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Bulk rate: Steroids in baseball

I don't know Mark McGwire's shoe size, or if his mid-March performance before Congress a couple weeks before the start of the 2005 baseball season left him as the biggest clay-footed idol to get his name in the Congressional Record, but they keep statistics on everything in baseball, so I'm sure we could find out.

Of course, pretty much everyone posturing on the issue of steroids in baseball seems to be clay-shod, leaving janitors at the nation's Capitol muttering assorted creative profanities.

When Congress wags its fingers it's like Pete Rose telling grandma not to visit that bingo game on Thursdays. Members of Congress tell white lies, black lies, bend to special interest groups and lobbyists, agree to send someone else's kid to war, and we still don't know what really did happen to Mary Jo Kopechne.

Their faults aside, Congressional interest in baseball escapes me. No one seems interested in the size of National Football League players. How about the National Basketball Association? If it's a given -- and it is -- that at least some elite athletes in every sport will become outlaws, we know there's at least as much steroid use in the NFL and NBA as in Major League Baseball.

On top of that, the quality of play in the NFL is awful. How come no one investigates that?

During these meetings, when Congress reduced McGwire to a bouncing Adam's apple of choked-back tears, these politicians also accepted testimony from parents of children who aspired to be Mark McGwire, one of only eight men to be baseball's single-season home run recordholder. Seems that before the kids got too far down the McGwire mimicry road, they died; presumably because they used steroids, according to the testimony.

Parenting through athletes

Well, that's unfortunate, but whatever happened to the day when parents asked, "If Tommy jumped off a bridge, would you?" If your son took steroids because he thought Mark McGwire took steroids, he was a fool. And frankly, a lot of parents would have figured it out. If they wanted to.

Back in the days when Tommy might jump off a bridge -- my days -- parents didn't see dollar signs because their kid could punt a soccer ball past the goalie or pull down errant basketballs more often than Tommy.

But today parents know that college is expensive and that athletics leads to scholarships and that scholarships spend as well as cash. Maybe some parents don't always want to know exactly why their kid got real big all of a sudden.

As their Adonis turns 15, these parents dare to entertain dreams of him playing pro sports. It's a fun dream. Mom and dad can retire early, the kid can buy them a million-dollar home on wheels and they can follow their offspring around the country between visits to the relatives and Yellowstone Park.

Can these parents accept it if their kids don't make it? Do they want kids to be good losers? Heck no. The parents themselves aren't good losers, based on arrests of parents at youth sporting events nationwide.

America doesn't want good losers. We don't even want to watch athletes sweat and strain and vomit to achieve their goals. That's a Rocky movie. In real life, we have wanted to see Tiger Woods' sweet swing or Michael Jordan's last-second clock-beater, or Sheryl Crow's boyfriend lap the field. America likes winners.

Back in the 1990s there was plenty of discussion about why home runs started to fly out of ballyards around the nation every time a middle infielder flicked a bat. The baseball was wound tighter. The strike zone was smaller. Pitchers came through college and weren't used to pitching inside because aluminum bats used in college muted the benefit of inside fastballs. Umpires were fatter and didn't get a good view of the low strike.

Steve Garvey got small

And man, weren't those players big? You could watch ESPN Classic and old Popeye-arms Steve Garvey looked undaunting in contrast.

I noticed players started getting big back in the late '80s, a few years before I quit life as a sports writer. It used to be men who held utility infield positions were the truly whispy men, stronger than they looked to be in uniform but not likely to remain upright during a monsoon.

Around 1990 or so these utility players would step to the plate and you couldn't cut through that forearm muscle with a good steak knife, and the sinew in the shoulders now looked like sculpted cement.

Maybe I was getting old, or maybe I really didn't match up in size to at least the occasional pro athlete, as I once thought. Maybe a good weight program really did work wonders.

I knew a little about steroids from covering track and field, but it didn't immediately occur to me "the juice" was in baseball.

If it occurred to any fans, they didn't want to know the answer. They loved the fireworks. For some reason, baseball fans will sit in front of TVs the size of a wall and watch incessant highlights of baseballs flying into the cheap seats, where other baseball fans wearing "I don't have a drinking problem. I drink. I fall down. No problem" t-shirts stretch their hands skyward, hipcheck the guy with the polo shirt into his girlfriend, and catch that ball.

Many beers are spilled in the process, and unless the winner of the ball knocks down a kid for it, he's a hero. He might be drunk, fat and obnoxious, but we love our winners.

He told you so

When Associated Press sports writer Steve Wilstein noticed androstenedione in Mark McGwire's locker in 1998 and wrote about it, he immediately was cast as a villain. Just another writer trying to manufacture news. As T.S. Eliot said, "Humankind can not bear much reality, and they can not even bear the reality of being told so."

And certainly baseball owners never have wanted to be told.

After Jim Bouton wrote "Ball Four" -- the only sports book on the New York Public Library's Books of the Century list compiled for the last millennium -- he was called into the baseball commissioner's office more than three decades ago.

Bouton had written many things baseball owners didn't like to read, even though the issues he addressed were issues baseball should have addressed. One of the issues was players taking "greenies," amphetamines, to enhance performances.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn could not handle the reality, so he wanted Bouton to say it was all a lie. Bouton refused. Players did take greenies.

You don't have to equate steroids with greenies anymore than you have to equate steroids with corked bats or the "spy in the sky" -- when baseball teams would steal the signs of opposing catchers. The point is, athletes cheat and as someone said, "it ain't cheatin' until you get caught." And furthermore, if they're winning, most of us don't want to know if they're cheating.

Of course, once they're caught, it gets embarrassing. It gets embarrassing for players and embarrassing for the fans who idolized the cheaters and embarrassing for the parents who wanted their kids to be just like the cheaters, before they were caught, of course.

We like scapegoats in this country. If someone dies in a fire, there must be someone to blame. If we can finger that one scapegoat it makes us feel better and tells us we weren't part of the problem. But rare is a problem simple. Solutions are usually simple, but problems aren't.

The solution to these issues, in sports as in life, is to ask the tough questions earlier. If you're that disappointed in Mark McGuire now, but years ago you had some suspicions about how he got so big but didn't really want to know, well, don't burn his baseball cards now.

Americans like to win. Americans like winners. And we delude ourselves that winning is black and white.

It's not black and white. It's gray.

Like clay.

Related: Jim's not too wild about the conventional view of the Hall of Fame, either. Visit Another Cooperstown.

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