…. Custodians

I’ve been doing a lot of angry writing lately. I understand that it’s not good to do that. I know I’m not supposed to call sportswriters idiots and morons and question their integrity. I know that I’m a lot less likely to get the kind of support that will help this site grow when I attack the SF Chronicle for a month. Sorry. Can’t help myself.

When I was growing up, a NY Yankee fan, every Sunday, my dad and I used to fight over the sports section of the NY Daily News. I always wanted to get to it first, because, besides the fact that I could read about twenty times faster than him, I would use my nearly 100% recall to bust his chops, as he would read each article, he would start to say, “Lupica says Steinbrenner….” and I would finish his sentence, driving him crazy.

Lupica was my dad’s favorite writer, and he became mine. I used to look forward to his Shooting from the Lip Sunday columns, he covered everything, and he wrote really well. He had a way of writing that made it feel like he was sitting with you at a bar, or in your living room, just bullshitting. Quick, sharp, incisive, funny. He’s one of the most widely-read sportswriters in the country, but twenty-five years ago, when he was just getting started, he was more of the new guy, trying to impress. His columns were longer and looking back, I remember that they just blew me away. When I started OBM, I tried to emulate him, that’s how much I liked his work.

Reading him today, I don’t have that same feeling. In fact, as OBM enters its fourth season, I have found myself to be more and more dissatisfied with all sportswriters (and not just over the steroids stuff). I guess it’s just a by-product of being a sportswriter myself now. Sure, I don’t have deadlines or editors or any of that; but I’m a sportswriter, nonetheless. I cover baseball and the SF Giants; and I pride myself on writing as well as I can, with as much passion and integrity and intelligence as I can. I like to read my own work, I do so often. In fact, I’d say my first audience is me; if I can write something that I think reads well, I feel like I’m doing a good job.

Today, most of the writers I read everyday are the internet guys. Guys like David Pinto, Alex Lash, Alex Belth, Rich Lederer, Mike Carminati, Joe Sheehan & co., Gleeman et al. Guys on the outside looking in, like me. These men have helped me to see the impossibility of writing honestly about something you are thisclose to. Bill Madden, for example, is with these players daily, sometimes for weeks at a time. He sees them, talks with them, sometimes travels with them.

How honest about a player can he really be? How much disclosure can he offer, when he knows that tomorrow, the guy he wrote about will be eating a ham sandwich across the table from him? More importantly, how can he reveal anything really important about the team or the player when his newspaper has left any semblance of objectivity behind long ago? To me, this is obvious, as I read the Chronicle, or the Merc, or any of these newspapers. The movie image of the newspaper editor, demanding facts and investigative reporting and cross-checking references; the hard-boiled old-timer chomping on his cigar and yelling at everybody…. I used to believe that there was a guy like that, making sure that Lupica or Boswell or whoever checked their facts, did the digging, the hard work. I don’t believe that guy exists anymore, if he ever did. The curtain has been pulled back, and now I see that Oz is a mirage, a showman; someone just like me, doing his job and trying not to get fired.

That doesn’t excuse these guys. They don’t get a pass just because I see through them now. Pete Rose was the hero of heroes for all these guys. The one guy who played the game like any real fan would, if he only had the chance. I’ve said it, you’ve said it, we’ve all said it; if I could be a major leaguer, you’d never see me jogging to first base. You’d never see me letting up, I’d hustle like nobody ever did. Pete Rose did. Bill James once wrote that Pete Rose got more out of his ability than any player in history. I’d say he was right, and back in the day, before Giammatti got him, so did every sportswriter in the country.

But he wasn’t perfect. He was a gambler, he cheated on his wives, he cheated on his taxes, he lied, he hustled, all the time, everywhere; always on the lookout for a mark, a shortcut, a way to get more out of whatever he was doing. Much like all of us, he was flawed, great in some ways, small in others. When his ban came down, the sportswriters turned on him like a pack of wolves, tearing him apart, exposing all of the things they had chosen to keep from us, the fans, for all those years. Cincinatti sportswriters who had covered him for two decades suddenly revealed all of the dirt they had hidden; embarking on a systematic character assasination that continues to this day.

Other baseball stars went through similar experiences, many are well-known. Ted Williams, Roger Maris, Bobby Bonds, even Jackie Robinson. The past is instructive, knowing what happened before you got here helps you get a handle on what’s happening now. Ted Williams gave up five, six years of his career to go to war for his country. All you ever read about when he was playing was what an asshole he was. Somehow, Joe Dimaggio, just as big an asshole, got a pass. Why? He was a winner, he was on the best team, he was Italian, who knows? It just happened.

