Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Rain on the Parade

As the author of comprehensive histories on BOTH the Red Sox and the Cubs, I think I have some perspective here. Chicago fans, pay heed, because in Theo Epstein you have no idea what you are getting. Consider this:

“For the past 19 years or so I’ve had suspicions, some stronger than others, but to sit here today and say I played on even one team that was totally clean would be denying reality… I played pretty much my entire career in the Steroid Era.” Curt Schilling, May 8, 2009

Those words were pretty damning. Although Schilling went on to stridently proclaim his personal innocence, denying he ever used any PED in any form, and called the notion that Boston’s two most recent world championships were tainted “a load of crap,” his admission provides evidence to those who feel otherwise.

Personally I find virtually every championship from about 1989 over the next two decades, if not tainted, then certainly tarnished. And even Schilling, although he is loathe to admit it outright, has since agreed, telling The Sporting News on July 7, 2011 that “There isn’t a team in the last 20 years that has won clean.” And not winning clean means winning dirty. No matter how one personally feels about the subject, given statements such as these it is impossible not to recognize that the Steroid Era did leave a taint, one that may not diminish the accomplishment of any one team but certainly does leave a mark upon certain individuals.

Make that every individual. No one in the era, either in the clubhouse or the front office, comes away untarnished, and that includes every manager and – are you listening Chicago? – every general manager whose team benefited from the performance of players on PEDs. Even the virgins in the whorehouse, the “see no evils” who looked the other way, benefited – quite a few of those home runs won some pretty big ballgames. But virtually everyone involved he kept his suspicions to himself while accepting the glory – and the championship rings, and the adulation, and, significantly, the checks – that might not have been acquired totally on the square. While Schilling, like most players, states in effect that so many guys were using it all evens up and even though he had suspicions he never actually saw anyone take anything, and gosh darn it, you just can’t accuse someone because of some darn suspicion.

True enough. But he and everyone else might as well be wearing one of those “Stop Snitching” t-shirts that were all the rage in gangland a few years ago. Because personal consequences be damned, a person of conviction might have stood up and taken a stand, either publicly or privately and proclaimed long and loudly that the game was dirty and something should be done. Such a whistle blower, either on the field or in the front office, may have become a pariah among his peers, but he could have looked himself in the mirror without doing a moral back flip. But they all stayed silent, took the money, looked the other way and became adept at the same kind of self delusion that allows corruption to flourish in any institution.

At its core, that’s what the Steroid Era represents – corruption. Everyone agreed to go along to get along because the turnstiles were spinning and the contracts were getting bigger and more lucrative every year and fans were so swept up in the spectacle that no price was too high to pay for the privilege of watching. And everyone who knew better and stayed silent are no better than the residents of any community that look the other way as criminal syndicates or gangs act with impunity. Only no one was going to kill a ballplayer for speaking out – they just wouldn’t get asked to dinner, and would have to live off their substantial savings. The corruption of the Steroid Era floated all financial boats. Only a sucker would have turned down that, right?
In that sense uber GM like Billy Beane and even Hall of Fame managers like Tony LaRussa, Joe Torre are also tarnished. After all, who is Billy Beane minus Giambi and Tejada, or Joe Torre without Pettitte and Clemens, or Tony LaRussa without Canseco and McGwire?

Theo Epstein and Terry Francona without Manny and Ortiz, that’s who. They are simply two more names whose personal success is so inexorably bound up with the Steroid Era that, like Schilling and Manny and Ortiz, it is impossible to measure their accomplishments with any certainty. Just ask yourself, would any of these men have won a ring in an era without steroids? That is what, in the end, taints everything and everyone. We will never, ever, ever know.
And neither will they. As much as the Red Sox recent collapse, I think that explains why both Francona and Epstein “chose” to leave the Red Sox at the same time. Each benefitted mightily from the era, both financially and in terms of their personal legacies. And each reaped the harvest of credit for two “world championships.” Unfortunately, the veracity of those two world championships will never, ever be known.

Deep in their hearts, each man knows that themselves, even if the sycophants that surround both figures won’t dare utter those words. Terry Francona may believe he is one of the more capable managers of his time, but he doesn’t really know because his record as Boston manager provides far too murky a gauge, while his record at Philadelphia is pedestrian. And Theo Epstein has no idea if he is any good either. Truth to be told, neither do the Cubs, who are buying a resume they already must know to be false. Neither Francona nor Epstein can look at the record of either the 2004 or 2007 Red Sox without certain uncomfortable questions creeping in. Both succeeded during an era when spectacular performances were often delivered by a syringe.

That is why both men, if either is to create a true legacy that stands up to the scrutiny not just of others, but of themselves, needed to leave Boston and take on a challenge elsewhere. Only this time each will have to do it on the square. And this time, win or lose, at least each will be able to look at the image staring back in the mirror without blinking and glancing away, ashamed.

For Theo Epstein, the greatest challenge is not whether he delivers a world championship to Chicago, but whether this time he can look in the mirror and know his success is deserved and authentic, and that his resume is not inflated by the contents of a syringe.

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