Jeff Pearlman

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Matt Williams and the unasked questions …

chaka kahn

Earlier today, in our nation’s capital, the Washington Nations introduced Matt Williams as their newest manager.

Best known for his years playing third base for the Giants and Diamondbacks, Williams was—by traditional measures—a sound choice. Over the course of his 17-year career, Williams hit 378 home runs and drove in 1,218. He was a five-time All-Star, and a key member of the 2001 world champion Diamondbacks, then went on to coach with the club for four years. “We went with the best candidate available,” Mike Rizzo, the Nats’ general manager, said in a conference call with reporters. “We had several internal candidates that were extremely good candidates, and we just felt that Matt’s message, the way he communicates the message and his demeanor and character was kind of the difference-maker for me and a guy that we feel is going to take the organization and take us to the next level.”

On a personal level, I always found Williams to be likeable, available and decent. He was respected by teammates and even appreciated by Barry Bonds—a guy who seemed to appreciate absolutely nobody.

All that being said, I’m genuinely conflicted by the Nationals hiring Williams—and before you tell me I’m a one-note, self-obsessed moron, please consider the thinking. I’m not saying you’ll agree. But at least consider …

On November 6, 2007, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Williams purchased $11,600 worth of HGH, steroids and myriad other drugs five years earlier. These were, of course, performance enhancers—some of which were banned from Major League Baseball, most—if-not-all—of which are illegal to buy in the United States of America without proper medical reasons and prescriptions. Williams later admitted that he used PED, and earned the requisite ensuing credit for “manning up.” (No world entity matches Major League Baseball in its ability to credit people for “manning up” after they’ve been caught).

Now, I understand the argument that ballplayers who cheated shouldn’t be tarred for a lifetime. And I understand the argument that players have cheated forever and ever—dating back to the first corked bat and doctored ball. But name another profession (Doctors? Lawyers? CPAs? Truck drivers? Electricians? Journalists?) that allows people who broke its rules and the law to not only return, but return to one of its highest positions? I’ve made this argument 1,001 times, and I’ve never understood the rejection of it: Matt Williams said he cheated in 2002 to stay healthy. He played 60 games that season. Perhaps, had he not cheated, he would have been forced to miss the entire campaign; maybe even retire. That same year, the Tucson Sidewinders, Arizona’s Triple A affiliate, had a 28-year-old infielder named Brian Dallimore bat .294—but never receive a call-up. Dallimore wound up appearing in a grand total of 27 Major League games—all with the Giants in 2004 and 2005. Also that same year, Double A El Paso (also a Diamondbacks affiliate) had a third baseman named Tim Olson hit .273 with 10 homers in 433 at-bats. Olson, too, was never called up—and appeared in 51 total big league games before retiring five years later.

Perhaps Dallimore and Olson would have never been Diamondbacks—Williams be damned. Hell, perhaps both men were juiced out of their minds. It’s possible, considering what was going on at the time. But somewhere in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization, there was almost certainly a clean third baseman not getting his chance because Williams decided to cheat, and held his roster spot, meaning the guy below him wasn’t promoted, and the guy behind him wasn’t promoted, and the guy behind him wasn’t promoted. As I’ve said before, my friend Sal Fasano—journeyman catcher, great guy and a man I trust 100 percent—needed Major League Baseball’s health insurance policy when his son was born with a heart ailment seven years ago. At the same time Sal was playing clean in Triple A, scratching for another opportunity, the Mitchell Report named seven or eight catchers (of comparable journeyman status) who held big league gigs while cheating.

That’s why this matters. That’s why I refuse to fully move on. And that’s why I wonder—truly wonder—whether people understand the harm men like Matt Williams were/are responsible for. It’s not merely that they boosted their statistical lines and ruined the record books. It’s that, in doing so, some clean fringe player was demoted to Triple A after surrendering a Williams’ homer; some aspiring third baseman never stepped inside a Major League clubhouse because Williams was injecting Chemical X through his veins. Integrity is supposed to matter. I know it often doesn’t—but it’s supposed to. And when we say, “Meh—forgive and forget …” what we’re really saying is, “Yeah, these guys cheated the game, broke the law, ruined dreams …” but—hey. Whatever.

Believe it or not, despite the past eight paragraphs, I’m still torn on Williams as a manager. Perhaps we do need to move on. Perhaps enough is enough. What shocked me, though, was today’s press conference, and not … one … member of the Washington, D.C. sports press corps even asking Williams about PED. There are things to wonder, including, “What do you say to people who think cheaters shouldn’t be given second chances in baseball?” and “Did you learn anything from your ordeal?” and “Should we at all question your integrity and truthfulness?” In the same way Wally Backman once lost the Arizona managerial gig because, it turned out, he had several past legal issues, Williams should have (I believe) at least addressed the elephant in the room.

Or, perhaps, there is no elephant to speak of.

Maybe I’m just hallucinating.

  • Jeff

    There’s a double standard with PEDs: its only damning if we dislike you. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez defiled the game, desecrated the memories of legends, stole America’s collective childhood & (insert more hyperbole).

    Matt Williams “is a grinder”. Andy Pettitte “is exceedingly classy”. David Ortiz “is clutch & drugs can’t make you clutch”.

