny and nothing happens. The message that the Commissioner sends to other players who used or are using steroids is very clear. Commissioner Selig is telling these players not to speak about their steroid use. This is the message we learn from Bonds and Giambi.

As Commissioner Selig glares at Bonds and offers him the most uncongratulatory of congratulations messages, and threatens Giambi with suspension, he remains one individual who himself has not come clean with the public.

Maybe Commissioner Selig does not read Sports Illustrated. He might not although the very first issue of the magazine featured Milwaukee Braves third-baseman Eddie Mathews playing at County Stadium in the Commissioner’s hometown. SI out Lyle Alzado on its cover on July 8, 1991 with the headline, “I Lied”. Alzado detailed his use of steroids and his own cover-up. This was 1991. On April 14, 1997, the magazine’s cover story was on the proliferation of steroids in sports and how athletes were going undetected.

I am picking on Commissioner Selig because he is the head of the organization, the CEO of Major League Baseball. It is his job to be proactive in pursuing questions like the use of performance enhancing drugs. He is a busy man and he can also surround himself with individuals who will call such things to his attention.

Selig has been commissioner of Major League Baseball since 1992. From 1992 to 1998, he held the title of “Acting Commissioner” and has been “Commissioner Selig” since 1998.

A leader at the top of an organization sets the tone and priorities for a major business like a professional sports league. I am waiting for Commissioner Selig to say, “The buck stops here!” and to take responsibility onto his own shoulders about his own failure to pursue

Steroids grew in baseball on Commissioner Selig’s watch. Let the Commissioner follow Giambi’s lead and say, “I made a mistake.”

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