Best advice for embattled O's: Start swinging

To protect imperiled reputations, experts recommend taking action

October 09, 2006|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,Sun Reporter

Consider Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds.

Both reached unmatched heights of performance in their chosen sports. Some fans believe neither could have hit such pinnacles without the help of performance-enhancing drugs. Journalists have spent enormous time and effort trying to suss out links between those great feats and drugs. Neither athlete has failed a drug test.

The similarities end there. Armstrong is a coveted corporate spokesman, hosts television awards shows and raises tens of millions of dollars a year to fight cancer. Bonds is a pariah unwanted by any company trying to create a warm glow around its product.

How have two similar public paths diverged so greatly?

It's a question that might have sudden relevance to the lives of Orioles Miguel Tejada, Brian Roberts and Jay Gibbons. Although they don't encounter glory or scrutiny on the Armstrong-Bonds scale, they are experiencing a jolt of infamy based on allegations by former teammate Jason Grimsley that they took anabolic steroids. A Los Angeles Times report that detailed Grimsley's allegations has since been called into question by Grimsley's lawyer and a U.S. attorney.

Where these three Orioles go in terms of value and reputation is an open question. Will it be the Armstrong route or the Bonds route?

When asked the difference between Bonds and Armstrong, San Francisco marketing consultant Bob Dorfman replied: "That's easy. One of them is a likable guy, and one of them isn't."

Most fans don't dwell on nasty accusations about guys who entertain them with 450-foot homers, he said, as long as athletes emphasize what people liked about them in the first place.

That's true, but athletes shouldn't take it for granted that they'll escape unscathed, said John Maroon, longtime spokesman for Cal Ripken.

"I think it's a very big deal," he said of the allegations. "Your character and your brand is everything. They've done a good job coming out with strong denials, but if I had to tell them one thing, it would be don't stop. If you're truly innocent, this should [tick] you off. So stand up on the rooftops and yell your innocence. Don't assume it will go away just because you denied it."

None of the three players seemed to take the slam on their reputations lightly.

When asked whether teammates were unsettled by knowing they were named in Grimsley's affidavit, Orioles infielder Chris Gomez said: "For sure. I know Gibby for sure. I haven't really talked to B-Rob about it. How can you not? Everyone wants to have a clean image, and maybe theirs should still be. But now that their names have been thrown out like this, people are going to think negative no matter what. Of course, it is going to wear on you a little bit."

Value judgments

"Value" can mean many things in connection with an athlete. Most obviously, it refers to a player's perceived ability to create wins on the field and to the salary that player can earn in return. But it also refers to a player's ability to bring in money by touting products. In that sense, Maria Sharapova's looks afford her value beyond her tennis ability. Value might also speak to the esteem in which the public holds a performer.

There are a few ways to judge how the Grimsley allegations might affect the players' on-field value.

For one, all three have played the past two seasons under the threat of public suspension for any positive steroid test - as have all major leaguers. In that time, Tejada and Roberts have been the team's best position players and made three combined All-Star appearances. Gibbons has battled injuries but posted a career-best slugging percentage last year and a career-best on-base percentage this year. So it's not as if, in the era of greater steroid scrutiny, the trio has lost the ability to play well.

Second, Tejada was linked to Rafael Palmeiro's positive test last year when Palmeiro said he might have been tainted by a vitamin B-12 shot he said he received from the shortstop. That association reportedly did nothing to diminish trade interest in Tejada last offseason or this July.

"You have to look at it in context," one general manager said of a steroid allegation. "Do you see a spike in numbers? Did you see a change in his physique? Has he had a ton of injuries related to ligaments or tendons? Like anything, it's about information you get. That's why you have to pay scouts good money to do their jobs. If you're confident in your assessment, [an allegation] wouldn't stop you."

Tejada, Roberts and Gibbons lack national profiles as product endorsers, so any questions about them losing deals are largely moot. That's a good thing for them, according to Dorfman.

"For most baseball players, that's the way it is - their marketability is on a regional scale," he said. "And local fans tend to maintain their loyalty. They're less quick to vilify a guy based on accusations without proof."

Dorfman said his checklist for athletes with image problems would be simple:

Maintain a strong community presence with charitable work.

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