    In a few years, we may see some men who cheated to become some of the greatest ballplayers who ever lived (Bonds, ARod) remain shut out of Cooperstown, while inferior cheaters with more pleasant personalities (Ortiz) are enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

  • Randy Jones

    to answer the question But name another profession (Doctors? Lawyers? CPAs? Truck drivers? Electricians? Journalists?) that allows people who broke its rules and the law to not only return, but return to one of its highest positions?

    politics. and of course anything related to entertainment – sports, movies, music, etc.

  • Jacob

    From what I hear, dog killers are okay though.

  • Jeff Pearlman

    Jacob, simplistic reply. Vick spent TWO years imprisoned. Furthermore, as awful as his crime was, it impacted the sport not one iota. That matters, no?

    jp

    • Jacob

      Actually, it was only 21 months. But, the CAPS were a nice touch. Furthermore, I would say it impacted the sport’s image. Is that worth an iota to you?

      • Jeff Pearlman

        Jacob, confused. What was only 21 months?

        • Jacob

          Michael Vick only spent 21 months in prison. He spent 2 months on house arrest. It was not “TWO years”.

          • Jeff Pearlman

            21 months in Leavenworth not enough time for you? And you think Vick impacted the NFL’s image? For how long? Four days. PED-enhanced ballplayers destroyed baseball’s record book. It might not matter to you, and that’s fine. But Hank Aaron went through so much racial abuse en route to 755. Roger Maris was losing his hair during the chase to 61. For guys to come along, cheat and, hey, break meaningful marks—it offends me. Sorry.

  • NatsLady

    The question was asked and answered several times on radio interviews with Mike Rizzo–the person who did the hiring. Yes, someone could have asked Williams. And you would have gotten a polished, prepared answer.

    Players from that era are becoming broadcasters/analysts. Wait–should we allow this? Anyway, it’s clear from the offhand way they refer to “what was going on” that what was going on was common and widespread. Probably every team had a substantial minority (at least) that partook.

    Many people say Tim Raines should be in the HoF. But he was a drug abuser (presumed to have kicked it later) and part of the drug culture of that era. He had cocaine in his pocket WHILE HE PLAYED–talk about performance-enhancing (or at the very least, performance-allowing, if he was addicted).

  • NatsLady

    And, while I’m at it, did you have the same “mixed” feelings about Davey Johnson, who permitted–if not encouraged–drug culture on teams he managed? Talent was squandered, lives ruined, but Davey’s going to the Hall of Fame.

    • Jeff Pearlman

      First, NatsLady, thanks for posting. Second, Davey Johnson won’t be anywhere close to the Hall—not sure where you got that idea. Third, I wrote a book on the ’86 Mets. Johnson drank—a lot. Did he know Gooden and Straw were snorting coke? Absolutely not. HUGE difference. But I understand you defending your team. Thanks for posting.

  • Richard

    As a resident of the DC area (not much of a Nats fan), I can tell you that the issue was treated as an “oh, by the way…” aside in the litany of flowery praise that was heaped on Williams. Tom Boswell, a good writer but the world’s biggest Nats apologist, didn’t mention it once in his column. I think Williams (and Mike Rizzo) treats the issue like the proverbial dog turd on the carpet; if you call attention to it, you’re the one to clean it up. Step around it and nobody will be the wiser.

  • Andrew

    I appreciate this post, particularly the trickle-down effect of how PED use matters to those who don’t get to advance to the major leagues. (I also appreciate a lot of the comments that follow this post.) So, coupla things:

    Amphetamines are also PED’s, and they were widely used for decades, by HOFers such as Mike Schmidt and legends such as the sainted Willie Mays. They weren’t against MLB rules, necessarily, but their unchecked use might have violated the law (though the history on this is murky, as club doctors were sometimes but not always involved in terms of prescriptions). Are we going to put amphetamines in a different class of PEDs because their ability to enhance performance might not have been as great as steroids? Why does Mike Schmidt get a pass and Barry Bonds doesn’t?

    Re: Michael Vick. He served his time, he’s apologized, he has moved on, and everybody else needs to do the same. BTW, he served his time, unlike a certain quarterback who has twice been accused of rape. I know, accused doesn’t mean guilty, but there was a lot of evidence the second time around but the DA didn’t indict. This doesn’t even include the number of athletes who’ve been guilty of spousal abuse. I would never hurt or abuse a dog, but I think we can all agree that rape and spousal abuse is worse than dog killing, and I haven’t heard anywhere near the outrage over that stuff that I’ve heard over dog-killing. Further, it’s been my experience that most of the people who get on the soapbox about Michael Vick are also not vegans. Again, I would never kill or abuse a dog, but I passively participate in serial animal abuse on a near-daily basis, in that I eat meat. I’m sure the chicken, beef, pork, and turkey that I consume comes to my table as a result of factory farming, which is brutal. Now, our society has drawn clear but arbitrary lines about what constitutes illegal animal abuse and what doesn’t. You can’t mess with a dog, but you can do pretty much whatever you want to a farm animal as long as it’s going to end up as food. I find these distinctions curious and troubling, but not troubling to the point where I’m going to stop eating meat, and not to the point where I’m going to pay extra for free-range chicken. (I can’t afford it.) Knowing this doesn’t make me a special person, but at least I have the self-awareness to not stand on a soapbox about Michael Vick. So, bottom line, get off the guy’s back. These arguments are nauseating in their posturing and false moralizing, and they have been since the beginning, when teams of self-congratulatory pundits expressed their outrage over Michael Vick on sports TV and radio shows, and then the host networks cut to commercials for Outback Steakhouse and Domino’s Meat-Lover pizza. Really: Get over yourselves about Michael Vick.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life