Fairness and Steroids: What the Mitchell Report Tells America About Itself

As we prepare for a new America on Inauguration Day 2009 we must remember to keep the steroid scandal as a metaphor of what we don't want to be.
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My grandfather, John Zandell, served in World War II but unlike so many other veterans, the only combat time he saw was fighting bears and the bitter Alaska winters. His was stationed in Dawson Creek where he helped build the Alcan Highway, a land link between our 49th state and the lower 48 in case of a Japanese attack.

While his service was an infinitely safer posting than one abroad, he still sustained a life changing injury: a ruined pitching arm. Grandpa was an ace pitcher in his time. Prior to his military service he had a real shot at the major leagues. While the war took his dream -- never hitting the pitching mound himself -- he was a lifetime lover of the sport and he made sure his grandkids were too.

As a tot, I would sit on his elevated chocolate bronze couch (as he got older it got hard for him to bend down) and watch the Seattle Mariners. We would keep score together -- every pitch, hit, run, error accounted for -- often with his very colorful and expletive commentary. Once a year we'd make the hour pilgrimage from my hometown of Everett, Washington to downtown Seattle to see the "Ms" slug it out at the Kingdome. I got so good at watching the sport I could (with strong encouragement) call the pitches: slider; fastball; change up; knuckle ball; chin music; brush back, etc.

I went on to play the girls' version of baseball, softball, for seven years. My grandfather never missed a home game. He would often go for his afternoon walks near my practice field -- just to get a glimpse of me at the plate. I tried following in his pitching footsteps for one season and failed miserably; I redeemed myself as an ace catcher and second base (wo)man.

All of this came back to me with the release of last week's Mitchell Report on steroids in Major League Baseball (MLB). When the steroid story broke it was big news. Initially I was appalled, but not about the findings.

I was appalled that it was headline news during a time of war, during global warming climate talks in Bali, during a time when Americans are losing their homes through sub-prime mortgages and during a time when the Iowa Caucuses are nearly two weeks away. Despite my childhood love affair with baseball, how can baseball and steroids really be breaking news?

Commentators lamented that this crackdown was necessary to ensure that our children have proper role models. I found this angle particularly ironic considering that our President, America's self-appointed moral leader, sanctions torture and turns his cheek on securing health insurance for every child.

I found this ironic considering many major American businesses leaders on one hand support anti-immigrant politicians and, on the other hand, drive down the cost of doing business, hence driving up their profits, by illegally employing "amnesty seeking aliens."

While my gut still says this story is over-hyped by those who worship the gods of baseball and the sensational "gotcha" media, I've come to see that this story strikes a deeper chord about the need for fairness.

I believe that a majority of Americans believe in fairness. They learned the value of fairness at a very early age: at home, at the playground and on the sports field. They were taught that the rules mattered, that they were there for a reason and that if you broke them there would be consequences. To say it another way -- Americans don't like cheaters.

That said, there are a number of fellow citizens, business leaders, and politicians that think -- to adapt Stalin -- "Laws (promises) are like pie crusts, they are made to be broken." They think that you're a sucker to play by the rules. We see these pie crust breakers setting up tax shelters in the Cayman Islands, swift-boating Presidential candidates and illegally denying medical claims for children.

The Hobbesians may say that my ambition to have a fair America -- one where everyone plays by the rules -- is Pollyanna. I see their point. I know there will always be a few bad apples.

But, just because there are a few bad apples does not mean that we should change the social norm about fairness to fit their self-serving worldview. It doesn't mean that we should selectively throw out laws and social contracts like we've seen this President do time and time again with everything from the Geneva Convention to wiretapping.

And that's what I believe the Mitchell Report is about. It can be seen as an indictment on our culture of fairness through the lens of America's sacred pastime: baseball. This is why it struck a chord with many people; this is why it's important to not brush it off like I nearly did.

As we watch the Presidential election unfold, as we prepare for a new America on Inauguration Day 2009 we must remember to keep the steroid scandal as a metaphor of what we don't want to be.

I know that if my grandfather were alive today the steroid using cheaters would disgust him and as a good union Democrat he'd be appalled by our country's direction. I'm hopeful that if we keep an eye on the ball we can get a solid base hit for a fairer America. And we if elect a Democratic next November I'll shout an expletive in his honor.

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