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Thomas Boswell

Flat-Footed, Baseball Moves Slowly

By Thomas Boswell
Wednesday, December 8, 2004; Page D01

Baseball never addresses any problem until the sport is cornered by a screaming mob and can't find a way to escape doing the obvious.

For decades, the worst of all options in labor negotiations was a work stoppage. Yet baseball went 8 for 8 before it finally did the obvious in '02: split the revenue sanely, compromise for the good of the game and watch attendance soar.

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For 33 years, baseball left Washington without a team. Finally, owners approved relocation of the Expos -- after the franchise bled cash for years.

Once again, we've reached the point at which a fed-up sports public has formed a ring around baseball and is bellowing, "Do the right thing, you dopes."

The roar may have been louder when baseball canceled its World Series, but not by much. This time the subject is steroids. Some of us have watched this crisis develop since the '80s. Now, at last, everybody is all ears.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) says he will introduce legislation imposing drug-testing standards on pro athletes if players and owners do not institute their own crackdown by next month. For this he gets universal cheers, as he should. But where were the other brave politicians for 15 years when steroids in baseball were a radioactive topic rather than a vote-getter?

Commissioner Bud Selig, who was happy enough to ignore the subject, has gotten religion. Of course, in the seasons immediately following the Strike of '94, which he helped orchestrate, Selig was delighted to see astronomical home run totals from juiced players, since it resuscitated interest among disgusted fans.

Finally the leading villain in the saga, the players' union, is huddled in its annual executive board meeting in Arizona this week to find a way to address, or more likely try to manage and minimize the impact of, the vast PR storm that is battering its doors.

All of this is wonderful progress because baseball never changes for the better unless pressure is applied. Left to itself, the game ducks its problems, focuses on infighting and concentrates on managing the spin. Now public pressure is coming in a tidal wave. Controversial issues in sports never matter until, one day, they suddenly do. Some final incident ignites the public's anger. That, in turn, inspires us in the media to feed our audience an endless diet of stories on the subject.

Lo and behold, we achieve critical mass. And, finally, something gets done.

But look what it took for the public to rise up against baseball's indifference to the integrity of its sport and the long-term health of its players. Given the body of evidence on the psychological and physical damage that steroids do, it's incredible that athletes are allowed to poison themselves by the same employers, union and fans who claim to value them.

One former most valuable player, Ken Caminiti, is dead. Was steroid use a factor? No one knows. Many suspect.

Another MVP, Jason Giambi, has a benign pituitary tumor. Was steroid use (which he reportedly admitted before a federal grand jury) a factor? Is his career ruined?

Another MVP, Jose Canseco, ended up under house arrest after years of erratic behavior. Was steroid use a factor?

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