Jewish World Review Dec. 10, 2004 / 27 Kislev, 5765

Steve and Cokie Roberts

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Consumer Reports

The national pastime isn't cheating | Every business school teaches the case of Tylenol. In 1982, cyanide-laced capsules of the pain medication killed seven people in the Chicago area. The manufacturers immediately pulled their product from the market, issued nationwide warnings and offered to exchange any capsules for tamper-proof tablets. The campaign cost the company millions, but it's reputation for reliability was actually enhanced by the episode.

Organized baseball must rid the game of performance-enhancing drugs for the same reason: to regain the trust of the consumers, or in this case, the fans. That includes Steve, who started rooting for the New York Yankees as a 6-year-old back in 1949.

This won't be easy. For years now, the players union has adamantly resisted tough testing rules that could detect steroids, the sluggers' drug of choice. But that shortsighted, self-defeating position has got to change, or the whole credibility of the game will be jeopardized.

Fortunately, some enlightened players are finally realizing that it's time to change course. And this week, the players union authorized their executives to negotiate a new testing policy.

David Eckstein, the shortstop for the Anaheim Angels and his team's union representative, told the Los Angeles Times, "We need to do something for the fans. We need to get this out of the game. We don't want to have people wondering, 'Is he cheating?' I don't think America wants to see a bunch of cheaters."

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Eckstein is right on target. It's time for the players to start thinking about the fans, the folks who buy the tickets and the hot dogs and the caps that finance the multimillion-dollar salaries that are now commonplace in baseball. How long will those fans be willing to keep "a bunch of cheaters" in gold neck-chains and stretch limousines?

This issue is actually much larger than baseball. Every professional in America — from accountants and stockbrokers to doctors, pastors and journalists — is more accountable than ever before to the paying public. And they have learned, often after scandal and suffering, that the only way to maintain the trust of your clients, customers and congregations is through greater transparency.

Here's the formula for success: Concede mistakes. Correct flaws. Clean up, don't cover up.

We journalists have gone through such gut-wrenching trials. The New York Times, Steve's old paper, was devastated by evidence that a young reporter, Jayson Blair, had fabricated dozens of articles. The Times responded with a lengthy investigation that documented Blair's misdeeds, but even that wasn't enough, because it exonerated the paper's top editors from blame.

Eventually two executives were forced to resign and the Times created the post of public editor, an in-house critic whose job is to hold the paper accountable for its mistakes.

Baseball has not learned the lessons of Tylenol and the Times. It has been very slow to combat drug usage, what former commissioner Fay Vincent calls "the slimy little underbelly" of the national pastime.

In 2003, the major leagues introduced a toothless testing policy that Sen. John McCain describes as an "incredibly weak, disgraceful" joke. President Bush, who once owned the Texas Rangers, mentioned the issue in his State of the Union address last January, and McCain held hearings in the spring.

But their complaints had little effect until grand jury testimony, leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, documented the use of steroids by Yankee star Jason Giambi. Before that same jury, home-run king Barry Bonds admitted to using steroids but said he didn't know what they were — a claim of innocence that no one believes.

McCain is now threatening federal legislation, and insists that he has the president's support. And finally, the players may be starting to confront the truth. The steroid stories taint them all, even the ones who play by the rules. And they encourage younger players to believe that the only way to win is to cheat.

Ray King, a pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, put the issue in perspective when he told the Chronicle, "It's a little frustrating having my 11-year-old son asking me about steroids. I coach a (youth) team, and all the kids are asking me about that. ... It's a sign where we need to step it up."

Eckstein and King are right. Major league players have to "step it up" and accept a much tougher testing policy. The future of the game, and their own inflated salaries, depends on maintaining the trust of the fans.

No one wants to root for a bunch of cheaters.

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© 2004, NEA