Wednesday, November 08, 2006

When Cheaters Prosper

By John Sharkey

It’s not cheating if you don’t get caught. But what happens if you do get snared? Even then, a surprisingly high amount of the time, the consequences for getting caught with your hand in the cookie jar are mild. Shawne Merriman, the star linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, recently failed a steroid test and received a four-game suspension. This seems like it should be a pretty big deal: one of the best defensive players in the NFL gets busted for cheating.

The backlash, however, was mysteriously mild. The first time I learned about the story, it was on SportsCenter where the analysts were discussing what Merriman’s absence would do to the Chargers’ linebacking depth, as if Merriman had sprained a knee or something. Merriman quickly appealed the suspension and was available to play in the following game. Watching that contest, I saw Merriman make a typically great play, followed by the announcers joking that the Chiefs were probably wishing that Merriman hadn’t appealed: the whole thing was literally a laughing matter.

Remember Rafael Palmeiro? Once upon a time, he was one of the faces of baseball. Then he failed a steroids test and took a fifty-game suspension. That’s slightly longer, proportionally to the length of their seasons, than what Merriman got. But no one was laughing then. Palmeiro was ripped to shreds and black-balled out of baseball. So why the disconnect between his case and Merriman’s?

This pair of suspensions is far from the only example of the double standard that exists between baseball and football when it comes to cheating. The indictment of a doctor under suspicion of distributing steroids revealed that multiple members of the Carolina Panthers more than likely received a shipment of steroids shortly before they played the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. Of course, none of the players in question ever failed a drug test, and the story never really gained much traction.

Barry Bonds never failed a drug test either. However, we have a lot of pretty good evidence to suggest that he has indeed taken steroids, and he is (probably rightfully) vilified as a cheater. After all, he’s chasing the numbers of ghosts, not playing in the biggest sporting event in the country.

The World Series drama fizzled out early this year, as a sloppily-played set ended in a five-game St. Louis victory. However, for about two days (which, if my memory serves, were right around the time the Merriman story broke), the biggest storyline of baseball’s championship was some gunk smeared on Kenny Rogers’s hand. A foreign substance on the pitcher’s person is grounds for an automatic ejection and suspension, and the same mysterious substance was seen on Rogers’s hand in his first two playoff starts. This gunk caused some confusing reactions. It is pretty clear that Rogers was cheating, but Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa didn’t press the issue and Rogers continued to pitch. Then later, LaRussa said that he didn’t believe that the stuff on Rogers’s hand was simply a clump of dirt, as the pitcher claimed. He obviously thought that Rogers was cheating, and didn’t do anything about it.

What’s more, much of the public reaction was mild as well, with a lot of the discussion focusing on the old spit-ballers and how wily they were. The gunk is a far more visible example of cheating than are sordid tales of back-room needles, with the cheating taking place in plain sight during the biggest game of the year. Yet another double-standard, this time specific to baseball.

There are many forms of cheating, but we react to them in different ways. Anyone that has ever jaywalked or double parked knows why. We all have a tendency to simply ignore the rules that are inconvenient or inconsequential to us. But this is a tendency we must fight. It’s possible that “right” and “wrong” might exist on a sliding scale, but there is no such thing as “just a little bit illegal” or “mild cheating.” And act is either illegal or it isn’t, and if we act otherwise we might as well throw out the rule books. We can change bad rules and laws, but we cannot ignore them. In the end, syringe or sludge, it’s all dirty.

36 comments:

David Wintheiser said...

You mean like when seven people get together and decide to spend a billion dollars of other peoples' money to enrich one of the richest men in the state? Oh, wait, that was legal, just really, really slimy.

But that's part of the point. Ask a Giant fan what he thinks of Barry Bonds, and you'll likely get a defense of the man most baseball fans consider the biggest pariah in the sport. Or ask a Cardinal fan about Mark McGwire, who was considered a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame this year until his 'I'm not here to talk about the past' appearance before Congress led baseball's talking-heads to declare his candidacy suddenly dead-on-arrival, despite any infraction, such as it were, occurring long before any of the substances Big Mac took were actually illegal in baseball.

When the cheating occurs in your favor, it's a lot harder to dismiss it. Again, consider Kirby - massive increase in power and weight, issues with rage, left baseball with glaucoma, dead of a heart condition. All of these are circumstantial bits of evidence that point to a possible steroid connection, but will anybody admit it? Or even accept it were it admitted? I'd be shocked.

Or what about Juan Rincon's suspension last year? (In fairness, I recall that you were harsh on Rincon, but I can't find anything to back up that recollection.) Or the late Joe Niekro's flipping of an emery board out of his back pocket during the 1987 Twins season?

Last but not least, let's not forget that there's probably a lot more 'cheating' that happens than we know about. Maybe LaRussa didn't see a need to make a big deal about Rogers's 'gunk' because he didn't want to give Leyland a chance to find somebody's corked bat. Has a policeman ever nailed you dead to rights speeding, but decided to let you off with a warning because your kids go to school together? Beyond a certain point, what's really the difference?

Walter Hanson said...

To explain the difference of this double standard consider this:

* Football had a punishment program in place for years. Baseball didn't. Furthermore Congress was bringing baseball players in front of Congress not football players.

* Rafael Palmerio did a Bill Clinton. He waved his finger just like Bill and said that he never took steroids. So naturally when he got caught he got ruined. He didn't have the benefit of an economy with just a 5% unemployment rate to save his neck.

* People take baseball records seriously so people who were found cheating are taken seriously. It took Roger Marris 34 years to break the Babe's record and he was given an astrick. Nobody was able to come close for 37 years and all of sudden a couple of players are easily able to break his 61 total.

That is why both Bonds and Palmerio get their negative treament.

Kirby taking steroids? I don't think so. Around the time that Kirby did this was when Bo Jackson was a big star and he weight lifted. ESPN does a series the five reasons you can't blame and the number one reason they cited was Bo Jackson and his inspiring players to weight lift.

That probably explains why Palmerio is considered to be ruined.

Walter Hanson
Minneapolis, MN

TT said...

Why the difference? If the "great white hope" McGwire was using steroids, no one want to know. (They were already illegal under federal law and by baseball rules, the only thing that has changed is that players are now tested for them.)

But Barry Bonds showed up McGwire's resetting the mark for home runs from Roger Maris's (and Babe Ruth's) 60 HR total as just a cheap trick that was made possible by modern chemistry. And a black "bad guy" making a mockery of baseball's most hallowed target and McGwire's "dream season" was more than the game's leaders could stand.

Ryan said...

Hey John, do you remember when you called Johan Santana's new contract two years ago a "$40 million mistake"?

'Cause I sure do... That looks like perhaps the biggest bargin in baseball history right now. Johan would have gotten a $200 million contract had he been on the market this winter.

David Stefanini said...

I love the first line, it's only cheating if you get caught.

Also I wanted to know if you would link my blog to yours and I will do the same for you. My site name is American Legends and it's:

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Peter R. said...

I don't think it's a racial issue. The most popular athletes in America are Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. If Albert Pujols or Ryan Howard made a serious run at the single-season HR record, I think you'd see widespread fan support as long as there wasn't any reason to suspect juicing.

The reason McGwire's (not to mention Sosa's) alleged steroid use was swept under the rug is that baseball was desperate for positive story after the World Series got wiped out by a strike. Overall attendance was brutal in '95 and '96. Now that the money is rolling in again (see Zito, Barry), they can afford to go after someone like Bonds. Who, by the way, isn't helped by the fact that he's a complete jackass. The media isn't exactly conflicted about sticking it to Bonds.

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