Monday, June 05, 2006

Jeff Pearlman: Shooting Wildly
By Blogger

Jeff Pearlman wrote Love Me, Hate Me..., a book about Barry Bonds that I've yet to read. Just about every instance of coverage surrounding it, though, tells me the gist of it is that Bonds is an ass, and Pearlman went to great, detailed, lengths to illustrate this. This isn't about Bonds, specifically. It's about Jeff Pearlman's recent pieces for, which have both dealt with steroids in baseball. The common theme between them is that sportswriters are the key to unraveling the PED mess in professional sports. I hope to rebut this notion.

To address the first column, from March 30, Pearlman starts with a claim from his book that Bonds told Ken Griffey, Jr., that he was going to use steroids. He writes in the column, "Bonds was there. Griffey was there. I have verification. And yet, even before I sat down to write the chapter, I knew the inevitable aftermath. Bonds would deny everything and call the writer a no-good sack of shit. Griffey would shrug his shoulders and yawn, 'Never took place.'" The reason this irks me is because there's no way to actually verify this without a recording of some sort, and Pearlman knows it! He knows the story is easily deniable because his evidence is hearsay from years ago. Even if the source outed himself or herself, it's not verification even if that person swears by a conversation that took place five or six years prior to the telling. That may be well and good for relatively benign claims, or to give general impressions of someone's character, but conducting a public argument that could destroy a person's reputation requires harder evidence than that, as Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams gathered for their book.

The column's main point, however, is that ballplayers don't break a code. In other words, a ballplayer's business is ballplayers' business, and not anyone else's. So, when intrepid reporters try to dig for steroid use, virtually every ballplayer clams up. Pearlman would have you believe this is unreasonable on the the theory that if one's yard is clean, he can feel free to sic the neighborhood association on his neighbors. Pearlman casts this behavior as "sad" and flawed. However, what he obscures, or fails to realize, is that professional athletes are in a relatively unique position that almost requires them to abide by this code. What's more, the code makes perfect sense from their perspective, and it goes beyond steroids. If a player decides to talk about steroid use, what's to stop him from talking openly about recreational drug use? What about adultery? Just about any behavior that might by unsavory is covered under this code, not just steroids. The baseball players' community is a fraternity, with only a few true outcasts (mostly replacement players from '94), and most guys, rightly, don't want to break that trust with their brothers, because everyone has character flaws and has committed wrongs. Spilling the beans on other players' peccadilloes to beat writers isn't just holier-than-thou, it could lead to an erosion of team trust and make life extremely unpleasant.

Pearlman also has a track record of writing, essentially, that sportswriters are entitled to the information they ask for. With this first column, he places the onus on ballplayers to tell all so that sportswriters can get the story out there. He changes tack in the second column, posted on June 2.

In this one, Pearlman starts with a premise that I have harped on for a long time, that every professional athlete is suspect of PED use. However, he comes up with a crackpot solution that only a magazine writer could dream up, one that simultaneously acknowledges and ignores the basic dynamic of the ballplayer-reporter relationship.

He writes: "Why are journalists so soft in this area? One reason: fear of being shut out. Over the course of a 162-game season, beat writers and columnists work their tails off to develop relationships with players. You grovel. You whimper. You plead. You tiptoe up to a first baseman, hoping he has five minutes to talk about that swollen toe." Oh, poor, poor, beat writer. The ballplayers don't want to talk to you. Maybe ballplayers are wary of writers because, perhaps unconsciously, perhaps consciously, they are perfectly aware of how much power writers wield. Maybe they understand that writers can make or break them in public opinion, if they choose. Hell, Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times is widely regarded as the guy who got Paul DePodesta fired as GM of the Dodgers. You can't get much more influential than that. Beat writers work to develop tenable relationships, and make all sorts of sacrifices to maintain those relationships, in order to report the daily stuff, the manager's quotes on his team's direction, the rookie's take on facing Johan Santana for the first time. That sort of thing. Anything more in-depth that doesn't compromise his or her ability to report on daily stuff is gravy.

What Pearlman sort of gets at, but never makes clear, is that rooting out PED use in baseball, and other sports, requires non-sports writers. Fainaru-Wada and Williams were not in the Chronicle sports department (though they had written about sports before), which allowed beat writer Henry Schulman to maintain the status quo with his relationships. The investigative reporting was as separate as could be. Pearlman slams sportswriters as "playing dumb", and immediately after acknowledging that doing their job requires compromise, he exhorts them to throw that system to the wind and ask the tough questions. Perhaps it kills him that this isn't a job for sportswriters, that outsiders are probably better suited for exposing and explaining sports' troubling secrets.

To make it clear, putting the onus on sportswriters to ask these questions is asking them to play an impossible game. Didn't Pearlman just write a column about how ballplayers won't break their code? What's changed since then? Sportswriters know they won't get real answers to questions about juicing, and they know they'd compromise their access by asking those questions, so they don't ask. It's absolutely fair to call out journalists, as a group, on their collective decision to pretend PED use in Major League Baseball is over now that there's a drug policy. After all, absence of proof is not proof of absence, all the evidence to this point indicates that plenty of athletes are cheating and not getting caught, and it must be possible to delicately get across a general suspicion without arousing the anger of the local club, but it should be clear that beat writers can't go there.

In the end, Pearlman brings it back to himself. He doesn't believe Giambi is clean, because... well... because he cheated with undetectable substances before, so why not now? He wonders about Clemens, because... well... because he's succeeding at such an advanced age. And therein lies Pearlman's problem. He has his suspicions, but he hasn't done the investigative reporting, and yet he still publishes those suspicions, something a beat writer could never do. Going public with one's suspicions about individual players and coming just short of accusations is all well and good for someone completely separated from the machinery, but had a Yankees or Astros beat writer written such a thing, he or she could have gotten a freeze out and been cut off from that precious access.


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