Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Double features long since have disappeared from the movie theaters, but we’re about to get one in our court rooms over the next several months.

One will star Barry Bonds, the best baseball position-player of the last 25 years. The other will feature Roger Clemens, the best pitcher of that period. Separately, they’ll face charges that they lied when denying they knowingly took steroids during their illustrious careers—Bonds to a Federal grand jury and Clemens to a committee of Congress.

In the dock alongside them, albeit invisibly, will be the sport that enabled and abetted them in their nefarious pursuits of greatness, but the fact that a guilty verdict already has been delivered against baseball in the court of public opinion shouldn’t overly affect the trials’ ratings. We stuck with “Law and Order” all those years even though the verdicts were predictable, didn’t we?

Bonds will get first bats in a trial scheduled to begin Monday (March 21) in San Francisco, if it isn’t pleaded out first. It probably won’t be because many chances to do so have been bypassed in the years the case has been kicking around. The charges against Bonds stem from statements he made before a 2003 grand jury investigating Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCO), the Burlingame, California, steroids brewer and peddler whose exposure—along with that of its clients the sprinters Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, the boxer Shane Moseley and the baseball players Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield and Bonds, among others—put an overdo national spotlight on drug use in American sports. BALCO founder Victor Conte went to prison as a result of the probe, along with several associates. These included Greg Anderson, who doubled as Bonds’ personal trainer.

The case against the all-time home runs king would have been adjudicated long ago if not for the silence of Anderson. He’s served about a year behind bars for refusing to testify against the ballplayer, on top the six months he put in for his BALCO convictions. That he potentially faces further charges of obstructing justice in the Bond matter easily qualifies him as Buddy of the Century. Mostly as a result of his noncooperation, the number of criminal counts against Bonds has been reduced to five from the original 14.

But Anderson’s continued absence may prove to be a mixed blessing for Bonds. That’s because the judge in the case has ruled it opens the way to testimony against him by former associates and teammates who stand ready to relate conservations about steroids they had with him or Anderson, and about the physical changes Bonds underwent while he allegedly was juicing. The juiciest of these witnesses may be Kimberley Bell, the player’s ex-mistress. It’s been reported she’ll say that while some of Bonds’ parts got larger as he forged the Michelin Man physique of his later playing years, other parts were shrinking. Ouch!

The case against the 354-game-winner Clemens, due to be heard in July in Washington, D.C., seems both stronger and weirder than the one against Bonds. The weird part is that while Bonds was subpoenaed by the BALCO grand jury, the Rocket Man showed up voluntarily to make his “I never took ‘em” statements before a 2008 House Committee. And while Bonds’ trainer Anderson isn’t talking, Brian McNamee, Clemens’ fitness guru from 1998 to 2001, has lined up as the main witness against him. Additionally, the careful McNamee is said to have retained some vials, syringes and, even, gauze that he used while he says he was injecting the pitcher, and the DNA thereon looms as hard-to-refute physical evidence.

Why the two players put themselves into their current binds is a matter of conjecture. My take is that both are prime products of a culture that lionizes top athletes almost from birth and shields them from the sort of choices that help turn most of the rest of us into reasonable human beings.

Athletes always have been a privileged group in this land but in recent years that has increased exponentially with their salaries. While team jocks used to at least have to relate to teammates who might not buy their acts, present-day demigods in the class of Bonds and Clemens can surround themselves with business advisors, trainers, nutritionists and an array of other yes-men and -women who cater to their every whim (Bonds had a personal shopper, for heaven’s sake). The idea that anyone might not accept their versions of things probably never occurs to those guys.

Both, it seems, are banking on star-struck jurors to give them a pass once again. They promise to tacitly invoke the Richard Pryor defense: “Who you gonna believe—me or your lyin’ eyes?” And indeed, who among us would forfeit a photo-op with a top-drawer celeb and an invitation to a really good acquittal party in order to uphold some nebulous idea of justice? It worked for O.J., didn’t it?

Trouble is, though, that by denying the obvious, and trying to cover it up, Bonds and Clemens already have blown it in the immortality department, which is what it’s about for the handful of jocks who can pass the highest performance tests. Guilty in court or not, they’ll be followed by mental asterisks forevermore.

And so should baseball for its head-in-the-sand stance during Bonds’ and Clemens’ period of dominance.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


“North Dallas Forty” was a good movie about pro football with a number of very good lines. One of them came in a scene in which a group of players were sitting around grousing about some stunt management had pulled at their expense.

