When Nuance Dies: Sammy Sosa and Phony Outrage
By Dave Zirin
ESPN’s Howard Bryant is without question one of my favorite sports writers. His book Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power, and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball is one of the finest pieces of journalism I’ve ever encountered. That’s why his frothing take on revelations that retired Major League baseball slugger Sammy Sosa tested positive for performance enhancing drugs in 2003 was both shocking and depressing. Call it “shock-pressing.”
In a piece titled, “Sosa news calls for special outrage,” Bryant writes, “This news should be greeted with the kind of outrage reserved for the worst breaches of trust because you, Mr. and Mrs. Fan, have been taken for a very special kind of ride.”
In a world of economic implosion and war, one might not ascribe “outrage” to the six-year-old drug test of a retired player, but Bryant has no patience for those of us who greeted the Sosa “revelations” with a yawn.
He goes on to mock those who would describe the steroid hysteria as a “witch hunt.” This despite the fact that people like Bonds and Roger Clemens are facing prison terms and track star Marion Jones did hard time, all of which certainly has at least the fragrance of a good old fashioned Salem bonfire.
Bryant also sneers at those who would ascribe steroid use to players "caught up in a culture." This despite the fact that Bryant wrote a 500-page book painstakingly outlining how that culture came into existence.
While he takes a passing shot at the “lazy” writers who let it happen, Bryant reserves perhaps his toughest condemnation for his good friends, “Mr. and Mrs. Fan.” “The fan has been the greatest enabler of the steroids era. Face it: Had the paying customer revolted, the institutional reaction would have been decidedly different.” There you have it sports fans. According to Bryant, you were both taken for a ride and you let it happen. I bet you didn’t know you had that much power.
For the man who wrote the profoundly nuanced Juicing the Game, this is painful analysis. It’s like seeing a great surgeon dispense with the scalpel and go right for the saw. It’s like seeing a ballerina go at it with clogs. It’s like seeing Michael Jordan swing a bat.
The greatest flaw in the piece is not what Bryant writes but what he consciously neglects exploring. Zero accountability is placed on the front office, ownership or management. Who was the General Manager of the Cubs when Sosa was hitting moon shots in Wrigley? Who were his managers? What did they know and when did they know it? Reading Bryant’s screed against spoiled stars, you would think Sosa had his own pharmacy.
Then there is the absent of any kind of context for why players made the decisions to put pharmaceuticals into their bodies. There is no look at the home of Sammy Sosa, the Dominican Republic, where most play without shoes, using cut-out milk cartons for gloves, rolled-up cloth for balls, and sticks and branches for bats. They dream of making it to the baseball academies, places where many Dominican kids first encounter three meals a day or an indoor toilet.
The Dominican Republic is attractive to Major League execs for more reasons than its sunny beaches and never ending supply of prospects. Steroids in the DR are legal. Top prospects can find ways to supplement their skill with a no-risk supply. But those not in the top-tier often take cheaper animal steroids. Minor leaguer Lino Ortiz took this route, went into shock and died.
The entire setup involves billionaires – or their emissaries - telling people from desperately poor backgrounds what to do or have fun in the cane fields. Sure they’re free not to juice. They are also free to go back to the ghetto or back to the island.
Sammy Sosa, before he was even a teenager, stitched soles in a shoe factory for, as he remembered “pennies, just enough to survive.” His choices, as he said, were the cane fields, the army or baseball.
I learned that fact from reading the book Juicing the Game. I learned it from reading Howard Bryant. Whoever wrote this piece, should do the same.
Dave Zirin is the author of “A People’s History of Sports in the United States” (The New Press) Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.