Robert Lipsyte, The Season of Bad News Books

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It’s wonderful to welcome back TomDispatch’s Jock Culture Correspondent Robert Lipsyte, who for the last year has been doing useful things — like being gainfully employed making TV shows rather than frittering his time away at this website. Now, he’s returned to examine the phenomenon of sportswriter ‘roid rage and consider the full range of the summer’s steroidal sports lit. (To catch Lipsyte discussing the media and the steroid scandal in a TomDispatch audio interview click here.)

I thought, under the circumstances, and with newspaper book review sections going the way of the stereoscope and the Nickelodeon, I might offer a few book recommendations of my own, starting with one of my favorite authors not just here on Earth but in the wider galaxy, Eduardo Galeano. (You undoubtedly noticed that Hugo Chavez recently transformed an old book of his into an instant bestseller by handing a copy of it to a certain president we know.) Galeano’s books regularly turn the world upside down, which also happens to be the title of one of them. Back in the 1980s, he did a singularly fabulous, magisterial, and idiosyncratic three-volume history of the Americas, tiny chapter by tiny chapter. That trilogy’s title was Memory of Fire. It was unbearably sad and beautiful. I used to read passages to my children when they were younger. Now, being nothing less than a big-picture sorta guy, he returns with his newest work, Mirrors, Stories of Almost Everyone. It’s nothing less than a history of the world from our first myths to late last night as only he could write it — and in a mere 365 pages. It’s glorious. If you buy only one book this summer, make it this one. I give away nothing by offering a few of his last lines here:

“…The twenty-first century, which also arrived heralding peace and justice, is following in its predecessors footsteps. In my childhood, I was convinced that everything that went astray on earth ended up on the moon. But the astronauts found no sign of dangerous dreams or broken promises or hopes betrayed.

“If not on the moon, where might they be? Perhaps they were never misplaced. Perhaps they are in hiding here on earth. Waiting.”

While I’m at it, it’s never too soon to start preordering for your future reading list. Here are two upcoming fall gems (to which I’ll return, come September): The splendid Rebecca Solnit, who gave me hope in the grimmest of times way back when and offers more whenever she writes for this site, has a new book coming in September, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. It’s a wonder. Who could have guessed that she could find such hope for humanity and for Americans in our most catastrophic moments — from the San Francisco Earthquake to 9/11? About her book Bill McKibben says (and he’s right): “This is the freshest, deepest, most optimistic account of human nature I’ve come across in many years. If you find yourself fearful in the face of our economic and ecological peril, then read this book; you will come away feeling like the future is possible, and in some fashion even exhilarating.”

And then there’s Beverly Gologorsky’s The Things We Do to Make It Home, a novel that’s gut-wrenchingly unsentimental (and all the more moving for that). It’s about what happens when traumatized war vets come home, specifically the effects of the Vietnam War on the families of its vets and, by implication, on this society. I think of it every time I read another horror story about what our present counterinsurgency wars are doing to those who fight them and those who love, care for, and live with them. So, thank god Seven Stories Press had the good sense to decide to reissue it, also in September. It’s unfortunately still as relevant as ever and gripping reading as well.

As for further summer reading, here are two relatively recent favorites of mine, though I’m late to the game with both of them. I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir, but this spring I stumbled upon Edwidge Danticat’s The Dew Breaker, a heartbreaking tale centering on a Haitian torturer in exile in the U.S. and his daughter. Hard to believe perhaps but the novel couldn’t be more moving, as well as gorgeously written. And if this summer turns out to be a swelterer and the power blacks out, why not grab that flashlight and head for the icy far north with Andrea Barrett in Voyage of the Narwhal, a chillingly engaging historical novel. (Remember, by the way, that any time you click on a book link at TomDispatch and buy that book or anything else from CDs to air conditioners at Amazon, this site gets a microscopic cut of the proceeds!) Now, on to the games of summer. Tom

The Literature of Betrayal Arrives at the Ballpark
Steroids Are the WMDs Sportswriters Didn’t Want to See
By Robert Lipsyte

I don’t remember such a publishing flood of bad news sports books, at least not during a flood of really bad news in the supposedly real world of politics, wars, and finance. Why beat up on the mendacity of our games? Aren’t they our dream world, a distraction from the deadlier contact contests? Or is the message from the sports media meant to be apocalyptic: the nation and its pastime have struck out for good?

All the books about the treachery of elected officials, financial operators, and juicing jocks constitute a literature of betrayal. From the Bush leagues to the major leagues, the narratives roll out about how our role models in pin-striped suits or pin-striped uniforms consciously lied to us for their own advantage. In turn, the beleaguered heavy hitters also claim betrayal, especially by the media: Hadn’t they been doing what was wanted, what was needed? Why are we picking on them now?

The treachery of the suits is certainly time-honored: Americans have traditionally used cynicism toward pols as an excuse not to become aggressively involved in civic life, and we expect businesspeople to cheat. That’s why we try to bet along with them. We think they’ve rigged the game and we want in. When they do just that, however, and we lose, as now, we’re outraged.

