By Mike Steffanos
In our legal system you are considered innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In Murray Chass' world, zits are all the proof needed to brand you as a cheater.
Chass was reacting to a column Joel Sherman wrote about the rumors of steroid use by former Met Mike Piazza. Chass couldn't believe that Sherman didn't grill him about the zits on his back during his playing career.
Mathew Artus, who authors NJ.com's Always Amazin' Mets blog, does a good job of calling Chass on his grandstanding, and ESPN's Rob Neyer provides some medical info on acne and steroids. With this ground already covered, I have a somewhat different take.
From the time I was 15 until into my early 30s, acne -- face, chest and back -- was an ongoing reality of my life. My face mostly cleared up in my late teens, but the acne on my back and chest would be more troublesome -- especially when playing sports that involved protective gear.
I guess in Murray Chass' world that would be proof-positive that I was a steroid user. The thing was, I didn't know what steroids were back then, much less use them. I just had skin problems.
I hated that acne, and did everything I could to clear it up. Still, it was gross, and it made me self conscious around women during flare-ups. It's not a happy memory of that part of my life, but I guess I should be thankful that at least I didn't have Murray Chass following me around screaming, "J'accuse!" at me during a breakout.
Now only the most naive of us doesn't harbor suspicions about Piazza and some other Mets of that era. If what Chass wrote about Piazza's back is true (and I don't imagine he'd make it up), it's another piece of circumstantial evidence against him. However, despite what Chass wrote, that's all it was.
To me, the most curious part of Chass' piece is this bit:
Now as naïve as I might have been about steroids, the one thing I knew was that use of steroids supposedly causes the user to have acne on his back. As I said, Piazza had plenty of acne on his back.
When steroids became a daily subject in newspaper articles I wanted to write about Piazza's acne-covered back. I was prepared to describe it in disgusting living color. But two or three times my editors at The New York Times would not allow it. Piazza, they said, had never been accused of using steroids so I couldn't write about it.
But wait, I said, if I write about it, I will in effect be accusing Piazza of using steroids and then someone will have accused him of using steroids. No can do, I was told. I always took the veto to stem from the Times ultra conservative ways, but I also wondered if it maybe was the baseball editor, a big Mets' fan, protecting the Mets.
Whatever the reason, I never got Piazza's suspicious acne into the paper.
Imagine that! An editor refusing to allow Chass to use spurious circumstantial evidence as "proof" that Piazza took steroids. What an outrage.
Reading that, it's not hard to imagine why the Times decided to part company with Chass last year. His editor wants to maintain journalistic standards and Chass sees that as chauvinism from a "big Mets fan". What makes this truly ironic is what Chass has to say about Sherman in his opening paragraph:
... Joel Sherman of the New York Post and I do not have any kind of relationship. We have not talked for years. There's no need to bore you with the reasons why. But the other day his column caught my attention. Not many of his columns do. He writes them, after all, for the New York Post.
Apparently Chass can look down on Sherman for writing for a paper that hardly qualifies as a bright light in the world of journalistic integrity, yet he can chastise his former editor for not printing spurious accusations. Can you taste the irony here?
This whole thing brings to mind a continuation of what we were talking about yesterday.
Professional sports journalists are seen as experts by a large segment of the population that doesn't have the time and/or the inclination to follow sports as closely as we die-hards. What they write, be it verifiable fact or the most spurious of opinions, is taken as gospel by many readers. There is a responsibility to avoid the sort of speculation and gossip in the paper that we all happily indulge in on a bar stool with our friends surrounding us and a nice glass of full-bodied ale in our hands.
The waters of baseball's steroid era are muddy indeed, and there is no slugger -- no matter how pristine his complexion may have been -- who doesn't have the cloud of suspicion following him around. Some, like Piazza, fit the criteria for what we have come to acknowledge as a likely consumer of PEDs to a degree that makes those of us who admired him as a ballplayer cringe.
But suspicions are not the same as proof, and common decency demands that the onus should be on the accuser to provide something more than zits when he accuses someone of being a cheater.
We are country that takes freedom of the press very seriously -- to the point, in fact, where many types of dubious "journalism" is protected. In many cases, simply accusing someone of a transgression seems to constitute proof of guilt in today's media. Kudos to Chass' unnamed editor for refusing to allow his paper to sink to that level.