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Elite Athletes As Flawed Men: Does The Moral Line Extend To Winning?

In a perfect world, each of our favorite teams would be made up of players with high moral fiber, compelling backgrounds--replete with stories of rising above adversity and beating all odds to finally take their place at the highest level of whatever sport they aspire to play--and an overall sense of charity, humility and a pure love for the game.

But since we live in the real world, and sports are made up of ordinary men blessed with extraordinary talent, we find ourselves often disappointed when the reality of who we think our athletes should be collides with who they actually are.

We like to think that we hold high standards in regards to our team, and in many ways we do. We gravitate towards the ‘nice’ players, who love the fans, who give to charity, who stay out of the tabloids, and who can be used as role models for a generation of impressionable children, which is all well and good, except when it’s not.

Somewhere down deep in all of us who have ever lived and died by our love for a professional sports franchise, lurks the fan who at all costs--at any price--just wants to win the game. It’s easy to be rational in the off-season; everything is decided on paper. But does that translate to the intensity of the season itself?

Those of you who are Warriors fans know this conundrum well. When the team picked up Stephen Jackson in last year’s mid-season trade, most fans gave him a rather negative welcome. Stephen Jackson, to put it mildly, has not been a good guy, and his off-court life more than reflects this. But as is the case, upper management weighed the decision between signing an amazing basketball player against possible negative fan reaction, and obviously decided that the Warriors’ winning would keep the fans in the game. They were right; there are not many fans that today will argue that the Warriors late-season surge and subsequent amazing playoff run was not due to Jackson’s presence. Even this season, when Jackson spent the first seven games on the bench (while the Warriors went 1-6) due to his off-court trouble, all was quickly forgiven when the Warriors surged forward with his return.

In another sports analogy, I give you the case of Michael Vick, whose actions have horrified an entire country (and if we’re honest, probably because dogs are closer to our hearts than other animals used for sport). If I told you that within the next year or so, Vick would be looking to quarterback a team, your initial reaction would probably be "Hell no!" and rightly so. But is there a breaking point? If you are a 49ers fan, and you are doomed to a 3 and 13 season for the next decade, at what point could you make yourself not throw up when Vick took the field with your offense? What if he wins a couple of game? Could you watch? What happens when you find your team knocking on the door of the playoffs for the first time in years? Do you find yourself hoping with all your might that he has changed; that he is somehow reformed? And should he lead you all the way to the prize, would you finally cheer for him?

I have no love for Barry Bonds, and if I’m honest, I think he absolutely abused his considerable power in San Francisco to live his career largely unchecked, having not a single person with the power, or really, the inclination to hold him accountable. Do I think he took steroids? Of course; there is overwhelming evidence to support this charge; if not the ironclad proof to make it a fact. Add to that a career with the Bay Area Baseball Hog Giants and Bonds’ naturally cheery personality, and it is no wonder why he’s an Oakland persona non grata. All these reasons I understand.

But claming a moral high ground as not to besmirch the good Oakland name with the taint of steroids? Hate to break it to you, but that ship has sailed. As much as we hate it, Oakland is the quintessential word-association partner for steroids.

In case we need reminding this holiday season, the Oakland A’s are a lot like the Island of Misfit Toys. Unless we raise them ourselves, we simply can’t compete for the players that everybody wants. We can’t pay them, and they don’t want to play for Oakland. Players that we can afford and want to take a chance on will have flaws; and that’s just the way it is. The most recent trend for the A’s has obviously been the oft-injured players; where we spend the entire season praying that they will finish healthily, if not productively. It comes with the territory of being a small market team; Oakland must take a chance on players that no one else wants, and if the gamble pays off, Oakland will win. Players riddled with scandal will not be off Beane’s radar--and why should they be?

When the A’s were playing well, and we had a farm system to speak of, it was easy to claim the high moral ground of keeping the riffraff out of green and gold. But as we look around the league at players we could never buy, nor trade for, and the free agent list starts growing slimmer and slimmer, we begin to feel the desperate need for a bat--any bat--and while we would rightly object to this signing in principle, most of us know that we would cheer like there was no tomorrow at Bonds’ first walk-off grand slam against K-Rod.

If the courts and MLB decide Barry Bonds can play baseball, and the A’s can sign him to a decent contract to help them win, who I am to object to this on admittedly shaky moral ground? If he is eligible to play baseball and will be an asset to the team, then welcome aboard. Let’s be honest: If we set our moral barometers to ‘We only want players who have never been implicated, named, or rumored to have been in a steroid scandal’, our lists have not only narrowed considerably, but we have just given back at least one Oakland World Championship. It’s disingenuous and patently unfair to cherry-pick moral offenses, and if steroid use is an unforgivable sin in a ballplayer, then that outrage should be directed at the root of the steroid scandal--MLB itself--instead of laying full blame at the feet of someone who used the corrupt system to rise to the top.

And if you still claim the high moral ground, where, exactly, is the line drawn? Do you insist on only signing players who have never been involved in a marriage scandal in the off-season? In this case in point, would you take Bobby Crosby over Alex Rodriguez because of his strong moral fiber? And if so, may I suggest a different sport?

Would you really want to know about the possible list of offenses of the current A’s team? Or does the green and gold uniform on the field have the ability to transform a flawed human into a superhero while he’s wearing it? Can we cheer for the laundry, no matter who is inside? And likewise, can we hate a player simply because of the laundry he wears?

One of the great mysteries in baseball to me is the blind hatred of Curt Schilling. Hate him because he’s on the Red Sox; hate him because he’s cocky, self-absorbed, pompous, and chatty. Hate him because you disagree with him on religion and politics, or you just really hate the Red Sox. But as for moral fiber? I would argue that no one--and I mean no one--is more accessible to his fans (runs a blog), gives more to charity (ALS and cancer research), loves his wife more, fighting her bout with cancer right alongside her (Quote: "In addition to an incredibly blessed life and career, I’ve got an incredibly beautiful wife who’s about a billion times prettier on the inside than she is on the outside."), and cares more about winning baseball games, than does Curt Schilling. Hate him because of who he plays for, and for the persona on the field, but if high moral fiber is your kick, he’d be on your team.

And Barry Bonds wouldn’t.

You don’t have to like the idea. You don’t have to like the person. But this is a game, not a relationship, and if you want what’s best for the A’s, then you must accept that the A’s will fill a team with flawed players. They simply can’t afford to pick and choose based on image; and that is the cold, hard reality of it all. If you want a competitive A’s team in 2008, the A’s need to be better than they currently are. And if picking up a lost and unwanted, but still usable toy along the way is going to get them closer to that goal, than I can live with that.

And despite my best efforts not to, I will be one of the fans jumping around at any walk-off homerun hit against K-rod. Or Schilling, for that matter. Neither of them are in green and gold.