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Mark Shields: Family Values and Baseball

Obama gets the message from the Steroid Era, so why can't baseball's leadership?

We have already in this young century heard more than too much about “family values” — too often from candidates whose children were not speaking to them and whose wives learned via news release that they were being divorced. But in his first prime-time news conference, President Obama’s answer to the Washington Post’s Michael Fletcher’s probably unanticipated question — “What is your reaction to Alex Rodriguez’s admission that he used steroids as a member of the Texas Rangers?” — fairly brimmed with authentic family values.

Mark Shields
Mark Shields
Obama, as a baseball fan, spoke about how “depressing” the news was after “a flurry of depressing items” about the sport and that “it tarnished an entire era, to some degree.” But what “I’m probably most concerned about,” Obama continued, “is the message it sends to our kids.”

What message exactly? “That our kids hopefully are watching and saying: ‘You know what? There are no shortcuts; that when you try to take shortcuts, you may end up tarnishing your entire career, and your integrity’s not worth it.’”

As a lifelong baseball fan, I admit I am disgusted with Major League Baseball, with the men and a few women who own the teams, with baseball commissioner Bud Selig and, yes, with fans, including yours truly, who have all hypocritically conspired — with just a wink and a nod — while players were filling stadium seats, setting individual records and growing to the proportions of Humvees by consuming illegal performance-enhancing substances (PES).

It’s been going on for more than a decade, and yet each time another baseball star is exposed as a drug cheat, the commissioner and baseball’s owners are once again “shocked.”

It began with three years of empty ballparks following the strike-shortened 1994 season. In the century of baseball prior to 1998, just two men — Babe Ruth in 1927 and Roger Maris in 1961 — had ever hit 60 home runs in a single season. In 1998, Mark McGwire — who had begun to resemble the Incredible Hulk — hit 70 homers and Sammy Sosa hit 66. The genie was out of — or to put it more accurately, was in — the bottle. In 1995, all the players in baseball hit a total of 4,081 home runs. By 2000, 5,693 homers were crushed.

Ken Caminiti, the league’s Most Valuable Player in 1996, later told Sports Illustrated that he had been “juicing ” (using illegal PES) that year — and so, too, had half the players in the league. But Selig and his fellow owners looked the other way because home run records were bringing fans, even at higher ticket prices, into the ballparks in record numbers. The unethical formula worked: better hitting — and bigger crowds — through chemistry!

If curiosity really did kill the cat, then Selig and baseball’s brass will live forever.

It took three talented and fearless American politicians to save baseball from itself. Reps. Tom Davis, R-Va., and Henry Waxman, D-Calif., held public hearings that forced baseball to confront the widespread use of steroids — which baseball had declared illegal in 1991. And it took another politician, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine, to author, after the investigation he headed, the report that shamed baseball and the players’ union into accepting drug testing.

Baseball is too important to be left to the owners and its commissioner. I salute Obama for speaking about “the message” — baseball and its condoned illegal drug-abuse — “sends to our kids.”

He’s right — as baseball and Wall Street cannot apparently grasp — “there are no shortcuts ... (and) your integrity’s not worth it.”

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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