“They can’t do that to us-- we’re the team!” exclaimed one player.

“No we’re not,” said a wiser player. “They’re the team. We’re the equipment.”

The line seems especially apt these days as the National Football League’s owners and players’ union close in on the March 3 date (Thursday) when their current labor contract expires. Maybe they’ll reach an agreement before then, and maybe they won’t. Maybe the next NFL season will start on time next September (it’s a long way off), and maybe not. Either way, though, the showdown provides an opportunity for some musings about the state of labor-management relations in these United States, and the balance of power therein.

For starters, there’s no small irony in the fact that in 2011 A.D. America’s most-potent labor organizations are those composed of professional athletes, relative newcomers to organized labor’s ranks. With no little help from their unions, the jocks have waxed rich beyond their own and everyone else’s imaginings, while many of the people whose dollars make their prosperity possible (us) struggle in an ever-more-unforgiving economic climate.

Back in the 1960s, when I broke in as a business-news reporter (covering labor, among other things), much of the nation’s economic drama stemmed from the clashes between the major domestic industries of day—steel, autos, appliances, coal—and the muscular unions that represented their employees. Now, those industries are fragmented and puny, and what’s left of their unions are reduced to trying to hold down whatever cuts in pay and benefits the companies are demanding in the name of competitiveness.

What companies mostly are demanding—and getting—is no unions at all. Union membership in the U.S. last year fell to 12% of wage and salary earners, from 20% in 1983 and 35% or so during the post-war-boom years of the 1950s. If the governor of Wisconsin and like-minded pols have their way, that figure will shrink further in the years ahead. Why shouldn’t states extract 24/7 performance from their workers (with no overtime pay) the way private employers do? Hey, you don’t like it, there’s the door, and there are 15 people waiting to take your job.

Professional athletes had no unions to speak of through most of their history, and lived under contracts that bound players to their teams until the teams chose to trade or release them, so they pretty much had to take what they were offered. Some teams, like the New York Yankees in their 1950s’ glory days, hired private detectives to seek out pecadillos that could be used to blackmail recalcitrants into line.

That began to change in 1966, when the Major League baseball players hired Marvin Miller to head their association. Miller was a real union guy—the United Steelworkers’ chief economist—and a smart one to boot. He saw what some others saw—an industry whose employees possessed skills that were both rare and potentially valuable—but he also recognized that those assets couldn’t be exploited fully unless a base of solidarity could be secured.

Miller’s first major achievement was obtaining binding, outside arbitration of contract disputes, a role the game’s commissioner, an owners’ proxy, formerly filled. In 1975, the cases of the pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally led to the arbitrator’s ruling that threw out baseball’s “reserve clause” and led to the free agency that has fueled spectacular player gains across the team-sport spectrum.

Miller’s second and biggest accomplishment was to convince players to sublimate their short-term interests for broader objectives, no small matter in a profession where careers can be brief and chancy. It took strikes in 1972, 1980 and 1981, and lockouts in 1973 and 1976, to make the point, but it finally took. The upshot has been that the average baseball player’s salary last year stood at $3.3 million, up from $19,000 in 1966, while the game’s minimum salary rose to $400,000 a year from $6,000. Other sports unions marched in baseball’s footprints, and while the footballers haven’t done as well at the bank as the baseballers (they play a much-shorter schedule, after all), they’re doing okay, too, with annual salaries that average $1.8 million and a $260,000 minimum. We all should do as well.

In what may be the biggest irony of all, it turns out that the well-entrenched football players’ union’s most-potent weapon isn’t unionhood, but its lack. Team by team, it has voted to decertify in case of a lockout, something that’s counterintuitive unless one understands that the NFL is a monopoly and its player-control cornerstones—the draft, team-salary caps, free-agency limits and “franchise” tags—are legally acceptable only if they are arrived at through collective bargaining. If there’s no union there’s no collective-bargaining agreement, in which case the whole edifice collapses. Cute, huh?

I’ve just finished reading the novel “The Given Day,” by Dennis Lehane. Its central event is the 1919 Boston police strike, which the Beantown Establishment used to squash the nascent union movement among the city’s much-put-upon cops. Babe Ruth is a character in the book, and his sublime talents allow him to float to a life of wealth and privilege while others in his social class remained mired in the grimy scrum. “What goes around comes around” is a familiar saying, but it ain’t necessarily so. Sometimes, what goes around just keeps on going.