Pity the messengers who overshadow their message. No one wants to hear George W. Bush lecture us on “our” oil addiction. We tend to shut out bromides–however true–about “family values” when they come out of the mouths of, say, Rudolph Giuliani or John McCain.
But there is a world of difference between a hypocrite and a whistleblower. Somewhere in between these two poles–in a paradoxical shade of gray our high-contrast culture abhors–stands New York Yankees slugger Jason Giambi.
Eyes are rolling at Giambi–who last week, after years of awkward apologies and denials–finally did publicly acknowledge he was juiced.
(I did a radio show where Giambi was likened to Dom DeLuise expressing concern about trans-fats. Tim Dahlberg of the Associated Press wrote that “Giambi’s apology seems as ill-timed as his swing.”)
Snarky sports yappers may sharpen their stiletto wits on the former American League MVP, but his statement last week constitutes the most honest and interesting talk in two years–ever since the anabolic institution of Major League Baseball was born again as straight-edge. In sealed testimony to a federal grand jury in 2003, Giambi admitted prodigious steroid use. His leaked testimony led in February 2005 to the most awkward public apology since the Nixon Checkers speech. As one ESPN story described it at the time, “Jason Giambi twiddled his thumbs, crossed his legs and fidgeted in his chair. He said he was sorry five times. He apologized three times. To the New York Yankees. To his teammates. To the fans. But he never said why. And he never talked about using steroids, never mentioned the word.”
But now Giambi is someone with something to say. If people could separate messenger from message they might be pleasantly surprised. Giambi said, “What we should have done a long time ago was stand up–players, ownership, everybody–and said, ‘We made a mistake.’ We should have apologized back then and made sure we had a rule in place and gone forward. Steroids and all of that was a part of history. But it was a topic that everybody wanted to avoid. Nobody wanted to talk about it.”
Giambi’s belated straight talk certainly backs much of the general research on what went on during the 1990s when steroids and other performance enhancers were passed around clubhouses like envelopes at an Abramoff/DeLay golf outing. (See Howard Bryant’s brilliant Juicing the Game.) This was an institutional problem: a problem of owners, trainers, the media and players, all popping pills for power because, as we were told by Nike’s puckishly sexist slogan, “chicks dig the long ball.”
But understanding and addressing steroid use in MLB has been bungled–an exercise in little more than singling out and excoriating individual players. This was seen most clearly in the Congressional hearings of 2005, which California Democratic Representative Tom Lantos correctly described as “a theater of the absurd.”