With the amount of baseball news swirling about this week, RealClearSports sat down with Richard Justice, columnist for the Houston Chronicle. Justice, a Texas-Austin graduate, worked for the The Washington Post for 14 years and also spent time at The Dallas Morning News, as well as papers in Baltimore, Chicago, Austin and Fort Worth.
RealClearSports: Pitchers and catchers report this week. As the guy Tony Kornheiser once called the best baseball beat reporter in America, despite the news surrounding it, is there any more anticipated time of the year for you?
Justice: I do love this time of the year. At least I've loved it in the past.
This week's news has changed the focus a bit, has reminded me that steroids is going to be a mushroom cloud over the game for years to come. Steroids haven’t hurt the game in any financial sense, but it's a shame and an embarrassment. It's a shame because the union and owners were so slow to react. I don't believe there was a conspiracy to grow the game on steroids. People say you can connect the dots through various news stories. You can only do that looking back on it. I saw those Oakland teams hiring nutritionists, lifting weights, getting bigger and hitting more home runs. I didn't understand what else might be going on.
But it's not a gray area. If you used steroids, you're breaking the law, and a lot of guys thought they were above the law. I liked what A-Rod said about the culture of those times. He couldn't have been more right. So I love the optimism of the early days of spring training, but I'm distracted by all this other stuff. Selig thought the Mitchell Report would bring some closure to the steroids era. It's clear there's not going to be closure for a long, long time.
RCS: The discussion this week seem to have evolved into anger about the lack of transparency in baseball and a demand to know the other 103 players that tested positive for steroids in 2003. Given that Joe Torre's book - the big story the previous two weeks - received criticism because it supposedly broke the clubhouse trust, is there an inherent contradiction in what we demand from baseball? How can players and managers maintain trusting relationships within the locker room and at the same time be more transparent to fans and media?
Justice: There's never going to be enough transparency to please everyone. It's a constant tug of war. Baseball is far more transparent than the NFL, but there are things I don't know. Smart players give no insight into how things work without ever violating confidences. One thing that separates baseball and the NFL is that reporters have amazing access to players, managers, GMs, etc. It's very hard to keep secrets. As you get to know players, they're going to trust you to handle sensitive information. NFL players give you very little, in part, because their contracts aren't guaranteed and they can find their locker cleaned out by simply saying the wrong thing.
A great NBA coach named Dick Motta told me, ''I know what your job is. It's to explain what happens on the court and to take people inside the locker room.'' Dick summed my job up better than any journalism teacher or sports editor ever could. In the 2002 baseball labor negotiations, one of the few things the players and owners agreed on is they wanted the media out of the clubhouse. Bud Selig wouldn't hear of it. When Bud Selig is gone, reporters are going to find their access dramatically limited. So while some secrets slip out now, the day is coming when MLB and the NFL will have the same disdain for the media.
RCS: Beyond the governing powers of baseball, there are also the governing powers of the country. In his most recent column, Jay Mariotti wrote, "I realize this country has more issues than any five commanders-in-chief could handle. We ache for Obama to fix the economy, end warfare, make people happy. But sometimes, the presidency also involves voicing harsh, aggressive statements about secondary problems." Most baseball analysts seem to agree that the Congressional hearings scared a lot of players straight. Do you think there would be any added benefit if President Obama involved himself in the situation?
Justice: I'm OK with the president using his bully pulpit on this matter. At the beginning of this thing, I didn't think Congress should be involved because, frankly, we were at war and issues regarding the environment, energy, etc., seemed much more important.
I was wrong. Congress helped. I don't think MLB’s players and owners would have toughened the program if Selig and Fehr and McGwire, etc., hadn't been called to Capital Hill and had their hands slapped. They'd shown in the past they move glacially on this issue.
I'm disappointed that not one piece of legislation was ever passed. Ask your local cop how much time he spends on steroids. The answer will be none because the laws are so toothless. Steroid use among high school boys and girls is a real problem and should be dealt with. But the hearings also allowed Don Hooton to tell the story of his son Taylor, whose suicide may be tied to steroid use. He believes having a platform to tell his story raised awareness on the issue.
As far as Congress scaring players straight, I'm not so sure. Throughout this thing, the players acted so arrogantly. They seem to think the laws of the land don't apply to them. But it can't hurt.
Having the president speak out certainly would help, too, if only to shine a spotlight on how slowly the players and owners reacted to this problem.
RCS: Of course, there is also the legacy angle to this discussion. In a recent Sporting News article, you wrote, "When you hold that [Hall of Fame] ballot in your hand, you're not voting on whether Ty Cobb was a good guy or whether Enos Slaughter was a racist or whether Gaylord Perry threw a spitball. You're there to decide if you want a Barry Bonds to be honored the same way Carlton Fisk and Joe Morgan have been honored. Call me naive, but I don't want Bonds standing up there with Aaron. I don't want Alex Rodriguez up there, either."
Since so much of the steroid debate centers around players weighing a moral dilemma versus a financial one, is it fair to reflect on how Hall of Famers from different eras would have acted in a steroid-saturated environment? For example, with what we know about them, is reasonable to consider if Cobb, Slaughter or Perry would have taken steroids?
Justice: When I hold the Hall of Fame ballot in my mind, Ty Cobb's name isn't on it. I can only vote on the names on that ballot. I can't take guys out and only have one vote to put guys in. Frank Robinson and Henry Aaron and Jackie Robinson and Bob Gibson represent what the Hall of Fame is supposed to be about. I don't want Barry Bonds standing up there with Aaron and Gibson on induction Sunday. He just doesn't deserve it.
I think most players would have been tempted to take steroids. I think it was Jim Bouton who said something about giving up 10 years of his life for winning more games, something along those lines. These guys are so competitive that if someone offered them a magic bullet to be even greater, they surely would have been tempted. But that's just guessing. We don't know that.
