The season hasn't even begun yet and baseball has already provided a refresher course in its tarnished modern legacy. We are seeing the beginning of what is potentially another major drug scandal as well as another confessional chapter for a baseball legend who has turned out to be as inveterate a liar as he was a gambler—and no better at it.
The latest drug scandal hasn't yet yielded a treasure trove of celebrities like the BALCO scandal, which sent superstars like Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield and Marion Jones parading before a federal grand jury in San Francisco. Still, when a bust of a mail-order pharmacy operation—part of a widespread federal investigation into illegal, performance-enhancing drugs—kicks up alleged customers like John Rocker, Jose Canseco, Evander Holyfield, an NFL team physician and a swarm of pro wrestlers, it grabs my attention.
Of the athletes named so far, the most interesting situation may be that of Gary Matthews Jr., a 32-year-old centerfielder who was allegedly sent human growth hormone (HGH) in 2004. Until last season, Matthews had been a fringe ballplayer aspiring to the stature of journeyman. During seven seasons in the majors, Matthews hit .249 with only 57 career home runs—and had already been with six different teams. But last year with the Texas Rangers, Matthews skipped right past journeyman into stardom. He hit .313 with career highs in home runs (17) and RBIs (79) and he parlayed that performance into a $50 million, five-year deal with the Angels.
Angels' owner Arte Moreno was more than a little perturbed when his latest star acquisition was linked with performance-enhancing drugs—and even more distressed when Matthews balked at addressing the issue. I can only imagine the thoughts that ran through Moreno's head, as they would have anybody's. Did I buy a pig in a poke? If I did, what might I be stuck with at $10 million per year (and what are my options to get out from under)? And, oh yeah, where's the outrage from Matthews?
The team and the league would probably have liked Matthews to emulate Giambi's public apology to fans during spring training a few years ago. Giambi's performance—mocked by sports commentators at the time because he refused to say what he was apologizing for—apparently now stands as baseball's gold standard for mea culpas. And why not? Giambi quickly settled back into his career without the kind of eternal shadow that haunts Bonds's. What they got from Matthews, instead, was 16 days of silence. Finally, he issued a brief, written statement that included a succinct, if hardly comprehensive denial—"I have never taken HGH." It left open a lot of other possibilities. Perhaps he was simply a collector. Regardless, the Angels management took no time at all to embrace the response, saying in classic neo-speak that they believed there would be no further problem in this matter if there is no further problem.
That's certainly a big "if." These federal investigations, as we have witnessed in the BALCO case, tend to linger. There is no indication that Matthews is the target of any investigation. (HGH wasn't even banned by baseball until the 2005 season, and there still is no effective test for it.) Still, if Matthews doesn't sustain his 2005 form, he may be in for a very rough time of it. Moreover, when any player takes 16 days to respond to allegations that he received mail-order HGH, fans are entitled to their suspicion. If the long, sorry history of athletes and drugs has taught us anything, it is to expect, at best, obfuscation—"I'm not here to talk about the past"—and, more often, lies.
Not that baseball needs any reminders about the art of prevarication. Because when it comes to lying, Pete Rose continues to put on a Hall of Fame clinic. With his latest offering, in an interview with ESPN, Rose has now gone from "I didn't gamble on baseball" to "I didn't gamble on my own team" to "I bet on my team every single game." The latest incarnation of his sordid tale is a desperate attempt to transform degeneracy into a misguided act of loyalty. What's remarkable is how Rose apparently keeps lying and somehow manages to keep the affection of fans, too. When there have been discrepancies between Rose's story and the Dowd report, baseball's official investigation into Rose's gambling activities, the latter has always proved to be the accurate version. And it is clear that Rose, as manager of the Cincinnati Reds, only bet on his team selectively. Baseball has cut him adrift and it's past time for fans to show him the gate, too.
Still, Rose is nothing more now than a carnival sideshow. The incessant drumbeat of drugs remains center stage, a continuing threat to the well-being of baseball. Baseball may not be the only sport facing fallout from this latest scandal, but it is the one that can least afford to be lumped with professional wrestling. Certainly not in the event of what will likely be a historic season—one with the specter of drugs hovering all over it.
Baseball can certainly point to its positives—lots of fannies in the seats, hits on MLB.com; and new ties with leagues in other countries. But all are overshadowed by the game's inability to lay the drug issue to rest. The death last week of former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn reminded us of how unsettled the modern game is. Many in baseball never forgave Kuhn for not being in attendance when Henry Aaron broke Babe Ruth's hallowed career-home-run mark. Now, 33 years later, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig may never be forgiven if he does attend the game in which Bonds surpasses Aaron. Staying away is probably Selig's best option, but given the magnitude of the occasion, that's a pretty sad state of affairs.