Opinion on the Steroid Era is decidedly mixed among baseball fans of all stripes. Some fans feel that the whole scandal is an overblown story and won’t matter until it can be determined just what effect steroids had on the statistics of the era.
Others see the steroid scandal as a breach of trust between players and fans. They see not a conspiracy, per se, but an organizational failure that runs from the players to coaches to front offices to the Commissioner’s Office to the beat writers and national media. I fall in this camp.
While I haven’t become any less of a fan because of the steroid scandal, I am not at all willing to dismiss out of hand because players cheated in the past (spitballs, home-field mounds, etc.) or because the numbers have yet to prove a conclusive link between steroids and performance. I say, look harder and look at what steroids do. They aid recovery time; they energize. The drugs contribute to more than just brute strength.
Currently, I’m reading Howard Bryant’s excellent book on the Steroid Era called Juicing the Game. First published last spring, the book, with a new epilogue, came out in paperback a few weeks ago. I’ll be reviewing it as soon as I’m done.
In the book, Bryant doesn’t hold back. While some commentators have tried to blame Bud Selig or the owners of the players’ union, Bryant blames everyone. In tracing the origins of the steroid scandal, he arrives back at the Oakland Athletics from the late 1980s. With the Bash Brothers leading the way, these A’s were a force in the American League.
Of course, Bryant spends a lot of time discussing Jose Canseco’s role and open talk of the steroid scandal. He also mentions Tony La Russa in less than flattering terms. The truth is that, while a well respected manager, Tony La Russa has been one of the greatest enablers of the Steroid Era.
In the late 1980s, baseball had a probable cause clause in terms of drug testing. If a front office believed a player was taking a substance in violation of the law, they could mandate a drug test. While Sandy Alderson in the A’s front office never took that step, Tony La Russa, the A’s manager, protected his players at all costs.
According to Bryant, La Russa knew in 1988 that Canseco was doing steroids. In a pattern that would repeat itself for nearly two decades, La Russa did less than nothing: he actively came to the defense of Canseco. La Russa berated beat writers who dared to write about Canseco’s steroid use.
Ten years later, La Russa would do the same thing with Mark McGwire. When McGwire was in the midst of his 70-home run season, a writer for the Associated Press, Steve Wilstein, found and wrote about a bottle of Androstenodione in McGwire’s locker. While Andro, under DSHEA, is not classified as a steroid, medical authorities conceded that it is a steroid. It stimulates testosterone production in much the same way that an anabolic steroid does.
At the time, Andro was not illegal in baseball. However, it did not look good that one of the faces of the game was using the drug in the middle of a record-setting season. La Russa once again came to the defense of his All Star. La Russa accused Wilstein of violating McGwire’s privacy and barred the writer from the locker room. While many in baseball rushed to McGwire’s defense, La Russa was there standing next to him.
This pattern has continued over the last 12 months as McGwire’s accomplishments have come under scrutiny from Congress. Last March, nearly one year ago, La Russa was quick to defend McGwire after the Congressional hearings. La Russa claimed that McGwire had bad legal advice, that he left himself open to criticism, that he wasn’t coached properly.
Now, La Russa is still standing by McGwire. While he has shunned Canseco since Jose’s book came out, he still maintains McGwire’s innocence. In an article last week in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, La Russa still defends McGwire:
La Russa, who maintains McGwire strengthened himself legally under supervision of current Cardinals first base coach Dave McKay, Thursday wished for a player of stature to assume the role McGwire pledged himself for last March.
“I have long felt, and still do, there are certain players who need to publicize the legal way to get strong,” La Russa insisted. “That’s my biggest complaint. When those players have been asked, they’ve been very defensive or they’ve come out and said ‘Whatever.’ Somebody should explain that you can get big and strong in a legal way. If you’re willing to work hard and be smart about what you ingest, it can be done in a legal way.”
Added La Russa: “That’s the basis of why I felt so strongly about Mark. I saw him do that for years and years and years. That’s why I believe it. I don’t have anything else to add. Nothing has happened since he made that statement to change my mind.”
Still, 18 years after Canseco’s steroid use became the most obvious secret in Major League Baseball, La Russa is still standing beside his favorites. As a manager and former player, Tony La Russa knows what’s happens in the clubhouse. He knows how players get big and what they use. But he still protects his favorites. He is, in other words, an enabler.
As long as people in baseball are overly protective of their players, we’ll never see a clean culture. While I do not expect people like La Russa to throw players like McGwire to the dogs, at some time, enough is enough. I don’t think La Russa should be so vehement in his defense of McGwire. It’s time for baseball to clean up its act, and it starts with those inside the game who are acting as enablers.