Integrity is taking a seat

Baseball's drug-cheating issues hardly driving away fans

Other voices

December 26, 2007|By Murray Chass

New York — New York-- --Major League Baseball has always had its doomsayers. Well, maybe not always, but certainly in the past several decades. For one reason or another, baseball has been a dying sport. Except it has never died. And it's not about to die now because of the Mitchell Report.

The report, baseball's critics said instantly, deals a severe blow to the game's integrity. Fans will write off the game, they said, because players cheated on a wholesale scale and fans will not tolerate it.

Even commissioner Bud Selig, in the past few years, has raised the integrity issue. He overruled his aides and ordered the investigation to protect baseball's integrity.

If fans question the game's integrity, they do it in a curious way. They keep going to games in record numbers and, based on offseason developments, they are prepared to do it again next season.

According to MLB figures, every team currently shows an increase in ticket sales compared with the corresponding time last offseason.

That's pretty remarkable considering the final 2007 season attendance - 79.5 million - was a major league record. Season attendance was 76 million in 2006, 74.7 million in 2005, 73 million in 2004 and 67.6 million in 2003, the last year the attendance did not set a record.

Selig said he expects next season's attendance to eclipse 80 million for the first time, just as MLB revenue broke $6 billion this year.

What does attendance have to do with integrity? It's the best barometer for gauging fans' feelings about baseball. If fans have problems with the game, if they think games are tainted in any way, they will stay away. They will make ballparks desolate sites. They will not turn on their television sets to watch.

But fans continue to buy tickets. They are, in effect, voting with their credit cards in support of the game.

What fans will do is question the integrity of individual players who are identified as having cheated. Fans other than in San Francisco last season clearly demonstrated their view of Barry Bonds' integrity, although they will nevertheless brag to their friends that they saw Bonds hit his 755th home run or his 762nd.

If Roger Clemens were to play next season, which he does not seem prepared to do, fans would let him know what they thought of his integrity, no matter how vehemently he denies allegations that he used illegal drugs to prolong his career.

Clemens, incidentally, might join Mark McGwire in the category of receiving really bad advice.

In 2005, for his appearance at a congressional hearing, McGwire, apparently facing a dilemma of truth or consequences, or maybe truth and consequences, was advised not to answer questions about steroids.

Instead of answering, "Yes, I did," and facing public scorn and professional humiliation, or "No, I didn't," and facing possible charges of contempt of Congress for lying under oath, McGwire was advised to say, "I'm not here to talk about the past" whenever he was asked a question about steroids.

Anyone who heard McGwire utter that refrain once, twice, three times instantly stamped him as a user of illegal substances who was trying to avoid admitting it. Fans and reporters wrote him off. He lost his integrity and will very likely never regain it. The only chance he might have to regain some of it is to acknowledge what he did, apologize for trying to avoid admitting it and say he received terrible advice.

Clemens has staged a double-barreled attack in defense of his reputation. First, he issued a statement denying he ever used illegal substances, as his former trainer told the Mitchell investigation. Then this week, he forcefully repeated his denial on a video broadcast over the Internet.

Assuming he issued those denials on the advice of his lawyers or agents or both, he, like McGwire, might have received bad advice.

Two congressional hearings are scheduled for next month. Neither committee has called any players as witnesses. But Clemens, with his stern denials, might have caught their attention.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat who is chairman of a House oversight committee, might be intrigued enough by the different versions of Clemens and steroids to subpoena him and his former trainer, Brian McNamee, as witnesses to try to get to the truth of the matter:

Did he or didn't he use steroids? And, an even bigger issue, how reliable is the Mitchell Report?

Had Clemens waited to issue his denial, he would probably have avoided raising congressional curiosity. Now, he might have stirred it.

If Clemens is subpoenaed and has to testify under oath, will he repeat his denial? Could he repeat his denial without fear of penalty? Could he walk out of the hearing with his integrity intact? Or would he be a victim of his own words, like McGwire, and become a baseball pariah and a Hall of Fame loser?

As little as I think of congressmen, who conduct hearings seeking publicity, a Clemens appearance before Waxman's committee could be the highlight of the offseason. His reputation and integrity would be at stake. It would be the best reality show of the television season.

Murray Chass writes for The New York Times.

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