27 February 2008

The Curious Logic of Tony LaRussa

This is an interesting time of year, in a remarkably interesting year for Major League Baseball. Since the MLB training camps are all open, and nobody has started playing actual games or releasing players yet, there is literally nothing else to talk about besides steroids. I mean, you can talk about position battles, how good each team's starters/lineup/bullpen/batboys compare to those of other teams, how well new managers are fitting in...but really, none of that much matters. That's all stuff the sportswriters usually use to pad their columns until Something Important happens.

But of course, one of the most Something Importants in MLB history happened two months ago, when the Mitchell Report was released, and people are still talking about it, as they should be. Everyone has his own take on it. Most of us haven't read the whole thing, but we know enough about it to be dangerous, and of course we can follow the fall-out from the report in the daily news media. Some people think the players mentioned in it were all cheaters, some think they were all innocent, or that if they did use performance enhancing drugs, it wasn't cheating because it wasn't banned at the time. Most of us are somewhere in between.

But Tony LaRussa?

Believe it or not, the MLB manager most closely associated with steroids and the proverbial Steroid Era, doesn't believe any of it. Not a word, it seems.

With credits due to Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (who interviewed LaRussa) and to ESPN's Rob Neyer, who made reference to the story in his blog, I would like to take a few moments to analyze the odd thought processes (or lack thereof) that allow LaRussa to maintain his innocence, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Burwell: When you were deciding on bringing in Juan Gonzalez, were you at all concerned about his name being linked to the Mitchell Report? This isn't even a moral issue. Just from a pure baseball standpoint of not knowing what kind of guy you're getting now?

La Russa: "There are a lot of players who have done something to enhance their performance who don't have that swing. It's one of the best swings of our time. [...] The issue of that stuff from the Mitchell Report doesn't cloud my mind because we're going to evaluate him only on what he does now."
That initial response makes it sound like LaRussa's saying, "Heck with the cheating rumors...look a that swing!" but really he's saying that Gonzo has enough talent still that he might be worth the risk, and really, for the Cards, the risk is minimal, since he's only got a minor league contract. That makes him something of a bad example. Now, if they had Barry Bonds (whom LaRussa wanted but upper management nixed) and were paying him millions of dollars in guaranteed money, that would be a different story.

And as for "evaluating him only on what he does now" well, fair enough. If you presume that he's clean now because there's a pretty stiff testing program now, then you can evaluate him purely on what he does now. Of course, you should do this anyway, shouldn't you? With a guy who's trying to make a comeback, what else would you use to evaluate him? "Well, he's hitting .163 with no walks and no extra base hits...but he did win MVP awards in 1996 and 1998...let's give him another month!" Not gonna happen, and it should not be a surprise.

Burwell: You have more than your fair share of Mitchell Report guys on this team. Does it bother you that there's a perception that you give safe harbor to steroid guys?

La Russa:
"No, and I'll tell you why not. One way I was taught to survive is my No. 1 accountability factor is myself. This is my 30th year doing this at the major league level. There isn't anybody — the commissioner, our owner, the fans, you — there isn't any person, man or woman, who can make me any more accountable than I am now right now because of myself. And I know there isn't anything we've done in all those years that was — with one small exception where we stole signs, a little hiccup — there isn't anything else that has happened on our ballclubs in Oakland or St. Louis that there's a hint of illegality. There isn't anything that we didn't actively and proactively attempt to do it right."
Ummm...Tony, I dunno if you've been paying attention or not, but there have been LOTS of hints of illegality. There is a huge, 400+ page report, several books (including Juiced, by Jose Canseco, who played and cheated for you in Oakland). Heck, there was a column by Tom Boswell of the Washington Post over 15 years ago alleging that Canseco was using steroids at the time. how many more "hints of illegality" do you need?

Burwell: But that's not what most of us think.

La Russa: "You're missing my point. If I'm going to base the way I survive on everything that others think, I have no chance."
Bryan Burwell is right: most of us don't agree with Tony's view. Because we can read. And we've been paying attention for the last 20 years. Tony, it seems, has taken to focusing only on what he thinks and feels in order to ignore everything going on around him that he might someday be held accountable for. By someone besides his own, strange mind.
And besides, that wasn't his point at all. His point was that he doesn't think he did anything wrong, or allowed anyone to do anything wrong.

Burwell: Does it bother you that rightly or wrongly, you and (assistant coach) Dave McKay have gained the unflattering label as the so-called godfathers of baseball's steroid era with your connections to Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire?

