We don’t go easy on ballplayers who use PEDs because they’re “our heroes.” Quite the opposite

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I linked to Jeff Pearlman’s radio interview and post about how he feels Mark McGwire should be banned from baseball because he took PEDs back in the 90s and early 2000s when he was playing. There has been considerable reaction to his thoughts on that, mostly negative.

Pearlman responds to that at his blog. He’s quite upset that people aren’t as upset about it. And he thinks he knows why: fans worship athletes and let them get away with murder.

He says that McGwire and Bonds unconscionably destroyed records but “[t]o the athlete worshiper, none of that matters.” He goes on to say that even though sports is a fun diversion, “kids are watching” and “accountability means something” and for that reason “heroes can be called out, even if it hurts.”

I disagree with the very premise. As I said the other day, the idea that athletes are or should be heroes is simply foreign to me. Thus the notion that I and those who think like me go easy on PED users because we’re star struck or because we worship athletes is totally wrong. I get less outraged than most on the topic specifically because they are not heroes. Because they are ordinary people with ordinary human flaws.

This does not excuse them. If there are punishments rightfully due to them, they should receive them. But it does render moral outrage at their failings to be inapt, to say the least.

About those punishments and sanctions: Pearlman says this:

Stephen Glass never worked in journalism again. Myriad accountants and lawyers and doctors—once found guilty of violating serious professional bylaws—are done. Yet, in sports, coaches always say, “In America, we give second chances.” Yeah, if you hit home runs.

Yes. But that’s because The New Republic and journalism as a whole was very clear to Mr. Glass before he started working that plagiarism and fabrication was a fireable and, essentially, banishable offense. Lawyers and doctors have specifically set-out bylaws that detail the rules to be followed and the punishment to which they will be subject if they do not. It’s very, very clear.

Pearlman, on the other hand, would banish McGwire for conforming to norms of his profession at the time. Norms that, however odious they may seem to us now, existed and were strongly reinforced by the system in which he played when he did so. And even now, when those norms no longer apply, there are specifically set-out penalties for violating the rules. They do not include banishment for life unless someone has three offenses and they in no way apply retroactively. His comparison, then, is totally out to lunch.

But back to McGwire: No matter how angry he makes some people, he does not mean anything more to me than any other entertainer or celebrity does. The home run record is a statistic, not a sacred thing. Others may disagree with that, which is their right, but that’s on them. For my part, my lack of outrage on the subject is not because I believe them to be special or untouchable. It’s quite the opposite.

Derek Jeter: no longer the media’s darling

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There was a time, not too long ago, where the baseball press practically gave Derek Jeter awards for providing them no information whatsoever. As a player, he turned not answering questions into an art form. To the point where, eventually, the press just stopped asking him substantive questions almost entirely.

Unlike a lot of players who shut out the media, Jeter did it rather politely, so he did not get that passive aggressive treatment — or, occasionally, the aggressive-aggressive treatment — the press often gives uncommunicative players. To the contrary. He was positively lauded for his lack of communication. Lionized, even.

Take this column from Jeff Peralman at CNN.com from 2014, under the headline “Derek Jeter: Baseball’s Humble Hero”:

Throughout the first 18 seasons of his career, Jeter has often been labeled “dull” by the media. His answers to questions are unimaginative and full of cliché baseball nothingness blather. In hindsight, however, such lameness is almost to be admired. We live in an era where too many athletes feel as if they need to draw attention to themselves — for confidence, for commercials. If you’re not tweeting trash talk, you’re texting trash talk. Or making bold promises. Or demanding money or respect . . . he’s a guy who merely wanted to be a guy.

How about this from the New York Times around the time of his retirement:

Jeter’s ability to maintain a posture of sustained inscrutability — or, if you must, dignified comportment — has extended especially to the spoken word . . . he has played his best defense in front of his locker: catching every controversial question thrown to him and tossing it aside as if it were a scuffed ball unsuitable for play.

In a major league career that dates to the Clinton administration’s first term — he is the only Yankees shortstop a generation of fans has known — inquiring reporters have gathered around Jeter in the clubhouse thousands of times. He has maintained eye contact, answered nearly every question posed to him — and said nothing. This is not a complaint, but rather an expression of awe; of admiration, even. His batting average and fielding percentage aside, this kid from Kalamazoo, Mich., entered the New York meat grinder two decades ago and came out the other end looking as sharp as Joe DiMaggio’s suit.

This opinion of Jeter was pervasive throughout his career, but especially pronounced at its end of it. Jeter was deified by the press for saying nothing to the press. Praised for making the media’s job harder by the media itself. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it.

Times, however, have changed.

Some minor grumbling about Jeter’s non-answers to media questions began soon after he took over as Marlins co-owner. Ken Davidoff of the New York Post wrote a column about it all back in October, saying Jeter’s “Crash Davis Rules of Media Relations don’t apply anymore.” Not too many people echoed that at the time, probably because it came in the wake of a pretty boring introductory press conference and the stakes were pretty low. I did wonder at the time, though, if the media was waiting to turn on Jeter once he actually started making moves in his new role.

I think we can now say the answer to that is yes.

In the wake of the Giancarlo Stanton trade, a lot of baseball writers had a lot of questions for Derek Jeter. Jeter, however, decided that he didn’t even need to show up here at the Winter Meetings to answer them, despite the fact that he lives just a couple of hours away.

On Monday morning Buster Olney of ESPN made conspicuous note of it:

Later in the day Jeter deigned to talk to the media via a conference call. As usual, he said mostly nothing, but unlike 1997, 2007 or 2014 (a) he got testy about it; and (b) the press made a note of it:

They likewise noted when he passed the buck to someone below him on the org chart:

Last night I think a dam broke, and I don’t think Jeter will ever be able to sweet non-talk his way out criticism again. It all happened at a football game:

To sum up:

  • Jeter is now bad for not talking to the press;
  • Jeter is not lauded for his composure anymore; and
  • Jeter is being called out as a poor leader who does not face the music.

What a difference a few years and a change of role makes.

All of which, one would think, would make me at least a little happy. I mean, I’ll totally own up to rolling my eyes at the kid glove treatment Jeter got back when he played. About how his attributes, however great, were elevated even above their actual greatness and how his faults were, perversely, spun into attributes. You’d expect that, in light of that, I’d be sorta pleased that the tables have turned.

I’m not happy, though. Indeed, I have something approaching sympathy for Captian Jeets.

Why? Because, while I’d like to see him face the press, defend his moves as owner and explain his vision to Marlins fans everywhere, I know that he cannot. I know that he has no good answers to any of the questions he might be asked because the real answer to all of them is “hey, we need to make money for the ownership group and everything flows from that” and that’s not an answer he’s prepared to give.

Have some sympathy for Derek Jeter. He’s really in a tough, tough spot. Even if he put himself into it.