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Foul Tip

By Russ Smith | Posted 8/17/2005

An informed citizen, blitzed daily with domestic and international stories of serious import, would not be out of line in asking members of the media and the government just why the revelation that Orioles slugger Rafael Palmeiro tested positive for steroid use was front-page news. Yes, Palmeiro did his Bill Clinton impersonation in front of a congressional hearing last March, wagging his finger and indignantly claiming he never used any performance-enhancing aids during his long career. So the guy’s probably a liar; he’s also a baseball player, for crying out loud, a wealthy entertainer whose foibles don’t directly affect the vast majority of Americans.

President George W. Bush, once a part owner of the Texas Rangers, a team Palmeiro spent many years with, is, by my reckoning, the worst offender in this ultimately fleeting flurry of sermons. Bush is fond of “Raffy,” but you’d think his agenda was so full—jihadists in Iraq and Europe, the character assassination by NARAL of Supreme Court nominee John Roberts, rising oil prices, the media’s obsession of playing “gotcha!” with adviser Karl Rove—that issuing a statement on the matter wouldn’t make the cut.

Nevertheless, on Aug. 2, the day after the “bombshell” broke, Bush said: “Rafael Palmeiro is a friend. . . . He’s the kind of person that’s going to stand up in front of the klieg lights and say he didn’t use steroids, and I believe him. Still do.” I haven’t cringed so mightily at one of Bush’s ill-considered remarks since he met with Vladimir Putin in 2001 and said he looked into the sleazy Russian president’s eyes and got a “sense of his soul.”

Every major newspaper in the country it seems—obviously The Sun and The Washington Post more vigorously, given the local angle—has weighed in on the matter, giving cheap morality lectures to readers. A Sun editorialist writing on Aug. 2 was aghast: “Mr. Palmeiro deserves the benefit of the doubt, but to test positive during baseball’s ruinous summer of steroids? And to have no idea how? Well, as earlier generations of fans said of ‘Shoeless’ Joe Jackson and Pete Rose, it sure doesn’t look good.”

No, it doesn’t, especially since Palmeiro is now hiding behind lawyers, but is this really “baseball’s ruinous summer of steroids”? Hardly, not as attendance records are broken in different cities and exciting, presumably “nonjuiced” players like Miguel Cabrera, Jose Reyes, Zach Duke, Huston Street, and Jon Garland captivate a new crop of fans across the country.

The game endures, even if Palmeiro wallows in, as Post columnist Michael Wilbon wrote, his “15 Minutes of Shame.” Wilbon’s Aug. 12 scolding also suggested that team owner Peter Angelos, deservedly scorned for dragging a once-proud city franchise into the muck, simply release Palmeiro because “every time he’s in uniform it’s just an annoying reminder he’s a steroid guy.” Easy for a sportswriter who isn’t obligated to pay the former Viagra pitchman’s salary or face the byzantine machinations of a far too powerful players union to say.

Wilbon’s colleagues in the Post’s editorial department, while lecturing about the dangers of steroids—by this time, any young athlete with a lick of sense gets the picture—was more sympathetic to Palmeiro. An Aug. 3 editorial featured this memorable passage: “There can sometimes be a sense of well-deserved comeuppance in the fall of the rich and famous. But there is no schadenfreude in Mudville today—or anywhere else in baseball—over the suspension of Rafael Palmeiro for alleged use of steroids.” I wonder just whom the Post is referring to when it mentions the “well-deserved comeuppance” of public figures? Karl Rove, certainly; Martha Stewart, obviously; and locally, should some scandal occur, Robert Ehrlich definitely.

The Sun’s sports columnists, probably happy for fresh material given the O’s lost season, have feasted on the Palmeiro controversy, though some of their opinions make little sense. The otherwise excellent Peter Schmuck, for example, displayed extraordinary naiveté on Aug. 11, upon writing, “The great thing about being innocent is that you never . . . need a lawyer sitting next to you whispering in your ear while you answer questions for congressman or baseball officials or nosy reporters.” The fact is that, in the United State’s aggressively litigious culture, the mere fact of innocence doesn’t necessarily count for much. It reminds me of one-time Labor Secretary Raymond Donovan’s plea after his named was sullied for years in newspapers for supposed corruption, saying after his acquittal, “Which office do I go to, to get my reputation back?”

Schmuck’s colleague David Steele, on the same day, was equally boneheaded in his call to O’s fans to boycott the first game in which Palmeiro was eligible to play. Steele is justified in excoriating the union that allowed the “Needle-ball Era” cheat to return so quickly, but his suggestion that 48,000 empty seats rather than an equal amount of boos would teach pampered athletes a lesson misses the mark. I’m sure all the low-paid employees at Camden Yards—vendors, ushers, ticket takers, and concession-stand clerks, not to mention the thriving street entrepreneurs around the park during home games—would be happy to sacrifice a day’s wages to make Steele’s point.

As I’ve written before, baseball is a splendid diversion, but its internal difficulties don’t rate much above another shark attack in Florida.

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