- The Washington Times - Monday, March 8, 2004

Gene Orza, baseball’s self-appointed surgeon general, has declared that cigarettes are worse than steroids.

This stilted observation comes in the throes of the BALCO-inspired scandal that is impugning the integrity of the game.

Orza, in a rush to protect his union members, some of them up to their thick necks in steroids, is missing a fundamental part of the hand-wringing exercise.

If the game’s numbers are tainted, what is the purpose?

Trying to decide what is real on the playing field is one of the vexing questions accompanying Barry Bonds, among others.

It was that element that garnered Pete Rose a lifetime ban from baseball.

His offense was not steroids. It was betting on baseball while he was the manager of the Reds.

His habit, understandably, raised doubts on all his managerial decisions. He dismissed those doubts, of course, as if he had the rare capacity to be two different people. By his logic, Rose the manager never could be influenced by Rose the hopeless gambler.

The contention is obtuse. Once Rose bet on baseball, he planted doubt, and the doubt was damaging enough.

That doubt is now in the vicinity of Bonds, who holds the game’s single-season home run record. Bonds could be as innocent as he claims, despite the unsettling evidence.

Innocent or not, the jolt to the game already is severe, the amount of debris unknown.

Curiously, in this shaky environment, Orza is inclined to give a health report on two disconnected substances.

It goes with the job, no doubt.

Orza, as the chief officer of the Major League Baseball Players Association, might as well have brought up the problem of alcohol abuse. A town drunk with a malfunctioning liver is probably in worse physical shape than an athlete who dines on steroids.

Orza also could have noted that sitting on the beach all day without sun block is worrisome because of the tendency of sun worshipers to end up looking like a leather bag and developing melanoma.

Orza could have made a number of similarly flaccid points in his verbal spat with Rep. John Sweeney, the New York Republican who helped introduce the Anabolic Control Act of 2004.

Orza, alas, is not a full-service health expert at the moment.

His concern is cigarette smoking, if not secondhand smoke.

“Cigarettes are worse,” he told ESPN.com. “And I didn’t say that steroids shouldn’t be prohibited. They in fact are. The point, conveniently overlooked by Mr. Sweeney, is that it is not banning steroids to which we object, but the manner in which he proposes to detect use — the unlimited, forced analysis of someone’s urine, even in the absence of a particularized suspicion.

“I know Congressman Sweeney hasn’t read our Joint Drug Agreement. But I didn’t know he hadn’t read the Fourth Amendment [search and seizure without probable cause].”

Orza undoubtedly feels compelled to wrap himself in the Fourth Amendment, with commissioner Bud Selig championing a zero-tolerance drug policy and a stiffer response than the one in place.

Selig, who does not get much, at least gets this correct.

Baseball, more than other sports, lives by its numbers, supposedly fashioned in the spirit of fair play.

If a portion of the players are juiced up, with the rest playing by the rules, the fair-play clause is broken. For all anyone knows, Roger Maris is still the legitimate holder of the home run record.

The steroid scandal has cast suspicion everywhere, leaving baseball with a tilted playing field.

The health issue, while not unimportant, is incidental to the strong whiff of impropriety lurking in baseball’s closet. For now, you are allowed to believe whatever you want, which is to the game’s detriment.

Baseball, in fact, is facing a fallout larger than the one bequeathed to track and field by Ben Johnson in 1988.

Bad as that prospect is, the commissioner’s office lacks the clout to deal with it effectively.

Orza holds that card, and he is not about to relinquish it, the “good of the game” be darned.

After speaking to the harmful effects of smoking, Orza is liable to study the artery-closing properties of fast food.

Just don’t talk drug policy with him, not when cigarettes are worse than steroids.

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