On the surface, the news of the day -- the ESPN Outside the Lines report that Major League Baseball has diligently negotiated the cooperation of Biogenesis director Anthony Bosch in its investigation of players' possible connection to performance enhancing drugs -- seems to be about the players. The story suggests that those players could receive harsh punishments; 100-game suspensions were specifically mentioned.
So, on the surface, you would think the story is about Alex Rodriguez, whose alleged connection to the clinic could be the final crash in what already feels like a shattered career. You would think the story is about Ryan Braun, who -- to be hip and use a Great Gatsby reference -- appears to be Major League Baseball's Daisy, MLB's obsession, ever since he successfully beat a positive drug test on appeal.*
*Braun's connection to Biogenesis is very much in dispute, and Braun has issued a strong denial to the report by saying, "The truth has not changed."
But, I don't think so. I also don't think it's about Anthony Bosch, that elusive Biogenesis head who seems to say something contradictory every other week.
No, I think this story is about a man named Allan Huber (Bud) Selig.
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has always had a deep appreciation for history -- he studied history, he taught history, he loves to discuss history -- and because of this he has always had a heightened sensitivity about his own legacy. Every baseball fan has a strong opinion about Selig's time as commissioner, but having spoken with him many times on the subject, I know what he believes.
Selig believes that expansion -- four teams have been added since he took over as acting commissioner in 1992 -- has made baseball a more deeply American game. The shattered attendance records confirm his point.
Selig believes that expanding the playoffs and adding the wildcard -- and since then, adding a second wildcard -- has given more hope to more fans than ever before in the game's history. "It's just natural," he has said. "More teams are in contention."
Selig believes that interleague play ended what was a restrictive and outdated system and has given fans the opportunity to play their crosstown teams and build new rivalries. He also believes the new All-Star Game format -- with the winning league getting home field advantage in the World Series -- has added some spark to that game.
Selig believes that while the 1994 strike was devastating, baseball now has by far the healthiest relationship between owners and players and, what he calls, "the longest stretch of labor peace in our game's history."
Selig believes that baseball is much more of a worldwide game than it was when he took over, in large part because of the influx of Japanese players into the Major Leagues, the huge increase of Latin American players, and the World Baseball Classic.
Selig believes that MLB's willingness to embrace the Internet and social media -- including the phenomenal success of MLB.com and the "At Bat" iPad App -- has helped secure the game's place in the 21st Century.
At the same time, Selig also believes that baseball has done a better job than ever before of celebrating its history with its Jackie Robinson celebrations, its Civil Rights games, its homages to great players in years gone by.
Except . for . drugs.
Here, Bud Selig cannot find solace. Here, he cannot point to his own record. In the late 1990s, long after the NFL and other leagues had started testing for PEDs, baseball did not. MLB had a vague rule against drug testing that few knew and nobody enforced. The guiding principle was an old wives' tale -- that players wouldn't use steroids because it would not help them. Steroids, people said again and again, can't help you hit the curveball.
And then, players started hitting home runs. Long home runs. Over and over. Players you never heard of were hitting 40 home runs. Better players were hitting 50. Sometimes 60. Were steroids the only reason? No. The game had shifted in dozens of ways -- the strike zone was smaller, the bats were harder, the ballparks were more home run friendly, hitters wore armor and crowded the plate, probably the ball was juicier -- but these players looked different too. They had python arms. They had washboard abs. They had thick and powerful necks.
They started smashing records. At first baseball celebrated it. They had to celebrate it . the strike had left so many baseball fans cold and jaded. Home runs, in part, brought people back to the game after the gambling scandals. Home runs were bringing them back again after the '94 strike. The summer of 1998, when Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire chased the home run record, put baseball back on the front page and back in the heart of the American sports fan.
Just three years later -- when a bulked-up Barry Bonds smashed home runs at an unprecedented pace -- the atmosphere had poisoned. People no longer believed. And not long after that, baseball was essentially forced by public pressure to begin drug testing. Selig and high profile players had to appear before Congress -- where they did not exactly cover themselves in glory. Blame was thrown back and forth like grenades; owners blamed the players' union for blocking drug testing, players denied using and talked about their individual rights, writers and hosts and fans of all kinds smashed everybody.
And Selig was at a loss. He would say that the proliferation of steroids had sneaked up on him. He said that, as commissioner, he had tried to get drug testing but had been rebuffed.
He commissioned a report, the Mitchell Report -- it seemed shallow and was largely ignored. He publicly lauded the drug testing system the owners and players managed to hammer out in the aftermath -- it was mostly mocked. He talked about the game getting clean -- few believed.
In private, Selig and others in the inner circle grumbled about baseball being held to a higher standard than other sports, especially football. There is some truth in that, but it's also true that football had learned how to control the message on steroids many years before baseball did. Baseball had its head buried so deep in the sand in the 1990s, it still has not caught up.
Which brings us today's news. The one thing in the story that does not make much sense to me is how aggressive -- and how CERTAIN -- baseball seems to be about coming down hard on the players. Names released? One-hundred-game suspensions discussed? Already? Could baseball really feel that confident in the word of Anthony Bosch, who comes across as an unreliable witness even before anyone has even attacked his character? Could baseball be that eager to start a war with the players union (throwing out a whole lot of names and talking about draconian punishments undoubtedly has the union already at DEFCON 3)?
Certainly baseball must investigate Biogenesis and, if the facts demand it, act. But the strong early words and implicit threats suggest a kind of screeching desperation. They brought the elephant guns out for this one. Every part of it feels like an overreach, and one that might end as well for baseball as the Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens probes did for the federal government.
Why go so strong? Well -- and this is only my guess -- I think this is Bud Selig trying for that last and most important victory for his legacy. He knows that the most successful commissioners in baseball made a final and lasting statement on the game. Kenesaw Mountain Landis made a final and lasting statement about gambling. Happy Chandler made a final and lasting statement about baseball integration. Bowie Kuhn made a final and lasting statement by losing to Marvin Miller time after time.
And I think Selig wants to erase the steroid stain on his record. I think he wants to make the final and lasting statement on performance enhancing drugs in baseball. I think he wants to make that statement so powerful, so indisputable, that no one could have any questions. Thing is, Selig is set to retire in January 2015 -- and it looks like he really will retire then. The fact -- the one fact Bud Selig understands most clearly -- is that he is running out of time.