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The Unnatural?
2007-09-07 11:52
by Mike Carminati

Rick Ankiel was developing into on of the nicest stories. Ankiel's return as a slugging right fielder after his demise as a pitcher rivaled Roy Hobbs for drama. He capped a brilliant month with a 3-for-4 with 2 home runs, 4 runs, and 7 RBI in a16-4 Cardinals win yesterday.

He now has ungodly numbers through 23 games: 9 HR, 29 RBI, .358 BA, .409 OBP, .765 SLUG, and a 1.174 OPS. That translates into 63 RBI and 204 RBI in a 162-game season. No man has hit as many home runs in fewer games than Ankiel:

Rich Ankiel200728239
Richie Sexson20042923990.233.337.578.914
Mark McGwire19932927984.333.467.7261.193
Shane Spencer199826271067.373.411.9101.321
Mike Jacobs2005243011100.310.375.7101.085
Todd Greene199726349124.290.328.556.885
Frank Thomas2005373412105.219.315.590.905
Jeff Heath194934369111.306.389.6131.002
Dean Palmer199526369119.336.448.6131.062
Ted Williams195334371391.407.509.9011.410

Great story, right?

Not so fast. Before you can say, World's Greatest Fans™ Ankiel is embroiled in a performance-enhancing drug scandal. Maybe he is trying to emulate Hobbs and end his season as ignominiously as the fictional player did (in the book, at least). The New York Daily News reports that Ankiel received a year's supply of HGH, along with a year's supply of Rice-A-Roni, in 2004 from a pharmacy "that was part of a national illegal prescription drug-distribution operation".

Baseball gets a good story and it instantly transforms into another black eye.

It seems that of all the scandals that have occurred in other sports, only the morass that surrounds Michael Vick outstrips baseball's dirty little secret steroids (or to be more exact, performance-enhancing drugs).

I am the last person to chicken-little over steroids—I prefer to blame rapid expansion and bandbox ballparks for the current slugging glut—but this sport cannot sustain so much poor PR. The game is no longer the revered national pastime it once was. Baseball is more like a Jay Leno punchline among the sports world, the Britney Spears of sport.

Football just sustained a very large scandal, i.e., Michael Vick, and yet the hype for the new season is as big as ever. ESPN may as well be remained the Football Channel given their obsequious devotion to the gridiron.

Basketball had a referee involved in a gambling scandal. The outcry has been minimal.

Hockey just went through scandal in which an active assistant coach and the wife of its biggest star were allegedly running a gambling ring. They were acquitted, but no one batted an eye when the stories being published seem to point to their guilt. Then again, no one seems to notice hockey one way or the other.

Is it fair? No. Do I think that performance enhancers are more prevalent in baseball than other sports, especially football? Not really. But that doesn't really matter. Baseball has a bad image and every one of these stories tarnishes it even further.

I was against the players union given into any further intrusions into its members' lives, but the union has to realize that what's is devastating to the game is devastating to the union as well. This one is particularly aggravating given that it negates the game's feel-good summer story.

Baseball is left with a collection of aging stars that are known for various peccadilloes: Bonds for steroids, Sosa for corking his bat and the hint of steroids, A-Rod for making too much money and for supposedly choking, etc. Young stars seem unable to make a cultural impact because of the prevalent sentiments regarding the sport. Really since the 1994 strike, fans have had a rather adversarial approach to baseball. The only description for their derisive approach to the game and their reveling in the minutest of its scandals is schadenfreude.

Baseball looks great financially, attendance is higher than ever, just about every team will have a relatively new, state-of-the-art stadium within a few years, and yet it is at a crossroads. The lords of the game have run it like a idiosyncratic gentlemen's club instead of a multi-billion dollar, international entertainment business. They seem to think that if they wait out any scandal they will just go away.

Steroids is not going away. But the fans may be, as younger fans turn to other activities and the older ones age and expire.

2007-09-07 12:06:16
1.   underdog
I think this is a good report on this story, thanks. Also important to remember that this is a) a story broke by the NY Daily News, not one of the nation's most reliable newspapers imho; that b) Ankiel should be innocent until proven guilty; and c) even if "guilty" if all this happened before the league's official ban of HGH that should be a consideration too. Which isn't meant to defend someone if he knowingly took steroids to enhance his hitting power -- that's never the right thing in my opinion. If he did something wrong he should be punished. Just hoping people out there will wait some time before making assumptions. And I say this as a Dodgers fan who should care less about Rich Ankiel! ;-)
2007-09-07 12:15:12
2.   dianagramr
Well, Ankiel showed good power in the Minors prior to 2004 ...

And now SI reports Troy Glaus received some "shipments" too.

2007-09-07 12:21:55
3.   Chyll Will
What's really interesting in the criticism of baseball in the US is that baseball, among all of the pro sports, has had the longest history as an institution; MLB has existed and was organized/institutionalized much longer the NFL, NBA and even the NHL. So in many ways, baseball has had a longer time to display it's flaws and virtues, and has always led the way in terms of labor developments. That it has lost that leadership position among all professional sports is in due part to it's loss of leadership in each component of it's setup; as though the CEO is also the man making decisions on the assembly line as well as on the the national and global level. Streamlining the objectives of MLB management has led to serious course correction; the objectives on a macro level are compromised by having to manage on the micro. Following football in it's league structure was done simply to entice fans, with little regard to how this would impact the players or the quality of the game itself. By consolidating the oversight of league presidents, it has allowed many issues on a field level to fall through the cracks (bad umpiring becoming key), and many fans have little or no confidence in baseball addressing issues that could eventually become bigger than the game (steroids).

If you want to blame anyone for this, look no further than the owners for focusing on profitability while ignoring key measures to maintain and strengthen the quality of the game and fans' (and media) interest from the beginning of shifting labor dynamics. It's decisions like that that give capitalism such a bad name.

2007-09-07 12:23:03
4.   Chyll Will
1 Second!

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