Smile Politely

Checking in on the “Criminals”

Who can stand to watch SportsCenter these days? The sporting news is chock full of athletes in distress, a bunch of liars, cheaters and thieves who give in to their countless vices. Then again, that could also occasionally describe me, and probably you. Yet we don’t like to admit as much, because pointing fingers at others is more fun.

For fans, managing the itchy trigger finger is hard work when week after week the media provides fresh bait. Gee, I wonder if Barry Bonds is grateful that Roger Clemens has shifted the steroids spotlight off him? The negative press is so relentless that yesterday’s news seems to have happened years ago. When was the last time you thought about Michael Vick? Or Floyd Landis, or Marion Jones, or Pacman Jones, or Tim Donaghy? You have Kelvin Sampson, Bill Belichick, Reggie Bush, Florida State University and the U.S. Congress to thank for that. Soon enough, someone or something will excuse those entries from our mind, as the media continues to tantalize sports fans with one scandal after another. In some instances, however, it’s worth holding on to the past, if only to obtain some closure.

Take Champaign native and Colorado Rockies pitcher Matt Herges, for example. Last December, his name popped up in the Mitchell Report, an event covered by Smile Politely. For two months Herges remained quiet on the report’s findings — that he had repetitively used performance-enhancing drugs — while the media fixated on bigger names. His day of reckoning finally came two weeks ago as pitchers reported to spring training. Faced with a bevy of anxious media, Herges stepped to the mic.

“Some people told me not to admit anything or I’d be opening myself up to a suspension (from Major League Baseball),” Herges told the Associated Press. “But I had to come out and tell people what I had done. It was a risk I was willing to take. I feel free now.”

In admitting his use of performance-enhancing drugs and issuing an apology, the 37 year-old pitcher followed the lead of Andy Pettitte and several others mentioned in the report. Herges went so far as to say he was thankful for being named in the Mitchell Report, because it forced him to conduct some “soul-searching” and clear his conscious.

“I’ve gotten hugs from everybody,” Herges said of the teammates who greeted him at spring training. “I don’t deserve it, but I’m grateful for it.”

Herges could have taken the easy way out and denied his usage. He’s near the end of his career, so keeping mum could have allowed him to exit the game while possibly saving face. After all, it’s unlikely that the Denver media — let alone the national media — would continue to hound the reliever when there are far bigger fish to fry. So I tip my cap to Herges; his acknowledgment was the right thing to do.

This week I received another blast from the past. Unlike the tone of Herges’ narrative, which turned from poor to favorable, this story reversed course for the worse. Cardinals utility man Scott Spiezio, he of the dyed-red soul patch and risqué tattoo of his wife, was cut loose by the team after a warrant for his arrest was released in California. Turns out Spiezio drunkenly wrecked his car in late December after swerving across lanes of oncoming traffic, fled the scene on foot, went to a neighbor’s house, knocked on the door, threw up, then beat the guy up after the neighbor mocked his condition. Scott then lied to the team about the severity of the altercation and the involvement of alcohol.

The Cardinals have had their fair share of DUI-related mishaps since last winning the World Series. At last season’s spring training, skipper Tony La Russa was busted after being found passed out at the wheel at a stoplight. Shortly thereafter, reliever Josh Hancock killed himself after drunkenly slamming into the rear of a parked tow truck on the highway. Spiezio got in on the action in August, checking himself into rehab for drugs and alcohol. He then supposedly spent his offseason staying sober and out of trouble. The bubble burst on that charade Wednesday, when the team promptly dumped Spiezio on the curb after the warrant was made public.

I’m all for second chances, which is why I was fine with the Cardinals’ decision to retain Spiezio last season despite the burden the team was already carrying thanks to its skipper and dead reliever. But third chances should be well earned, which is why I back Spiezio’s departure. He needs to get his life in order and check into a real rehab program.

In the meantime, I’ll hope that this incident isn’t an omen of things to come, much as La Russa’s negligence turned out to be a sign of the times for a reckless, unfocused Cardinals club in 2007. While I wait to view the results, let me just add that I’m good to go on photos of athletes raising their right hand. But thanks for offering.

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