On the other hand, we generally believe in our teams and our sports heroes for good reason; our goals are the same — to win. That’s what we’re rooting for, isn’t it? That’s why “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” the apocryphal wail of a small boy to an alleged Black Sox fixer, has resonance. Winning is the only thing. Just do it. So why should we care so much when the players go to injectable extremes to do just that? After all, they do it for us, too. Dontcha like home runs?

‘Roid Outrage

When it comes to Wall Street and Washington, the anger is clearly real — and widespread. When it comes to baseball, the larger question may be whether the fans really care in the first place. For all the yammering on talk radio, in whatever newspaper columns are left, and in the steroidal spate of recent books I’ve read so you won’t have to, there doesn’t seem to be even a distant rumble of mass boycotts, sponsor pull-outs, or parents forcing kids to turn in their bats for violins.

Could all this rage over ‘roid rage be little more than the revenge of the nerd media? Are its practitioners so ashamed of having blown the only truly big sports story of their generation that they have now turned viciously on their former heroes? It’s the mirror-image of the story about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that weren’t there. The steroids were right in front of their lying eyes, but they were in denial — and in the tank.

Despite the current rash of weak mea culpas, the media failure on the story of steroid use in baseball is inexcusable because honest stories were being written — and ignored. In the 1980s,Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post and others were already pointing fingers at the juicers.

In 1995, Bob Nightengale, then with the Los Angeles Times, quoted general managers saying that steroids were becoming part of the game. In 1998, Steve Wilstein of the Associated Press wrote about observing a bottle of androstenedione in slugger Mark McGwire’s locker. He was assailed by many of his colleagues as a snoop.

In 2002, Ken Caminiti, the National League’s 1996 most valuable player, admitted that he had regularly used steroids. He died two years later. In Editor & Publisher, Joe Strupp wrote:

“But instead of sparking a wave of follow-up articles or investigations to ferret out the details of steroid use in baseball — who was using it, where it came from, what it did to the body — sportswriters essentially left the story alone.”

They left it alone not out of laziness or stupidity, but rather in the sweet moral corruption of love. Perhaps even more than entertainment and political writers, perhaps even more than hardcore fans, sportswriters adore the events themselves and the heady, faux-manly access to the subjects and the locker rooms. Love wants to be blind. As Murray Chass, then of the New York Times told Editor and Publisher, “I’m not sure that you want to spend every day being suspicious of someone. It might be the journalistic thing to do. But it is not fun.”

Fun was the home-run-happy summer of 1998. Remember that moment when the St. Louis slugger with Popeye’s forearms, Mark McGwire, andro’ed us out of a national depression over Bill’s stain on Monica’s blue dress? (Ah, for the dreamy days when McGwire, with Sammy Sosa close behind, was breaking Yankee interloper Roger Maris’s record of 61 homers, and thus refurbishing the legend of Babe Ruth.)

The McGwire Effect

Of course, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Alex Rodriguez did not find that summer fun at all. Barry sulked; he was a far better ballplayer than McGwire, yet was being eclipsed by that wide white hormone container. It undoubtedly crossed his mind then that he’d better get some of that stuff Mark was using.

Roger Clemens, then 35 and on the downside of a fine pitching career, was wondering how he could survive against this new crew of monster hitters. He asked a Toronto Blue Jays strength coach, Brian McNamee, to help him out. And Alex, well, he was having a career season and nobody even noticed. It was time to step up his dosage.

Unlike Barry and Roger, who are brute craftsmen, Alex is an artist, and that description includes being vain, narcissistic, whiney, devious, ingratiating, whimsical, and sensual. There is something soft, dare we say almost feminine, about him, which is undoubtedly why the newshawks have always felt freer to beat on him than on Barry or Roger.

That sense of Alex enlivens A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez (Harper, $26.99) by Selena Roberts, who extended a Sports Illustrated profile into what’s become the hottest sports book of the season because Alex’s name was leaked as a major leaguer who had tested positive for steroids in 2003. That was off a list that had been compiled for research only and was to have been shredded.

The media might have gone after the leaker, but pounced instead on Roberts as yet another no-fun snoop. Her use of mostly anonymous sources led that old fun guy, Murray Chass, now a blogger, to call the book a “journalistic abomination.” He also wrote that she had not been much of a reporter or columnist back in their days as colleagues at the New York Times.

Bad enough a girl breaks the most sensational sports story of the year, but this girl! Jock Culture has never forgiven Roberts for a series of New York Times columns on the Duke lacrosse scandal of 2006. While the charges against the white Dukies for molesting a black stripper they had hired for a party were eventually dropped, Roberts’ denunciations of entitled jock bad behavior were uncomfortably on the mark.

The major league version of boys being bad boys is at the heart of a sweet, sad autobiography, Straw: Finding My Way (Ecco, $26.99) by former Met slugger Darryl Strawberry with John Strausbaugh. I’ve had a soft spot for Strawberry ever since the Mets brought him up in 1983, before his time. We’d been hearing drumbeats from the minors about this “next Ted Williams.” I remember the Mets general manager telling me he’d never promote this immature kid to The Show until he was really ready.

