Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Game Behind the Game

If you read Sports Illustrated you might be familiar with Tom Verducci. He’s SI’s top baseball writer, and the post-steroid guardian of all things good and pure about baseball. Along those lines his primary job requirement seems to be vehemently bashing steroid user Barry Bonds during his march towards Babe Ruth’s home run mark of 714.

This year alone he has written no less than seven articles on Bonds, all extremely negative. Now Bonds has tied Ruth at 714, what does Verducci have to say? “There will come a day when Barry Bonds leaves baseball, and everything about the game will be the better for it.” That’s just the start of his newest piece entitled “Legacy of lies.”

In the article Verducci calls Bonds a fraud, talks about his deceit and fabrications, and ponders his “shallow soul.” Yes, it’s good business bat Barry around these days. He was never a popular player but two things have turned up the rhetorical heat. First was the release of the book “Game of Shadows” which revealed evidence of Bonds’ steroid use, giving credibility to what everyone had suspected. Second is Bonds’ aforementioned juxtaposition with American sports icon Babe Ruth. The fact that a steroid user might eclipse the greatest player ever is awkward for baseball, if not good copy.

And so Verducci is now busy calling everyone to accountability for this injustice. No one will escape his wrath, not Bonds, not commissioner Bud Selig, and not the baseball owners. Verducci rails about what everyone knows, that baseball turned a blind eye to alleged steroid use because of what it produced: more home runs. As evident by the fascination with the Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa home run battle in 1998 it was believed home runs sold tickets. That set the tone for baseball for the next eight years: don’t ask too many questions about steroids.

Luckily baseball had watchdogs like Verducci on the scene in 1998 to closely scrutinize the action. But wait, the one now yelling “crucify him” the loudest once gave approval to baseball’s new—highly speculated—power game. In his 1998 “Year in Review” Verducci said the home run chase was “uplifting” and said McGwire should be MVP. Verducci wrote, “The 70 home runs you know about. But McGwire also had the seventh-best slugging percentage of all time (.752), the best in 71 years; set a National League record for walks (162); led the league in on-base percentage (.470); and, above all, did it with a humility that made baseball seem once again like the national pastime.” A heartwarming tale!

But by 2002 Verducci said he knew steroids in baseball were a big story. He wrote “Totally Juiced” an article which is credited with opening the public’s eyes to the scandal. In it he wrote “Mark McGwire was cheered in every park on his march to 70 home runs in 1998 by fans hardly concerned about his reluctant admission that he'd used androstendione, an over-the-counter supplement that reputedly has the muscle-building effects of steroids.” Fans hardly concerned? Or sportswriters? Does anyone now doubt, thanks to his embarrassing non-testimony before Congress, that McGwire was on steroids in 1998? But at the time Sportswriters like Verducci were too busy sniffing his jock to ask any questions.

By 2005, Thanks to what “Totally Juiced” started, it was all over. Congress stepped in last season to investigate steroids. McGwire took the fifth. Congress then ordered baseball to get tough on steroids. Since then players like Rafiel Palmerio have tested positive. Reporters like Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, who now face jail time for their work, broke open the Bonds story in “Game of Shadows.” And McGwire, once a sportswriter’s cash cow, has gone down in flames, devoured by the very writers who happily sold many articles fueled by his home runs, and Verducci is baseball’s Chief Justice. What a difference eight years makes.

In the 2006 Sports Illustrated baseball preview Verducci was busy gushing about another player: Albert Pujols. He elevated Pujols and those like him as an example of the pure, clean baseball, the kind America wants. Times change. Meanwhile Pujols is on a pace to set a new single season home-run mark and he has been on Sport’s Illustrated’s cover twice since the season started. Rest assured Verducci will be there to enjoy every moment.

1 comment:

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