There were all kinds of ethical issues in the '50s and '60s. What makes steroids different is they're a real health risk. They sent a terrible message to high school kids and bottom-of-the-roster guys. If Barry and Roger are doing them, you'd better do them yourself. I'm not voting to put those guys in the Hall of Fame.
RCS: Baseball is not without problems beyond steroids. It seems like a long time since that infamous November rain delay, which at the time spurred debate about how to reform the season schedule. And it’s interesting that you defended Selig in a certain context earlier in this interview, because well before the World Series you wrote a column about how ridiculously unfair his decision was to schedule a critical Astros-Cubs make-up game in Milwaukee.
Should baseball shorten its season so that it has more flexibility in scheduling makeup games and so the season doesn't potentially end on Thanksgiving?
Justice: When Fred Akers was the football coach at the University of Texas, he once told me, “Basically if TV told us to kick off at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday, we'll kick off at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday.” That was true then and it's true now. Baseball plays when TV tells them to play. In a perfect world, MLB would show some backbone. There'd be some day games in the World Series, and if the conditions were unpleasant, they'd postpone.
Games 3 and 4 of the World Series were a joke. One game started at a ridiculous hour and the other shouldn't have been started at all. Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe has suggested putting the games on an all-sports station and catering to the fans that really care. I'm not sure the season should be shortened, but I do think MLB (read Selig) should dictate some of the terms to the TV partners. We keep hearing how good the game is doing financially, so exert some influence and give the games back to the fans. That's about as likely to happen as me winning Dancing with the Stars.
RCS: Let’s go back to Hall of Fame controversies – this time outside of the steroid era. We're sure you've heard or read the arguments for Burt Blyleven's Hall of Fame candidacy hundreds of times. (More shutouts than Bob Gibson; more strikeouts than Tom Seaver; more complete games with four hits or less than Jim Palmer.) As a player who has been on the bubble for 11 years, is it possible he's not in because he has a tragically unmarketable name?
Justice: I would guess not playing in New York has hurt him. On the other hand, he's a very tough call. He made only two all-star teams and never won a Cy Young. On the other hand, he was top five in ERA seven times, top five in wins twice, and top five in ERA seven times.
RCS: Outside of baseball, there have been a lot of interesting sports discussions in Houston recently. Monday night, Tracy McGrady missed a dunk so badly that many NBA analysts think he might be done. Do you think McGrady will ever get back to form or will his career continue to rapidly decline?
Justice: I'm hoping Tracy's left knee is still hurting. He went for an MRI today. If his knee is in bad shape, that at least would explain how poorly he has played and how unhappy he has seemed. He and Ron Artest have terrible chemistry on the floor and have been taking shots at each other in the media. I can't believe Tracy has declined so rapidly. I guess he needs to take an entire offseason and get his knee back in shape. The problem with that is he apparently has never been the hardest worker.
RCS: The Texans recently got busted for running illegal contact drills, but it didn't make much news. It was also recently reported that Dana Stubblefield is helping authorities investigate steroids in the NFL, but that didn't make much news either. In the context of the baseball steroid situation, you wrote, "That's the thing about cheating. When you're caught cheating one time, you're a cheat for all time." How is it possible that the NFL remains the Teflon league when it comes to these things?
Justice: Commissioner Selig rails about baseball being held to a different standard. I tell him he should be flattered. I think baseball's numbers are sacred to fans--61, 714, 755, 56. Football has nothing comparable. What steroids did was ruin the record book--and those numbers.
Football is less personal. Players wear helmets. You don't really know them. I think many baseball fans feel like they know Ryan Howard and Joe Torre and Manny. Also, the NFL is a dirty business. We've had so many stories of disabling injuries and numbing injuries that people are almost immune to it. The NFL is sold on bigger, faster, stronger, hard hits, big collisions. When you hear enough about players being rushed back onto the field so they can be cut, it no longer has an impact.
RCS: You've spent your entire career in print journalism, but have been remarkably adaptive to new media. In a radio interview, Kornheiser relayed a discussion he had with you. "Richard Justice told me about Facebook six or seven years ago. Justice is way into all the technological advances. I'm not sure what is going to succeed Twitter, but he's already doing it. He told me how you can do this and you can do that, and it changes your life. And then he also told me he spends about five hours a day doing it."
Why do you think social networking and other sites are important to your career?
Justice: My industry is in transition. There's still a hunger for good journalism, but we have yet to figure out how to monetize it in the digital age. So what do we do? Right now, we're running down a dark hallway as fast as we can go. We have no idea what's at the end of the hallway because we have to keep trying to figure it out. The Internet age is incredibly energizing.
Two baseball seasons ago, an official with an NL team held up his BlackBerry and showed me a message from MLB: “Morgan Ensberg DFA.” It was a Sunday afternoon, and the Astros had just designated their third baseman for assignment. I got out my BlackBerry and began to type. Within 10 minutes of me receiving that message, we had a story on our web site about Ensberg being shown the door. And, I might add, thousands of people got that story for free. If we don't figure out how to get people to pay for what we do, we're all going to be out of work.
In the mean time, we have to embrace every aspect of this new age: blogging, video, audio, radio, TV. I believe in my heart of hearts that people that go to games and hang around in clubhouses and hear things and build relationships and have information will always have a job. I hope. Gulp.
RCS: Alright, last question. While Saturday is great because most pitchers and catchers report, it’s also, unfortunately, Valentine's Day. Is the beginning of spring training a legitimate excuse for a guy to skip out on his wife or girlfriend?
Justice: On Saturday, it'll be 110 days and counting since the last baseball game. A man has to do what a man has to do.