If his game was balls, strikes, Raven would be getting walk

October 07, 2004|By David Steele

TODAY'S MORAL from the sports world: Choose your game wisely. If you don't want a youthful transgression to come back and bite you, play baseball, not football.

(Oh, sure, the real lesson should be to avoid committing such a transgression in the first place. But since when has that ever stopped anybody?)

Two years ago, Gary Sheffield accepted a substance an associate of Barry Bonds gave him, found out later it was a steroid designed at the time to be undetectable, was forced to 'fess up in front of a federal grand jury - and was in his customary right-field position at Yankee Stadium for last night's playoff game. With the official blessing of Major League Baseball, yet.

Jamal Lewis, meanwhile, has been accused of this: Five years ago, he hooked up a shady childhood friend with a similarly shady acquaintance who actually was a government informant. The latter two allegedly later cooked up a drug-dealing scheme for which Lewis was charged last year and, this afternoon, will plea out of in an Atlanta federal courtroom.

Lewis will also be in his customary spot, the Ravens' backfield, this weekend. (He might even get the ball 20 or so times.) But he probably won't be in the Ravens' next two games, minimum. The NFL is expected to officially recognize his public confession with a stern-but-not-harsh suspension.

Two games - or three or four at the most - is better than the possible 10 years in jail he faced had he gone to trial on the original charges. At worst, it's a push, compared with the punishments for players caught using marijuana, cocaine, steroids or stimulants. Just ask Ricky Williams, if you can find him.

Still, none of it's as good as getting off scot-free.

So congratulations to Sheffield, who's already baseball's postseason MVP, just because he's actually playing and not doing a modified perp walk (in a suit outside of the stadium surrounded by cameras and lawyers).

Lewis, though, has to do a courthouse walk today, and will likely get an encore whenever he has to face the NFL "court."

But don't feel too sorry or too indignant about any of this. Sheffield and, especially, Lewis should be grateful things turned out this way. Besides, there's a simple explanation for it. This is baseball, and that's the NFL.

Lewis was never going to walk away from his court date with merely a debt to society. Flail all you want at the logic of punishing a pro player for a crime he committed before he became a pro player or at being punished long after the fact in one sport but not the other.

Said a baseball executive about Sheffield's case: "The more important issue is what are people doing today." Clearly, the NFL doesn't agree in this case. With all the leeway the NFL has provided for itself when it comes to guarding its image, it figures it doesn't have to draw a line between past and present.

The NFL micro-manages uniforms, legislates touchdown celebrations, controls TV networks' dramatic content (remember the late, great Playmakers?) and slams its doors on college sophomores looking for a paycheck. And gets away with it all, one way or another.

Using a cell phone as an end-zone prop cost Joe Horn $30,000. With what Lewis allegedly used his cell phone for, what chance does he have?

Lewis' likely sentence from the court sounds reasonable, at least to someone who's neither a legal expert nor a scriptwriter for Law and Order: jail time, house arrest and "cooperation" with prosecutors. As Brian Billick implied earlier this week - and yes, the coach has a built-in bias on this topic, but he's right - we're not talking about the next Scarface.

Finding Lewis "guilty of using bad judgment" is a cliched resolution, but it's true here. Granted, it's monumentally bad judgment on his part, and claiming the "too young to know any better" defense only goes so far.

As bad as it will look for Lewis to stand up in court today and admit, in detail, what he did to facilitate a drug deal, the NFL will view it as making the sport look even worse. Fair or not, that's its justification.

Still, he's bait in a plan to catch bigger fish. Sheffield, again, is in the same boat. The feds couldn't care less if he sits out one at-bat or gets fined a nickel, as long as he, or anyone, helps them torch either Bonds or BALCO or both.

Baseball's impotence on the steroids issue gives Sheffield a bulletproof vest. Lewis isn't so lucky.

Yet in a way, he's still very lucky, and so are the Ravens. Worst-case scenario, he's back before Thanksgiving and plays the final seven games of the season, with no strings attached. They were prepared for a lot worse.

But it could have been so much better for Lewis. He could have played baseball and borrowed some "cream" from his workout partner - and never missed a day of work.

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