La Russa: "That's one of the crosses you have to bear, but let me tell you something about Dave McKay (the strength and conditioning guru of those Oakland and Cardinal teams). Dave McKay has as much or more integrity as any man I've ever met. He's so pure in his integrity, and that's why I fight so hard to defend what we've done. There's no chance that what happened officially at Oakland was tainted. Does it mean that we were policemen or that when our guys are not in our facilities, are not in our weight rooms that guys didn't experiment? No, you can't make that claim.
Kudos to Burwell for the follow-up question, which is basically a re-phrasing of the previous one.

And as for, "There's no chance that what happened officially at Oakland was tainted."? Really, Tony? Because one of your own players wrote a book about how essentially his entire career was owed to his use of anabolic steroids and human growth hormone, and that he taught McGwire to use it too. That means that his "official" AL Rookie of the Year Award in 1986 and his MVP in 1988 were in fact "tainted" along with (probably) McGwire's 1987 RoY award, plus your three AL pennants and the 1989 World Series win over the Giants. We're not talking about third-party allegations, here. Canseco has confessed. He's proud of it! I mean, sure, he could be lying, but why? And in any case, I think that at least qualifies as a "chance", don't you?

If, for your own emotional well-being, you need to plead ignorance of those events, that's one thing, but you can't pretend they didn't happen. Canseco, unlike Clemens, has admitted his usage.

Burwell: Would you have cared if you did know they were "experimenting"?

La Russa: "Yeah, I would care because when I saw a guy who got stronger quickly without working hard, oh yeah, that implies a lot of other things about what he's willing to do."

What other things? Isn't cheating with banned substances enough? What else does he have to do? Doctor baseballs? Steal signs? The Hidden Ball Trick?

More from Burwell. LaRussa's assertion that both McGwire and Roger Clemens' success was due solely to their fanatical work ethics:

"There's a certain amount of credit that should be given to a guy who's worked hours and hours to get stronger and bigger," he [LaRussa] said.

I [Burwell] reminded him that the whole point of using many performance-enhancing drugs is to increase the ability to work and train harder. "So working hard doesn't give you an alibi that you didn't use drugs," I told him.

"Well, that's what you believe and you're probably right according to testimony, but that's not what I believe," La Russa said. "I watched Mark McGwire work."
Welcome to the Post-Modern world, boys and girls! A wonderful place where you can believe anything you want, as long as, well, you believe it a lot. You can ignore any evidence that disagrees with your own worldview simply by saying that it is someone else's worldview, and therefore does not apply to you. There is no absolute truth excepting the truth that there is no absolute truth. It's great! Unless you don't think so. In which case it's not. But only for you, get it?

Pat Jordan wrote about some interactions he had with Clemens in 2001, while he was profiling him for an article in the New York Times, and suggests that Clemens' maniacal workout routine was perhaps because of the PEDs he was taking (though Jordan never actually says this outright). Jordan cites himself and Tom Seaver as world-class athletes who, at a similar age, could not do a fraction of what Clemens did in his training regimen. That's just anecdotal evidence, of course, but it's still evidence. LaRussa, in support of his own opinion, cites no evidence at all.

Speaking of Evidence, here's some:
Now (or about a year ago):

The first picture is, presumably, from the height of the Steroids Era, i.e. the late 1990's. The second picture was taken about a year ago (I think), at Cal State-Fullerton, and is the best example of a recent picture I can find of McGwire. McGwire doesn't look all that much bigger than the guys he's with, who's just a kid from the college newspaper, not a fellow athlete. Big Mac is still big, and he appears to be in great shape, but he could lose 40 lbs of muscle from his peak playing weight and you might still not necessarily notice it if he had a suit on instead of the double-knit, skin-tight baseball uniform. In any case, I think his face looks a little thinner.

Interestingly, with the exception of that appearance, last January, which he probably scheduled before he knew about the Hall of fame vote, and the one before Congress last year, we've hardly seen anything of McGwire since he retired after the 2001 season. I think he's been keeping a low profile in order that people would not use his appearance, whether its changed much or not, to support their arguments for and against his use of PEDs. That's just a theory, of course, but it's a sound one.
Getting back to Burwell, his piece ends with a he-said, he-said about whether or not McGwire's physical appearance has changed appreciably since he stopped playing, which is hilarious. I would read the article just for that. But it basically ends with the two agreeing to disagree about the steroid stuff, and "talk baseball" as Clemens said we should yesterday.
But this conversation is not over.

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