WITCH TRIALS, MCCARTHYISM, AND BASEBALL

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

What has transpired in the United States surrounding Major League Baseball and accused "juicers" is nothing new. The witch hunts and McCarthyistic baseball blacklists published in paperback are a long-held American tradition.

The God-fearing Puritans fled England due to the religious persecution by the Anglican church, promptly settled the northeastern United States in 1620, and began a tradition that has become as American as apple pie: finger-pointing.

The Salem Witch Trials began in 1692 when several members of the Salem community started exhibiting strange behavior, such as screaming and spastic contortions of the body. No doctor could find a physical cause for these symptoms, so they were presumed to be witches. They were then put before one of the first kangaroo courts in American history, and sentenced to jail and subsequently executed, either by hanging, drowning, or burning. By the time the Trials were over, nearly 200 people had been imprisoned, and 20 people had been executed.

McCarthyism is a term that is relatively new and has even been used to describe the negative stigma attached to supposed users of steroids. Following the end World War II in the late 1940's, the Cold War, mainly between the United States and the Soviet Union, the fear of Communism had begun to spread throughout the country. Joseph McCarthy, then the Senator of Wisconsin, led a vigorous campaign against Communism and Communist sympathizers, sparking anti-Communism sentiment that very closely resembles the anti-terrorism feeling in the country today.

The House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA) blacklisted (denied privilege) hundreds of directors, actors, and writers in Hollywood on the very suspicion that they were tied to Communism. For example, Dalton Trumbo spent 11 months in prison and was not allowed to work in Hollywood for more than 12 years because he refused to give information regarding his alleged involvement with Communism to HUAC. Like the Salem Witch Trials, the HCUA can be defined essentially as a kangaroo court.

That brings us to today's blacklisting of alleged steroid users in Major League Baseball. The allegations have come about through books (such as one written by Jose Canseco), through leaked grand jury testimony, and through the finger pointing of the fans.

In Canseco's book, Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits & How Baseball Got Big, he claims to have helped introduce Mark McGwire, Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro, Ivan Rodriguez, Dave Martinez, Tony Saunders, and Wilson Alvarez to steroids. He presumes, based on changes in their bodies, steroid usage by Jason Giambi, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Bret Boone, and speculates that Brady Anderson, Roger Clemens and Miguel Tejada also have used steroids.

Of those Canseco names, the fan accusations have indicted McGwire, Palmeiro, Giambi, Bonds, and Sosa, and to a much lesser extent, Boone and Clemens. The accusations by the fans are not unwarranted, but they are not based on much other than ancillary connections.

As they say, however, "innocent until proven guilty" does not apply to the court of public opinion. It is a sad, but true statement. The public can make their judgments based on as much or as little information they want. It is unacceptable that we would expect top-level intellectual honesty in the court of law, but lower our standards so greatly in the court of public opinion.

Regardless, the kangaroo court of public opinion wrongfully kept Mark McGwire out of the Hall of Fame yesterday based on mere allegations of his guilt. 300 years ago, McGwire would have been burned at the stake. We have advanced in our civility insomuch that he is still alive, but the American mindset has remained the same.

Like the accused witches, the accused steroid users have exhibited strange behavior: their statistics have improved in a way not normally seen among athletes, such as Bonds' jump from averaging 37 HR from 1995-99 to averaging 51 Hr from 2000-04. Perhaps their bodies have gotten noticeably bigger in a shorter amount of time (see: Bonds circa 1993 versus Bonds circa 2003).

However, these behaviors are not proof alone of steroid usage. Between 2001 and 2004, Baltimore Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts had 12 career homeruns, an average of 3 per year. In 2005, Roberts obliterated his career-high of 5 homeruns by hitting 18. Because of his size, this sudden increase in power did not set off alarms in the fans' minds, but it very well could have based on the way they have condemned Bonds, as well as Roberts' former teammate, Brady Anderson (who jumped from 16 HR in 1995 to 50 in '96). It has since come out that Roberts has been using a revolutionary form of contact lenses known as MaxSight.

Might the success of Bonds, McGwire and other accused steroid users be accredited to other legal practices? Perhaps, and the baseball fan base never seems to think about it, because we Americans love to point fingers, because it is never our fault. It wasn't we who lovingly embraced McGwire and Sosa as they swatted homerun after homerun in 1998; we were condemning them, even then. It wasn't Major League Baseball's reluctance to test for performance-enhancing drugs until 2003. It was them all along, those dirty, filthy, Communist witches.

You can't teach an old dog new tricks. That is ultimately true of American culture: God-fearing, factless finger-pointing then, God-fearing, factless finger pointing now. Once the steroid issue is done with, Americans will find a new scapegoat firmly held in the crosshair of the collective index finger. Forget that Hank Aaron and Willie Mays may very well have cheated just as McGwire and Bonds may very well have cheated. Forget that Gaylord Perry did cheat and is in the Hall of Fame. Just let the American public deign morality where it sees fit and the rest shall fall in place.