Commentary

A strike against justice

Why have only some players linked to PEDs been banished from baseball?

Originally Published: February 22, 2014
By Howard Bryant | ESPN The Magazine

Bryant IlloMark Smith for ESPNTop-level nonwhite players linked to PEDs, like Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, are out of baseball.

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 3 Analytics Issue. Subscribe today!

MAYBE IT IS over for Alex Rodriguez even though he has dropped his lawsuit against baseball. Maybe he'll return in a year, meekly, end his career and then be discarded for good by major league baseball. He wouldn't be the first to be shunned, nor would it be undeserved after he dissolved whatever goodwill he had accrued in the game.

Still, there's something troubling about the justice here. When discussing race, most Americans cannot handle the topic without a blankie and a rattle nearby, so it must be said immediately that, yes, there have been PED users of all backgrounds -- from Gary Sheffield to Manny Ramirez to Andy Pettitte -- who were allowed to come back and play and earn their millions. Likewise, black, white and Latino players have equally found the Hall of Fame locked to them for PED transgressions.

But who survives the steroids era in retirement -- who is allowed a future in the game -- has been the most subjective and troubling remnant of those dishonest decades. Thus far, the determining factors of redemption have been race, power and personality. The top-level nonwhite players associated with PEDs -- Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro -- are out of baseball. The white players -- Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Jason Giambi and Matt Williams -- survived BALCO, the feds, the Mitchell report and Congress and have been allowed a second act. Three managers who benefited from the power of PEDs -- Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Tony La Russa -- will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer. The good guys of all races, the guys who win the reputation contest, will be the ones to enter Cooperstown.

Williams, the first player of the steroids era to challenge Roger Maris' home run record, was named in the Mitchell report for buying thousands of dollars' worth of steroids and HGH to supposedly fight injury. He is now the manager of the Nationals. Giambi admitted steroids use to a federal grand jury during the BALCO investigation. In 2012 he interviewed for the Rockies' managerial job. He didn't get it, so he carries on as a DH for the Indians. Clemens, who is also named in the Mitchell report and embarrassed himself and the game with a sordid association with Brian McNamee, is a special assistant with the Astros, offering assessments of their newest prospect, Tracy McGrady.

McGwire owns the golden ticket. No one in the game did more damage to baseball's image than Big Mac did in St. Louis. The blown kiss and heart-thump shout-outs to the Maris family were one big fraud. McGwire may never enter Cooperstown, but La Russa made sure the game's doors remained open to him, engineering his return to the Cardinals as a hitting coach in 2009. McGwire took the same job with the Dodgers three years later and is now beginning his second season with the team.

At Henry Aaron's 80th birthday reception in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 7, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder offered a message to the hundreds in attendance. He said that for anyone who believes in integrity, the number 755 is still "the real home run record." Everyone cheered, affirming that Bonds is to remain a villain, ostracized from the game. The same day as Holder's comments, The Washington Post posted an extensive profile on Williams, who was granted his redemption; he referred to his PED use merely as "not my finest hour."

A kinder, more contrite Bonds might be the Dodgers' hitting coach. A less loathsome Sosa might be Mr. Cub for the new millennium. Had Palmeiro said to the congressional panel investigating PED use, "I'm not here to talk about the past," instead of that fatal finger wag, maybe he'd be working for Peter Angelos, an area code away from Williams.

No matter the race, nice matters. Texas manager Ron Washington tested positive for cocaine and survived, winning consecutive AL pennants. What cannot be so easily finessed is who is allowed clemency and who is banished for the same offense. Selective justice is the ultimate price of the steroids era -- a reminder to stay in line and to have powerful friends. And as Alex Rodriguez has now discovered, perhaps too late, selective justice means no justice at all.

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