Howard Bryant’s ESPN article on steroids and the Mitchell Report

Howard Bryant, who wrote what I consider the best book on the steroids era in baseball (“Juicing the Game”) has an article on ESPN that makes a bold assertion:

However, what Mitchell’s report must do most authoritatively — and two seismic events last week confirm this necessity — is conclude convincingly that the events of the 13 years following the 1994 players strike (aka the steroids era) have been far more damaging to Major League Baseball than its nearly century-old gold standard, the 1919 Black Sox scandal, Selig’s alternating silence and indignation notwithstanding.

I have a lot of respect for Bryant, but there is absolutely no way that this can be considered true.

I argue in Cheater’s Guide that the use of performance-enhancing drugs is second only to gambling and game-fixing in their threat to the game, but it’s a huge, huge gap.

In the penalty-free year, when players were tested without consequence, there were only 5-7% (depending on who you read) positive or refused tests (which counted as positive). As many suspected during that period, players using steroids were spread across teams, and it amounted to an arms race with horrible side effects as much as everything. But the fundamental nature of the contest wasn’t threatened. If you saw a game where Bonds and Sheffield played and they were both (unknowingly, they would maintain) using THG, the contest itself isn’t pre-determined. You’re watching the same game, chemically-enhanced.

Many fans viewed it as a regrettable arms race: I know in Seattle, where we had one of the most-rumored steroid players in Bret Boone, many fans were happy to condemn other players and ignore the possibility the home team’s success was potentially just as tainted.

Or take another way to look at this: Bonds may have been using performance-enhancing drugs, but we also know that many pitchers used them as well and benefited greatly from them. That’s entirely different than having Bonds take money to strike out five times in a game and make defensive errors where possible to tilt the outcome.

Gambling and game-fixing removes the contest entirely. You can read accounts from that era describing the situation in which bookies in the stands openly bragged about their ability to buy the outcome of games and pennant races — and they could. That’s far, far more damaging to the game than one in twenty players scattered through the sport gaining an advantage on each other.

Bryant argues in part that the scandal is wider because teams and managers are involved. This is true, and one of the more shamefully neglected aspects of the story. But this was also true of the gambling-ridden era, where even owners bet on the outcomes of games and associated with gamblers.

Bryant doesn’t seem to be as familiar with the history of gambling and game-fixing as he is with the steroids era. For instance:

But the steroids era isn’t like the Black Sox scandal. The owners, because they have been as culpable as the players for the proliferation of drugs in their game, have no moral cudgel regarding steroids, as they did concerning gambling back in 1919.

For one, as many apologists for the Black Sox would be happy to tell you, there’s a case to meed that Comiskey brought it on himself. But moreover, exactly as they did with steroids, baseball long tolerated known crooked players and many more who associated with gambling interests. That tolerance was one reason the Black Sox conspirators thought they’d get away with it — because they knew that no one got punished for game-fixing in the atmosphere of the day.

The owners, if only in their open tolerance and continued employment of players like Hal Chase, were as culpable for the game-fixing that went on as they might be for steroids.

Worse is baseball’s slow reaction time to the drug problem. The Black Sox scandal lasted but two years, from exposure to the installation of Kenesaw Mountain Landis as commissioner to banishment of the eight White Sox players — proof that the sport understood its unique position and its responsibility.

This is just true. We know that Hal Chase, for instance, threw many games, including games that affected pennant races, long before 1919, and ended up involved in the Black Sox scandal. No one’s been able to prove it yet, but there’s a good chance that the 1919 World Series wasn’t the first one tainted by scandal. In 1920, gamblers used their leverage on the White Sox conspirators to force them to lose games, affecting another pennant race.

The integrity of the game was openly questioned long before the 1919 scandal, and to say that baseball’s crisis of competition lasted only two years focuses exclusively on the Black Sox. You might as well say that the steroid crisis ran only from Palmeiro’s Congressional testimony to his positive test result and retirement.

Steroids have greatly shaken the faith of many fans, but fans weren’t ignorant of what went on through those years, in the same way that they weren’t ignorant of the rampant gambling problems in the game leading up to the Black Sox scandal. One of them, however, was a largely tolerated escalation across baseball, while the other removed the essential competitiveness of the contest on the field, and nearly ended the sport.

Fans didn’t stop going out to games when it was clear the sport was facing a cocaine problem in the 1980s, or a steroids problem in the 1990s. But game-fixing undermined the belief that the sport was played as a contest at all, and nearly ended baseball as a competitive sport.

That’s a huge difference in magnitude, and so I have to entirely disagree with Bryant that this is the greatest crisis the game has ever faced.