Then the Mets had a bad year in the standings and worse, at the box office, and there he was, a likeable, somewhat goofy beanpole. Terrific player. Rookie year he looked like he could be the second coming of Ted himself, the Splendid Splinter as he was known, if given a chance to grow up.

Straw says he never did steroids, but if so, he did everything else, especially speed (the steroids of the eighties), alcohol, coke, crack, groupies. His rehabs and relapses became an opportunity for sportswriters to whine about how Straw had let them down after all the nice things they had said about him. His colon cancer and its recurrence somehow elicited the same response.

Blaming the media for building ’em up and tearing ’em down is an easy shot, but not necessarily a cheap one. Strawberry is a good example, and one worth keeping in mind as we consider a less lovable star, Roger Clemens, who gets two books to himself this season.

Sailing on Denial

The Rocket That Fell to Earth: Roger Clemens and the Rage for Baseball Immortality by Jeff Pearlman (Harper, $26.99) is an absorbing profile of the one-time “fat boy from Ohio” who, like Alex and Straw, was mostly raised by his mother into a socially-awkward, sports-obsessed, life-time adolescent.

American Icon: The Fall of Roger Clemens and the Rise of Steroids in America’s Pastime by Teri Thompson, Nathaniel Vinton, Michael O’Keeffe, and Christian Red (Knopf, $26.95) takes in a larger picture. The authors, members of the New York Daily News Sports Investigative Team, have been leading this story for some time and their book is a worthy successor to Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO and the Steroid Scandal that Rocked Professional Sports by the San Francisco Chronicle’s investigative team, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams. Taken together, they add up to the definitive and lively history of the current Steroid Era.

Roger’s neediness, Alex’s insecurities, and Straw’s cancer show up as well in The Yankee Years (Doubleday, $26.95) by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci. The book is written in the third person, with Torre as the main interview, which gives it a curiously distanced tone to the text. It feels as if Torre is not the author, but merely a source with veto power. And one who can always offload criticism on his partner. As superb a baseball writer as Verducci can be, I would somehow have preferred if this book had come from my favorite manager’s heart.

Here’s heart, though: The sleeper of the season is Spiral of Denial: Muscle Doping in American Football (Four Walls Publishing, $17 Paper) by Matt Chaney, a passionate, personal attack on the Jock Culture that brought us to this point. Chaney concentrates on chemicals in football, where, so he claims, the abuse is far greater than baseball. His heroes are Penn State epidemiologist Charles E. Yesalis, one of the few clear-eyed scientists on the case, and the late Steve Courson, a former Pittsburgh Steeler who, in 1985, spoke of his steroid use.

Chaney was a college football player whose own steroid history is instructive. Young athletes do not agonize over the moral question of whether to use or not. They merely seek to answer the only question worth asking in their world: How can I be the best I can be? And older athletes are usually more than willing to strike what might be a Faustian bargain, even if it leads to future malady.

Or does it? As Yesalis points out, there is very little hard science about performance-enhancing drugs, including what they enhance, much less what damage they may do. This leaves us, alas, with the bellicosity of the sportsbabblers, driven to flail and threaten by their sense of betrayal. Those who haven’t thrown up their hands and declared that we are already in the Post-Steroid Era — Let’s get past this, we’re all clean now! — are calling for the harshest penalty they can impose: exclusion from the Hall of Fame for such shoo-ins as Roger and Alex. This is real punishment. After all, as Zev Chafets points out in his fascinating Cooperstown Confidential: Heroes, Rogues and the Inside Story of the Baseball Hall of Fame (Penguin, $25), election to the Hall immediately jacks up a retired player’s speaking, autographing, and memorabilia fees.

Chafets, who is best known for his long-time reporting from Israel and his recent sympathetic New York Times Magazine piece on that former Kansas City Royals front-office worker Rush Limbaugh (soon to be a book), is leading the libertarian wing of the Post-Steroids Party, whose platform is just let them do it and we’ll all forget about it. His essential position: the genie is out of the bottle, past generations had their enhancers, and in an age of beta blockers, Ritalin, and the like why pick on anabolic steroids?

While this seems smarter and certainly more pragmatic than breast-beating and witch-hunting, I’m still waiting for the lab reports. No question that adolescents should be barred from steroid use, but what are the consequences for grown — physically, at least — men? Until we have those answers, we really are letting down Alex and Roger, demanding they thrill us by any means possible, then turning them in to the sheriff for the crime of getting caught.

Meanwhile, it feels like the pin-striped suits are slinking away without the media-mauling they deserve, much less real punishment. Maybe this is the chance for the sports media to make a comeback, avenge the loss, win one when it counts. While it might be hard to mount a war crimes charge against George W. Bush, what about a steroids trial? After all, he was managing partner of the Texas Rangers in the early 1990s when Jose Conseco, the guru and snitch of performance enhancing drugs, played for him and began sharing his needle.

So, George, what did you know and when did you know it?

Robert Lipsyte is the host of LIFE (Part 2) a weekly PBS series on the aging of the boomer generation that will begin airing in September. He has written many books for sports nuts of all ages. His website is — surprise! — To catch Lipsyte discussing the media and the steroid scandal in a TomDispatch audio interview click here.

Copyright 2009 Robert Lipsyte