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No, admits Willie, there's not a one-to-one equivalency between coke and human growth hormone or between crack and "the cream." But there sure as hell are a couple of dozen grams of concentrated hypocrisy in his getting 20 in the hole while a flock of juiced big leaguers get standing O's and $6 million signing bonuses.
His stutter comes, these days, only when he gets emotional. His stutter comes now. "A drug is a d-d-drug is a drug," Willie says. "If it's illegal it should be illegal. I broke a drug law. I've done 11 y-years. Why am I still incarcerated?"
I CALL AN old prisoner of war. Surely 5 1/2 years of beatings, food deprivation and solitary confinement must clarify a man's thoughts. What kept John McCain sane through his captivity by the North Vietnamese, he tells me, was tapping on his wall, holding a cup to the brick and talking baseball with the prisoner in the next cell, Air Force major Bob Craner. Talking lineups, stats, managers, owners and, most of all, talking Teddy Ballgame--their mutual hero, Ted Williams.
John remembers seeing a fellow prisoner--beaten to a pulp for sewing an American flag on the inside of his shirt so John and other POWs could secretly recite the Pledge of Allegiance to it--stagger back to his cell after the beating, pull out his bamboo needle and begin sewing another one. What was seared into him, John says, "was a deeper sense that we have an obligation to things that are greater than our own self-interest. An obligation to think of consequences, all the way through. These ballplayers didn't do that. If they loved the game, they would have. But when a guy has his own rocking chair in the locker room, what more can you expect?"
You can question motives all day. After all, John's a politician, a senator who may run again for president one day, and half of America, before last Thursday's hearing, was howling at congressmen for grandstanding and sticking their noses where they shouldn't. But it was his threat of a congressional investigation last winter that compelled the players' association and Bud Selig to finally implement a steroids policy this spring.
A feeble one, John grumbles. "I blame Selig," he says. "If the players' association had refused a stricter policy, Selig could have gone to the public and killed them. It should've been a one-year ban for the first time caught, a lifetime ban the second time. Sometimes I'm angry. More often I'm sad. It's just unforgivable that Major League Baseball did not investigate earlier.
I TAKE A drive. I pass the baseball fields. It's a Sunday. There are people playing baseball, but not groups of kids. It's all fathers and sons, in tandems, working on staying low and using alligator hands on ground balls and hitting the outside pitch to the opposite field. It's a beautiful thing in an age-partitioned land where the passing on of know-how from fathers to sons has nearly vanished. As beautiful as one of those home plate hugs that summer between Big Mac and his boy, little Matt.
I gaze at the fathers. Most of them know, deep down, that their sons won't be playing big league ball, maybe not even college ball. They tell themselves that's O.K., that all these hours on the field, all those weekends in towns four hours from home playing in travel-team tournaments, will be worth it anyway. That it's O.K. that they're on a ball field today instead of in a church or at a family dinner table, O.K. that sports have become our national religion, because sports, too, are a morality vessel, a carrier of values--teamwork and sacrifice, discipline and the determination to overcome limitations--that our sons will need in their careers and relationships for a lifetime.
Why aren't we horrified, then? About this toxin that has sneaked into our morality vessel, one that makes a mockery of every one of the values that justify this devotion? And about how fast the toxin is spreading, with one of every 16 teenagers, by 12th grade, having used steroids, according to the Centers for Disease Control?