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The Burden of Proof

Mike SteffanosThursday, March 5, 2009
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.

About Mike: I was the original writer on this web site, actually its only writer for the first 15 months of existence. Although I am grateful for the excellent contributions of my fellow writers here, I have no plans of stepping back into strictly an editorial role. I started this thing in the first place because I love to write and I love the Mets, and blogging here keeps me somewhat sane. If you haven't had enough already, more bio info can be found here.

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Comments (5)

Mike, great article, just another reason why you are the man!! I put you up against anyone writing for any sports paper and if you lost I still want to hire you as an attorney. Kissing your butt for no other reason than you deserving it.

Well the concensus is really "guilty until proven innocent". As much as we like to give individual's recognition for their accomplishments, it seems we also enjoy confirming their "human" sides, that hey are just as flawed as the rest of us are. Build them up, just to tear them down. Because we are living vicariously through these individual's because our own lives are such a bore (get a life!). Anyway, I have wondered about many a player, especially the ones that had these freak injuries. Piazza's groin muscle tearing away from the bone comes to mind....OUCH! All in all, they can call it as they wish, it's 2009 and I am ready for a new season. Let's go Mets!

Thanks, Mike, for voicing what so many of your fellow Met fans-- and fans of good journalism-- have been muttering since casting eyes on the Chass piece.

(R.I.P. FireJoeMorgan.)

Chass....ooh, I do not like that guy.

This last gesture is entirely in keeping with everything else we know of Chass. He derides statistical analysis and his articles are often weak and unfounded; he sneers at web blogs and then floats an unsubstantiated rumor that tarnishes the reputation of one of the better people involved with baseball in my lifetime. He is a shill for the Yankees, and as Rob Neyer put it, apparently lost his actual enjoyment of baseball some time back.

What a jerk. And by the way, I'm not sure he could hold down a job at the Post. The Post may not be much of a newspaper, but unlike the Times they do take sports seiously. And the way the Times is headed Chass may be looking for a job 'ere long.

I used to love everything about thumbing through the sports section, right down to the ink smudges on my fingers. Now we have access to far superior writing, thoughtful insight, more than one side to every story, and a chance to add our two cents' worth in (for whatever that's actually worth), both here and in plenty of other places. See "GREAT METS BLOGS" in the sidebar to your right to find your SECOND-favorite website.

These days, I have no need to spend money to read antiquated opinions sent through an antiquated, highly inefficient, and eco-unfriendly delivery system. I shed no tears for any of those writers - they're so full of themselves, it's funny.

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