September 20, 2017
The Politics of Big Sexy
It’s been a rocky six months for the man they call Big Sexy: a disastrous 8.14 ERA in 13 starts for the Braves, followed by a pink slip, only to serve 10 competent starts in Minnesota as that team continues its unlikely push toward the postseason. The peripherals beneath are nearly identical, with a DRA split of 6.40/7.37 and the usual suspects of HR%, BABIP, and strand rate fluctuating from one extreme to the other.
But although it may clearly be the ending, it’s a pleasant end for the many fans of Colon’s work, and particularly the way he goes about it. Everyone loves an outlier, and there’s no bigger outlier around right now than the 44-year-old, 3XX-pound man. That will likely be his legacy: the helmet falling off as he bunted, the double-chinned smile, the easy inclusion into the Hall of Very Good. He’s the kind of player who will be talked about after he’s gone, like Fernando, like Dykstra, like Bo.
It makes sense. But loving Bartolo Colon also requires a greater-than-average amount of cognitive dissonance, the knowledge of all the other pieces to the man: the infidelity, the steroids. And so it’s only fitting that Colon’s legacy, independent of Colon, is every bit as much an outlier as the player himself. On Baseball-Reference, his comps include the expected names of fellow old-timers like Jamie Moyer, David Wells, and Kenny Rogers. But there’s one other man to whom Colon could be compared, just a few years older at the time: a smiling man named William Jefferson Clinton.
Gary Hart’s career did not go the same direction as Bartolo Colon’s.
A popular senator from Colorado in the 70s, Hart was seen as the Democratic party’s top prospect in the post-Carter years. A presidential nomination seemed all but secure, given that he checked all the boxes: young and charismatic, while simultaneously experienced, particularly in foreign policy. To watch a sample campaign speech in 2017 is an exercise in translation, but even by the standards of his times—politicians need to be adjusted for era just as baseball players do—Hart was an admitted policy wonk and intellectual, Adlai Stevenson with a full head of hair.
Hart narrowly lost the Democratic primary in 1984 to Walter Mondale, but the latter’s subsequent trouncing at the hands of Ronald Reagan, and Hart’s energy, made him the clear front-runner for 1988. Despite Hart’s political prowess he was far from perfect. Those close to him often considered him aloof, intellectual, and self-assured to the level of nearing a god complex. But it was another character flaw, and another case of poor timing, that destroyed his career. Gary Hart was a womanizer.
He wasn’t the only one, of course. Nor were any of them particularly subtle about it. In those times, there was no real need for secrecy: the private (or even public) affairs of politicians in Washington, D.C. were often well known but never, ever reported. It was considered beneath the press to dwell on such sensationalism; what mattered were the issues, and the qualifications of the men who wanted to run the country. Politicians were, hard as it is to believe today, expected to have truly private lives.
Hart’s career represents the shattering of that paradigm, replaced by the current one. There are multiple arguments for why: the decay of trust in government after Watergate, the rise of Pat Robertson’s Christian Coalition and its emphasis on character. Perhaps it was the inevitable course of a media that has always been incentivized toward sensationalism. Regardless of the undercurrents, the tipping point was obvious: the moment that reporters from the Miami Herald, hiding in bushes in the middle of the night outside a Washington, D.C. hotel, confronted and then chased one presidential hopeful Gary Hart as he emerged with a woman, Donna Rice, who was not his wife.
Hart never recovered from the incident. After trying to brush off the story, the Washington Post threatened to run an expose on a different girlfriend, and after a bout of indignation—how could he, the man who had already mapped out his first hundred days, be deposed on such a technicality?—he suspended his campaign. He tried to revive it before the New Hampshire primary, only to be asked point blank in a press conference: “Are you an adulterer?” His career trickled away in the ensuing silence. Realizing he could never answer the question, and that it would never stop being asked, he gave up for good. He never again held elected office.
Gary Hart isn’t exactly the story here, however. If it ended here, with Hart cheating on his wife and being shamed into private life, it wouldn’t be much more than a cautionary fable. But the Democratic party nominated another presidential candidate in 1992: Bill Clinton.
Baseball is a wonderful game in part because it denies a sense of justice. The iterations of success and failure are so plentiful, so repetitive, that it forces us to think of success as probabilistic: four out of 10 wins, six out of 10 losses. The hero one day, the goat the next. With the exception of the playoffs, we’re never allowed the Joe Namath problem of seeing one victory and feeling compelled to create a narrative around it. We have no choice: we see it all the time. Someone will try to do something and fail. The next time, under the exact same circumstances, they will succeed. It’s Schrodinger’s cat with the lid off: we’re given a full view of the arbitrary nature of the universe.
This was not the case for Gary Hart, who was undone in one moment and then watched his successor fall prey to the exact same set of circumstances—this time, the partner was Gennifer Flowers—only to escape unscathed, and be rewarded with eight years of the presidency. If anything, the difference between Clinton and Hart was experience: the experience of watching Hart, and knowing what not to do. Hart supplied the Clinton campaign with the exact media experience it needed to take the scandal head on and overcome it.
In the 12 years since Mark McGwire and friends testified before congress, baseball has seen an assortment of reckonings over an assortment of medicinal indiscretions. It began in April of 2005 with the strange, almost innocent 10-game suspension of Alex Sanchez, he of the six career home runs. Then, in August, Rafael Palmeiro received an identical 10-game punishment that in turn ripped apart the reputations of the ballplayers who spoke under oath to congress, denying them all any hope of the Hall of Fame.
