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Here’s a puzzler for sanctimonious sportswriters: Ty Cobb, to pick the most obvious example, is in baseball’s Hall of Fame, even though he made a mockery of Cooperstown’s “character” provision by severely beating a handicapped heckler in the stands of a 1912 game in New York. Cobb, a notorious racist, was provoked by the man’s taunts that he was a “half-nigger.”

Nearly a century later, it’s predicted that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will be denied entrance to the Hall because of their alleged steroid abuse. It makes little difference to me whether modern “juicers” are awarded the sport’s highest honor or not, but if Bonds and Clemens are blacklisted, shouldn’t Cobb be retroactively, and posthumously, stripped of their status?

But Bonds and Clemens and who knows how many other athletes “cheated” to improve their performance, says the morality brigade, and set a poor example for young, aspiring athletes. Never mind all the Hall of Famers who threw spitballs, popped amphetamines, ingested controlled substances and were alcoholics, the use of performance enhancing drugs is now the ultimate disqualifier.

I attended the 2000 World Series game at Yankee Stadium with my son, when Clemens inexplicably chucked a splintered bat in the direction of Mike Piazza on the field. Looking back, maybe that was an example of ‘roid rage, or it could’ve been sheer adrenaline. Last time I checked, no one has suggested that Hall of Famer Juan Marichal, the dominating Giants pitcher, was on steroids when he hit Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro with his bat during a ’65 game between the arch rivals.
Clemens, unlike Andy Pettitte and Brian Roberts—who’ve both issued sketchy (and unnecessary in my view) apologies for their transgressions revealed in the Mitchell Report—is fighting for his reputation. Last week, he said he’s never taken any banned substances “at any time in my baseball career or, in fact, my entire life.” That’s drawing a line in the sand, and it’ll be terrific theater if Clemens goes before Congress and denies, under oath and with the threat of perjury hanging over him like Damocles’ sword, that he ever touched any illicit stuff.

A Times editorial, which was virtually identical to similar pronouncements in almost every leading daily newspaper, suggested that players such as Clemens and Bonds, if Commissioner Bud Selig deems them guilty, ought to have their records blemished by an asterisk. By all accounts, Bonds is a surly malcontent who’s mad at the world in general and the media in particular, but he also happened to be one of the best baseball players of the past 50 years. Same with Clemens, and his off-the-field charity work ought to count for something. After 9/11, Clemens, according to a cousin of mine, a 25-year FDNY vet who worked at Ground Zero for three months, donated money, spent time with the children of widows, all under the media radar. I’d say that showed more “character” than a lot of stars whose plaques are admired every year in Cooperstown.

Switching gears, I’ll spare you any Top 10 lists that encapsulate 2007, with one exception. I’ve read hundreds of op-ed columns this year and not one is as honest as Kurt Andersen’s “Imperial City” essay, which appeared in the Dec. 10 issue of New York. Andersen writes, with alarming (at least in today’s media world) forthrightness, “For these next eleven months, in other words, I will become crypto-quasi-Jewish—that is, involuntarily asking as I scan each day’s headlines not Is it good for the Jews? but rather Is it bad for the Republicans?”

Andersen, of course, prefers that a Democrat (I’m guessing Barack Obama, considering his past columns expressing ambivalence about Hillary Clinton), wins the election next November, not an uncommon sentiment in the mainstream media. I’m of a different opinion, hoping that the prospect of a John McCain/Joe Lieberman ticket keeps the GOP in the White House, but that’s not the significance of Andersen’s declaration. So, while acknowledging that the at least temporary decline in violence and casualties in Iraq is good news, Andersen says it’s “also worrisome news for those of us who don’t want another Republican elected president in 2008.”

It’s a common conceit among conservatives that those who are opposed to the war are actually hoping for an American defeat, and while I doubt Andersen is in that category, at least he has the balls to admit that any shift in political/military fortunes that take an issue away from the Democrats is not a welcome development for his side.

He goes further, mentioning the many economists who believe the country is sliding into recession. “Total bummer, right?
Yes… um…unless you’d prefer a Democrat be elected next year.” These are the sort of comments that just aren’t said in public (although undoubtedly in private) by say, The Times’ editorial board or columnist Paul Krugman.

It goes both ways, naturally. Back in the ’90s, it seemed to me that Whitewater was pretty thin gruel as an administration-threatening scandal, but I was cheered by any headlines that could potentially harm the Clintons politically. And though I certainly didn’t care who Bill Clinton was or wasn’t porking in the White House, when he lied about his “relations” with Monica Lewinsky it was a supreme “gotcha” moment. What I feared most during the drawn-out Starr proceedings was that Clinton would resign, making Al Gore an almost unbeatable incumbent in 2000. Yet, from my perspective the impeachment hearings provided immense entertainment but didn’t amount to the “Constitutional crisis” that the more hyperbolic conservative commentators claimed.

So give Andersen credit for the honesty that eludes the vast majority of his media contemporaries, not to mention politicians themselves.

My favorite quote of last week came courtesy of Hillary—and this was a period in which her husband claimed that President Bush’s father would, upon the Senator’s election, travel abroad with him and share the joyous news that “America is open for business and cooperation again,” a statement GHWB immediately dismissed—at a campaign stop in Waterloo, Iowa. “There are people who will never vote for me,” Hillary told a member of the audience. “It breaks my heart, but it’s true.”

Now, that’s a real howler, even coming from the Tin Lady.

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