Jason Giambi was the best guy in the world, until he admitted he used steroids. Now he’s a pariah. Not more than one or two writers have written about him in a positive light since his Grand Jury testimony was leaked. In fact, I just heard Mike Francesca, on the number one sports talk show in the country, saying he was rooting against him; and that if he did well, he would assume that he was still using steroids! Mark McGwire, I mean, are you kidding me? The guy saved baseball, Lupica wrote a book about it, Summer of 98: When Homers Flew Records Fell and Baseball Reclaimed America. Now Lupica wants McGwire to go to jail. He wants him to return all those home runs. Of course, Lupica isn’t returning all the money he made on his book. Sportswriters all over the country made money and earned accolades writing about 1998. None of them is offering a refund.

But McGwire’s gone from a first-ballot Hall of Famer to a guy who might not even make it, because Canseco wrote a book. He betrayed America, they write. He betrayed the kids. He cheated. Witch hunt? Salem has nothing on today’s sportswriters. We have nothing to convict him with other than Canseco’s book, but let’s ruin the guy. The parallels to Rose are ominous. Rose’s accomplishments as a player are nothing short of spectacular. During his playing days, he was the embodiment of everything good about sports. Sure, it was known throughout the Cincinatti sportswriting community that the guy was less than noble, but not a word was said. Maybe if someone had written something about his gambling before it became a major scandal, things would have been different. Maybe a minor scandal saves him. Maybe not.

McGwire had his minor scandal, for all the good it did him. Andro was found in his locker. He came clean, stopped using it, apologized, and kept hitting home runs. Broke the record. Retired, and four years later, sportswriters are demanding that he confess, apologize, save the kids, humble himself before the altar of Sports Illustrated and ESPN. He didn’t. He protected himself, took the Fifth; and now he’s out. No Hall of Fame for you, Mark. If you won’t do what we say, we’ll get you for sure. Look at Rose. In 1997, SI did a poll in which 97% of the respondents said Rose should be in the Hall. Sportswriters, custodians of all that is good, took that as an affront to their integrity and launched a decades-long attack on Rose that completely turned public opinion. Fans loved Rose, supported him through his troubles, accepted his weaknesses and failings and said over and over; Put him in the Hall of Fame. For crying out loud, President Jimmy Carter said it!

Sportswriters would have none of it. Hammering away, day after day, week after week, on and on…. First he has to come clean, admit what he did, apologize, change his behavior, demonstrate that he’s learned from his mistakes. Over and over, for years. After listening to the fans clamor for Rose to be in the Hall, almost from the day he became commissioner, Selig tried to go around the writers, work out a deal with Rose; FOR THE FANS. When the writers found out, they weren’t happy. In fact, they were outraged. They went after Selig, baseball, Rose…. like piranha’s. They went back to work, writing even more vitriolic bile. He has to apologize to America, they demanded. Even though fans said he didn’t, again and again, writers said he did. Come clean. We don’t care, said the fans. Yes you do, said the writers.

Then, amazingly, Rose did it. He came clean, wrote a book about his transgressions, apologized for lying, for gambling, admitted he did wrong; and what happened? He got slammed. No, not that way! shouted baseball’s custodians. Not in a book, you can’t make money when you apologize. You can’t keep working for the casinos when you admit you did wrong. You did it all wrong. There’s no way we can let you in the Hall now, you did it the wrong way, What were you thinking!?

Sammy Sosa was asked to pee in a cup, he refused. Oh, he’s using steroids for sure. All of those home runs were bullshit, he’s a liar, a fake. It’s our job to get to the bottom of this. He needs to confess, come clean, apologize; for the kids. He says he didn’t use steroids? Yeah, let’s see him do it under oath. He did. He denied using steroids under oath. Yeah, well, he’s still lying.

Same thing for Bonds. He denies it, they say, sure anyone can lie to a reporter. He denies it under oath, yeah, well, he’s perjuring himself. His trainer and the guys at BALCO all say he never used steroids, let’s find someone who says he did. Presto! His ex-girlfriend, fresh off her failed extortion efforts, goes in front of the Grand Jury and says that one time, in band camp, Bonds told her, just her, only her, that he used steroids, and surprise, her testimony is leaked, just lilke Barry’s!

