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Mike Fish Straight Shooting

Coming back for more

Steroids scandal won't keep fans away from game for long

Posted: Tuesday December 14, 2004 3:33PM; Updated: Tuesday December 14, 2004 3:34PM
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THE STEROIDS SCANDAL

Brad Mangin/SI
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If you've taken in a big-league baseball game chances are, even if a culprit wasn't nabbed in the act, you witnessed some shady dealing. Just the hustle that goes with the game -- a doctored baseball, a corked bat or a seasoned bench-jockey swiping the opposing club's signs.

Jim Bouton revealed some of the game's dirty little secrets a generation ago in Ball Four,' with his candor resulting in his being up blackballed by the fraternity. Long before Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi & Co. put the BALCO lab in headlines, we heard of players popping "greenies'' to get up for games and later we sat through federal cocaine trials. Bad stuff, sure, yet presumably nothing on par with gambling charges that got Pete Rose kicked out of the game.

Which leads us to the intriguing ethical question: Should all rule-breaking be treated equally? Where do performance-enhancing drugs fit into the book of baseball no-no's? And are fans so morally put out as to turn their back on the game?

The answer to the latter is a no-brainer. As much as fans protest, they always come back -- and probably always will. Folks eventually forgave the players and owners for a nasty work stoppage that cut short the 1994 season. They forgave as players stood trial on drug charges in Kansas City and Pittsburgh during the early 1980s. Based on attendance spikes the last couple seasons, they barely shrugged when Jose Canseco and the late Ken Caminiti popped off about steroid use.

Everybody in and around the game suspected what was going on. The player's union snarled like a pit bull at the suggestion of a steroid problem while Bud Selig and ownership played along rather than pick a fight. After all, fans flocked to stadiums to catch records being broken by cartoonishly overmuscled players, resulting in larger revenues and fatter contracts.

"Let's cast stones on both sides here,'' a U.S. Senate attorney told SI.com. "If Selig and his owners cared so much about the drug testing, he has the ability to shut down baseball. And for him to continue to say [the minimal concessions made by the players for testing in the last labor agreement] is the best thing he could have gotten, it tells me this is not high on their list.''

So what if our sluggers -- and, yes, perhaps even some hard-throwers -- bulked up to put on a better show for a new, hipper entertainment culture. Nothing changes. Washington lawmakers can make hay with the issue from now until Opening Day, but don't bet on fans running away from the game in mass.

According to a SI.com poll, in fact, 65 percent of those responding said their interest in the upcoming season wouldn't be affected by the latest steroid revelations. If one-third of the fans stay home, that's a huge financial whack to baseball, but history tell us it isn't happening.

As New York sport lawyer Daniel Glazer duly notes, perception of the game is big stuff, but fans and owners seem to only lay down the law for drop-dead integrity issues, like the 1919 "Black Sox" World Series scandal and Rose's gambling shenanigans. "There was no outcry over allegations that Gaylord Perry and Whitey Ford doctored the ball,'' Glazer says. "Corked or loaded bats are quickly forgotten.''

This is the lore of baseball, the gamesmanship practiced since before the days of Ty Cobb to secure an edge. You'd like to think the steroid crowd wouldn't get off so easy, yet probably will because of statements granted under the promise of immunity and the game's paper thin drug policy. Somehow, the idea of fueling the body with undetectable designer steroids seems to go beyond forgivable gamesmanship and rises to the level of fraud.

But then you wonder if fans really care about home run titles and maybe even ballgames determined by pharmaceuticals. In hindsight, you wonder whether they would have preferred ownership held out for a stricter drug policy during the 2002 labor talks, possibly causing the players to strike, or done what they did to cut a deal.

Once again, a no-brainer. A steroid mess tops a work stoppage every time.

Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.

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