Today's Three Up Three Down interview is with Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports. Jeff is an award-winning columnist who has covered baseball since 2004. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series." Jeff is one of baseball's most respected columnists and we really enjoyed his candor and dynamic insight - we hope you do as well.
Baseball Analytics: It seems as if the issue of PEDs won't die - what will the long term impact be on baseball and with so much money in player contracts do you think PEDs are here to stay?
Passan: PEDs are going nowhere. Elite athletes in any sport, be it baseball, football, basketball or, as we've seen, cycling, will stop at nothing to gain even the slightest advantage. And while much of it is monetarily driven, sure, I think that's too simple an explanation. These are people who at every point of their lives have been the best at something, so usage understandably runs the gamut, from those who no longer look elite compared to their peers to those who want desperately to hold on to such status. Even if a sport disincentivized PED use disproportionately -- say, a lifetime ban on the first positive -- players still would use. As long as drugs are available and work, and the testing is so infrequent, they'll go to embarrassing lengths.
Just think about how ridiculous this sounds: A former male stripper sucks the juice out of the antlers of dead deer, bottles it and encourages you to spray it under your tongue to play better. Or how about this one: A guy who parades around calling himself a doctor despite the absence of a medical degree and has access to wide arrays of completely illegal substances says he can turn you into a star -- and more than a dozen guys making anywhere from a half-million dollars to $30 million allegedly line up. If athletes are willing to do that -- to deal with the incompetent, the shady, the suspect and, in some cases, all three -- then the sports have no chance.
While this doesn't have any of the sociological implications of the War on Drugs, it's equally futile. And, similarly, the seeming solution of legalization is wrought with peril as well. Since the embarrassment of steroids hit baseball a decade ago, the sport has so demonized performance-enhancing drugs, any sort of pivot off that position would bring cries of disingenuousness. So MLB will fight, and it will fight hard. There are true believers in the league office who under the ever-graying line -- you can extract your blood, spin it, reinject it and that's OK, but a less-effective substance isn't because the government regulates it? -- but cannot muddy their moral or ethical stances for fear their well-hewn position would collapse.
Baseball Analytics: How many times a day does someone say to you, "off the record..."? How important are anonymous sources to great reporting?
Jeff Passan: Guys say off the record all the time. To which I respond: No. The vehemence of their counter-response and the vitality of the information helps me decide whether it's worth listening. And it can be. If it means the difference between knowing something and not knowing it, my job is to know, and so it can be a sacrifice worth making.
A lot of it, I think, depends on the history of your relationship with the source. Some sources are wildly paranoid and necessitate it. I walked by a great source at the Winter Meetings this year and couldn't even say hello. Later in the meetings, someone else introduced me to him, and I had to act like I didn't know him. I texted him later: "It was very nice to meet you today."
Another source understands the various forms of anonymity. Off the record means information you simply cannot use. It's sort of a for-your-knowledge thing, and I reserve it only for the best sources, because they're not going to give me frivolities off the record. The next step up is on background, which means information I can use to report but can't attribute it. The next step up is don't use my name, which I've come to find is the most dangerous, because people in baseball love nothing more than to talk shit on other people, and the inclination can be to allow them to cloak themselves in anonymity. Often, this is unfair. There are certain instances I can think of where I have allowed this -- in a Marlins column or two perhaps -- but by and large, I try to limit them. And then is the golden obelisk, on the record, which you shoot for whenever you can.
To me, what made the Red Sox-text message story so strong wasn't just the information about the near-mutiny. It was that Ben Cherington confirmed it on the record. I didn't know Ben all that well when I called him up, and I expected him to ream me up and down. On the contrary, he was eminently professional, calm and reasoned. Not that he cares about such things, but I earned an enormous amount of respect for how he dealt with what he knew was about to blow up into a mess of a situation. And it's why when you make such phone calls, you never offer off the record. Best to let the source negotiate for it and see if it's worth it.
Baseball Analytics: If you could take a pill that helped you perform your job at such a high level that your earnings would increase 5X would you take it (we promise there will be no side effects)?
Jeff Passan: All right, Morpheus ...
I can't answer without understanding the other variables. Is this pill legal? What are the moral and ethical implications of taking this pill? What will my parents think of me? My wife? My sons? I imagine the readers would like it, since my columns would improve, but at the sort of price where those who don't read me accuse me of being a phony and my work a sham? For how long will my earnings increase? And how much more work will that entail, drawing me away from the sorts of things I need to maintain a balanced life?
I do know this: A lot of athletes have said yes without considering such questions because the allure of quintupling one's salary is simply too great. And I get that. I do. The idea of taking care of generations of Passans appeals a great deal. Tempting enough to not even consider the ramifications. And yet I'd hope the magnet of my moral compass is stronger than that of a dollar sign followed by a number and a bunch of zeroes.