Subpoenas won't take leak out of baseball

May 11, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

Last week's subpoenas from a federal grand jury trying to sniff out leaks from previous grand juries weren't welcomed warmly by the targets, the two authors of the BALCO best-seller Game of Shadows.

But Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada shouldn't be the only ones annoyed. The lords of baseball ought to be feeling extremely uncomfortable. Yet another reminder of their utter and continuing ineptitude on steroids is getting splashed all over the papers, networks and talk shows again when they least needed it.

Not that Game of Shadows had gone away, by any means -- but the last thing baseball needs now, with Barry Bonds chasing Babe Ruth's "mark" and an official investigation of dubious value being disrupted by the players union, is another reminder that a couple of reporters did its dirty work for it already.

Nothing that has happened in the past few years to wrestle performance-enhancing drugs in baseball somewhat under control, from the congressional hearings to the overdue testing-and-punishment program, would have happened if not for the work done by people outside baseball's hierarchy, the people entrusted with the so-called "best interests of the game."

Newspaper reports and books -- and, yes, leaked grand-jury testimony -- put this all in motion. Without those, we'd still be naming highways after Mark McGwire, hanging banners on the warehouse to salute Rafael Palmeiro, even grudgingly nodding at Bonds' climb up the home run charts.

Instead, we were forced to face the truth of Jose Canseco's book, of the San Francisco Chronicle reports of what Bonds, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield and others said to the grand jury, and of Game of Shadows and another book on the shelves now, Love Me, Hate Me, by Jeff Pearlman.

Sure, the various reports have fueled a strong Bonds-scapegoat movement, and it's almost a certainty that some of the Game of Shadows sources had an ax to grind with him. But you don't have to read much of the book to realize that the entire institution and culture of baseball, not just Bonds, are exposed as dirty.

Yet, in a worst-case scenario, the Game of Shadows authors might pay a heavier price than the BALCO defendants (short jail time, probation or both) and any players. Nobody is convinced that baseball's investigation will ever take one inning or one dime away from a player.

As for the impact on First Amendment rights, the sanctity of grand-jury testimony and the power of the government and administration to keep the public in the dark? That might be for another story in another section.

But within baseball's tiny world, the feds' pursuit of the two authors only reminds us all of who dropped the ball on steroids and who didn't.

"Our case represents what reporters should be doing," Fainaru-Wada said yesterday from his desk at the Chronicle (full disclosure: He and I were colleagues in the sports department before he moved to investigative reporting.). "Doing stories that serve the public in a number of different ways [and] using vital information from people who are really putting their necks out there to accomplish it."

Which means protecting the identities of those people who, for their own reasons, are the ones breaking the law, not the reporters who obtain that information. The federal prosecutors' move is a textbook case of shooting the messenger, not unlike baseball's response to Canseco's book last year.

"Is that the kind of case where the public is better served to learn who the sources were or learn about ... sports and drugs?" said Eve Burton, a lawyer for the Chronicle's parent company, the Hearst Corp., in a story in yesterday's Chronicle.

That's an easy one. The BALCO reporting and the recent books have carried the issue of steroids out from underground, where it was wreaking havoc among youth at several levels, doing far more damage than just to the career and single-season home run records. Ask Donald Hooton and Denise Garibaldi, who lost sons to steroid abuse and who have told their stories here, on Capitol Hill and elsewhere within the past year.

"They [the books and stories] contributed to helping start a national conversation about steroids," Fainaru-Wada said.

If the government wins this, the next conversation about whatever's gravely wrong with society, in sports or outside of it, won't even get started. Baseball's next shame will flourish in the dark, the way this one did before Fainaru-Wada and the others turned the lights on.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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