McCain Swings and Misses
Baseball doesn't need the government to fix the steroid mess.


Andrew C. McCarthy

A few days before Christmas, I obtained copies of some exhibits from the 2001 embassy-bombing trial in New York for a government friend in Washington who needed them in connection with some terrorism-financing research. One might have thought that one arm of the government would already have in hand from another arm such important, public record information. But then one wouldn’t know the government. Having worked many years for it, I didn’t ask; I just got the exhibits. There was, however, the small matter of getting them from New York to Washington. That, I figured, was why God made the United States Postal Service–although perhaps I blaspheme to lay such a thing at the Creator’s doorstep.

I duly went to the Post Office and paid $34.70 for express-mail service, the Post Office’s top-shelf product, and was thus guaranteed delivery by noon the next day. But the documents didn’t get there the next day, the next week, or even the next month.

The express-mail label had included the correct Washington address and zip code, as well as a Washington telephone number just in case there were problems. To be extra specific, I’d also written in the address box the name of the person to whose attention the package was to be referred. That person has a first name that sounds a little like, but not all that much like, a country in Europe. So naturally, the Post Office sent the package to Europe. And, to prove that lightning does strike twice, when, after a week or two, the lost package was finally traced and returned to the U.S., a postal clerk who hadn’t been clued in on the gaffe promptly sent it back to Europe, necessitating yet another retrieval. Finally, on Valentine’s Day, my package was tracked down and delivered to its proper destination–having successfully completed the two-month, 16,000 mile journey from New York to the District of Columbia.

I couldn’t help but think about this story on Tuesday morning while listening to Senator John McCain, the studiously maverick Arizona Republican, explain why he thinks major-league baseball requires federal government oversight to solve the current steroid scandal. This disquisition was featured on the national morning radio broadcast of Don Imus–on whom I’ve been hooked for a quarter century, but who is so far in McCain’s tank as to inspire dysentery.

McCain, whose most recent big-government coup is the repeal of the First Amendment under the guise of campaign-finance reform, told his fawning host that government action was called for because baseball is, after all, “the national pastime”–which I presume means we can soon look forward to government oversight of Oprah and pizza pies. Pulling out another all-purpose regulatory club, McCain also insisted that because Congress had magnanimously granted baseball an anti-trust exemption, it was poor form for baseball to complain about intervention. In McCain-world, government may manage a business as long as it comes under the antitrust laws…or it doesn’t.

Finally, to those who’ve had the temerity to suggest that steroids couldn’t be that big a deal because fans are still flocking to the stadiums, McCain piously intoned that fans had flocked to the stadiums when baseball was segregated, too. “That,” Imus cooed, “is a great point.”

It’s an idiotic point. It is, as a matter of fact, untrue: baseball attendance is far greater today than it ever was before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in the 1940s. But more to the point, as a matter of sheer logic, it eviscerates McCain’s whole position. Baseball did not clean up its discriminatory house because the government told it to. It reformed itself because it was impelled to do so by the dynamic forces of American culture and the market. By and large, moreover, it reformed before government did at the federal, state, and local levels.

As a result, unlike quota-driven, government-managed endeavors, baseball in 2004 doesn’t need Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to give it a 25-year exemption from the Equal Protection Clause. In baseball, black, white, Latin, Japanese and players of sundry other ethnicities compete on the level playing field of merit. The game’s greatest stars–Bonds, Sosa, Ichero, and Martinez, among others–aren’t burdened by self-doubt about whether they made the roster only because of some affirmative-action program. Like their fellow big-leaguers, they are there because they are better than everyone else, and they will be gone the minute they no longer are. In baseball, unlike government, if the Yankees fall short, their bean counters don’t go out and get sensitivity training. They go out and get A-Rod. They go out and get better, and no one frets about whether it throws the gorgeous mosaic into disarray.

Baseball may well have a big problem with steroids. If it does, though, America can fix it without the federal government’s “help” thank you very much. Right now, the steroid-testing policy in place is largely a fraud because the powerful players’ union won’t allow one that has integrity and teeth. If, however, the fans decide this taints the game to the point where it is no longer a real competition, they will vote with their feet. They will stop going and stop watching, after which revenues will decline, salaries will plummet, and the players union will cave–maybe even in time to save the goose that, for now, continues to lay the golden eggs.

If it doesn’t happen that way, baseball will simply go on. Fewer people will watch, and it will more resemble cartoonish pro wrestling until it finally gets the hint. In the interim, baseball’s new records (like Bonds’s pursuit of Ruth and Aaron’s immortal homerun marks) will be less meaningful because they will be forever suspect. Far from being the end of the world, however, that will not be much different from the way things already are today, when–as Ken Burns’s multipart PBS series ceaselessly reminded us–Ruth’s own storied accomplishments, though still awesome, are deemed inflated because of the rigged system that relieved him from facing the great Negro League pitchers of his era.

In either event, government assistance and politico-grandstanding are not welcome to those of us who love the Great Game, and whose only real dread is what congressional oversight might turn it into. Unless Senator McCain can write a law that gives the Mets a decent right fielder and a lights-out closer, I wish he’d just get the government to deliver my mail.

Andrew C. McCarthy is a former federal prosecutor in New York.