Run him out of baseball, for the fans, for the kids, for America. The keys to the Hall of Fame, a place for fans to go and remember the great players from their childhood, from adulthood, from yesterday, from four decades ago and from the very beginning of the game; are held by these sportswriters. They take their job seriously, as they should. Mike Pagliarulo should not be in the Hall of Fame, and he isn’t. The voters take their responsibility seriously; but many of them (not all) have forgotten who they represent, (not unlike our Congressmen and women).

The Hall of Fame is for the fans. The fans don’t need to be brainwashed like they are right now. We don’t need the facts about steroid use to be distorted and exagerrated to understand what’s happening, what’s important. Barry Bonds has been the subject of steroids speculation for four years now. During that time, PacBell has been sold out almost every single game, and the Giants have been one of the top road attractions in the entire league. Bonds’ merchandise is among the best-selling in all of sports. According to sportswriters, though, the fans hate Barry, hate what he stands for, don’t support him. He should leave the game forever, for the way he’s harmed the game. The fans don’t know what they want. They don’t know that Bonds needs to be humbled, brought down, taken to task for all of his crimes.

The sportswriters are wrong. They are the ones who need to be humbled. They are the ones who have lost sight of what’s important, of what’s right and what’s wrong. I can tell you with no reservation that Barry Lamar Bonds has done more for baseball than every sportswriter in the history of the game combined. He’s done more to educate fans on the history of baseball than any player in fifty years. By breaking all these records, he has brought players from the past back to life. He has reminded us of the greatness of Ruth, Williams, Aaron, Maris, McGwire. He has shown us what transcendent talent looks like. He has shown us what a truly dedicated, self-sacrificing work-ethic can produce. He has married Pete Rose’s desire with Willie Mays’ talent, and given us a sparkling display of baseball prowess that we will never forget.

Did he use PED’s? Perhaps. There was a time when I was sure that he didn’t, and there was a time when I was sure he did. Today, I can tell you I have no idea. Neither does Mike Lupica, or Bill Madden, or Joan Ryan, or Sports Illustrated or ESPN. What we do know is that he is the greatest baseball player of our lifetime; and he is being treated like a murderer. We know that a close friend of his is associated with the BALCO scandal, and Barry has stood by that friend come hell or high water. We know that he has many ties to baseball history, he is the Godson of Willie Mays, the son of Bobby Bonds; we know that he, like Ken Griffey Jr., grew up in major league baseball. We know that he is respected and feared by his fellow players and coaches and managers. And we know that he is despised and scorned by many of the men who have the privilege of putting the game of baseball into words for us, and we know that they have abused that privilege.

If McGwire (or Bonds, or Sosa, or Brady Anderson, or whoever) used steroids prior to 2002, it wasn’t cheating, it wasn’t against the rules, and they didn’t hurt anyone. Bill Madden, (or any one of these sportswriters) writing that Bonds should retire, for the good of the game, cannot make the same claim. He is writing something that is hurtful, that is not based on facts, and in fact, is against the rules (the journalistic code of ethics). Hall of Fame voters saying that they will keep Mark McGwire out of the Hall of Fame are doing the same thing. They are abusing the privilege they enjoy, for reasons that have no business being included in the discussion, based on innuendo and speculation and slander.

Furthermore, as writers like Bill James and Joe Sheehan have begun to question the Hall of Fame voters exclusive status, let me say that should these voters be pompous and self-righteous enough to deny Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds his plaque in Cooperstown; it will be their downfall. They’ve kept Rose out, to the anger and frustration of many, many fans. Their exclusivity is a privilege, and fans will put up with only so much. Should they follow through on their foolish stance; they will force the Hall to reconsider the current arrangement, the fans will make sure of it. Mark McGwire is a Hall of Fame player, and the fans idolize him. Denying him his place in the Hall will not be tolerated.

I apologize if I have been a broken record about this stuff. I’m gonna try to concentrate on the game for a bit, but I make no promises. I will soon be introducing you to a new OBM writer, who I think you’re really gonna like. I hope you will continue to stop by as the season gets under way, as it promises to be a terrific one. The Giants look great, Sabean’s off-season work looks to prove once again that he knows more about building a baseball team than I do. And, of course, Bonds will resume his assault on history. And thanks for making OBM one of the top baseball sites in the world. Without you, I’d be a loudmouth in a closet.

Update: Wow. Readers have sent in a tremendous number of positive emails and backtalks, including a couple from some of the best sportswriters in the country. I’m going to leave this post up for another day, as it has struck a chord, and I want to allow that sound to travel as far as possible. Thanks to everyone who took the time to contact me. I appreciate your generous support.

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All commentary is the opinion of John J Perricone unless otherwise noted.
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