Yet most people couldn’t name the most recent transgressor, David Paulino of the Astros, who was caught using Boldenone and lost half a season. The two players suspended in 2017 mark the lowest count since 2011, but the sheer number of convictions—now 60, including repeat offenders—as well as the publicly damned names on the Mitchell Report, have blurred the original outrage into a nebulous distaste. There are the extraordinary cases that stick in our minds: A-Rod and BALCO, Ryan Braun’s urine mix-up, Jennry Mejia’s banishment from baseball.
But as tarnished as those names were, other players appeared to emerge from their scandals nearly unscathed. The first was Jason Giambi, so proximate to the Sosa/McGwire archetype, who transformed himself from bulky superstar to loveable dad, despite the bright lights of New York. Familiar, appreciated figures like Cameron Maybin, Yasmani Grandal, and Francisco Cervelli each served 50 games. Many Mariners fans are either unaware, or just don't care, that the team rosters two former cheaters in Nelson Cruz and Carlos Ruiz. And, of course, in 2012, there was Bartolo.
There are many reasons why Bartolo has fallen into the latter camp, and taken the Clinton course of history rather than the Hart one. That it came late in his career, long after the dominance of his youth had passed and the black ink on his statistics had dried, surely helped underline the harmlessness of the gambit. There is his physical charisma, the goodwill that his wrinkles and second chin and lopsided smile produce. But in 2012, Colon hadn’t yet wielded these assets to their full GIF-making potential; his batting helmet hadn’t yet fallen off, and even so his suspension was received with a bemused shrug.
One could argue that the suspensions themselves helped destroy the negative stigma of steroids: that the punishment itself supplied absolution that, for McGwire and Sosa in their time, was unavailable. Attach a value to anything, a cost to every benefit, and the result becomes a business transaction; Colon wasn’t cheating, therefore, only employing a mixed strategy to maximize his career. It may seem like a cynical viewpoint, but it’s the same logic applied to every emery board, every back-room international signing, every piece of gamesmanship in the game. Colon may have simply been at the forefront when steroids transformed from moral decay to simple, everyday cheating.
One could also point to a different, if related, factor: Colon didn’t lie. When the suspension was handed out, Colon’s response was as simple as one can get without becoming terse: "I apologize to the fans, to my teammates, and to the Oakland A's. I accept responsibility for my actions and I will serve my suspension as required by the Joint Drug Program." Admittedly, it’s a particularly underrated virtue in the 21st century to be exposed for a mistake and not dig one’s self deeper. But a direct comparison to the reviled first cheaters would be unwise, because they had no idea, unlike Colon, exactly what the truth would cost them.
Neither Clinton nor Hart employed Colon’s strategy, exactly; the president would end up ensnared in a later, more famous indiscretion, and this time his refusal to tell the truth undermined most of his second term. But if anything, in modern politics, what we’ve discovered is that public opinion goes through its own eras, and that like baseball players, sometimes people are born into the wrong ones. It’s an unsatisfying lesson. The concept of justice relies on consistency; our culture and our sport depend on the idea, if not the myth, that good is rewarded and evil punished.
Hart and Clinton, Colon and Palmeiro committed similar crimes and received wildly different sentences. One can question how much the media played into these factors, in their own self-interest for better sales and hotter news, but in the end even the media is simply a reflection of the people to whom it sells its newspapers and pop-up ads. But what’s undeniable is that Colon, like the president, knew exactly what not to do: take the fifth.
Steroids make up a portion of Colon’s legacy, but there is also the more direct parallel to Gary Hart: Bartolo’s personal life. A year ago, a clerical mistake in a private suit revealed him as owing child support to a woman he’d engaged in a long-term relationship outside his marriage. He’d listed himself as his own attorney, which made his name public record. A settlement was reached a month later, under less private circumstances, with all parties tight-lipped but accepting of the terms.
The question remains the same as it was in 1988: Does this matter to the public? The case is perhaps stronger against the politician, whose ability to perform the job could be measured by his personal character. (How much is its own question, and one that we as a nation have had difficulty finding an answer for.) But for Colon, a person who throws a ball in a big grass field, how much should this knowledge impact his reputation?
This case began in the infamous America v Barkley, 1993, and has never been satisfyingly resolved. Certainly when it comes to baseball and reputation, fans have never been afraid of letting their distaste for a person bleed into their evaluation of a career as a player; take the reputations of Ty Cobb, Barry Bonds, and Dick Allen. Professional sports spent too long trading on the value of their players as role models to opt out now, even if the current generation didn’t make that choice. Kids will always have starry eyes, and public figures will always be expected, perhaps unreasonably, to be as giants.
But only the most bloodless realists can claim that what’s true is what’s fair, and as we’ve seen, there is so much about baseball, and life, that is unfair. I want to believe that Colon’s marital indiscretions, of which we’ll never be fully aware, should stay separate from his work. But if the social media era and the current political cycle have proven anything, it’s that we’re trending away. And that means that the semi-private life that athletes still enjoy, and enjoy a surprising amount given their level of game, will likely disappear. Someday soon, in our culture of celebrity, we will know everything about everyone, and either our standards for privacy or forgiveness will have to adapt.
The most realistic outcome is perhaps the most cynical: that people will forgive what helps their team win, in politics and in sport.