A Difference of Opinion

When the story came out last week that Jason Giambi had admitted last year that he had knowingly used steroids, followed the next day by the news that Barry Bonds had admitted to using steroids as well, though he claimed it was unknowingly, my reaction was… nothing.

No outrage, no shock. No feeling of betrayal, no feeling of surprise. Not even a feeling of disappointment. No feeling whatsoever.

Could it be that this story has gone on so long, that the parties involved have been so long suspected, that I’ve just become numb to the whole thing — tired of it?

No, it can’t be that. When the Ken Caminiti story broke in 2002, my reaction was not much different. I simply didn’t care. I didn’t care in 2001 when people started questioning Barry Bonds, I didn’t care in 1998 when they asked Mark McGwire what he was using. I didn’t care in the early 90′s when there started to be whispers that maybe there was something going on in baseball that was leading to this big home run surge. At no point along the way did I care whether or not any player was using steroids. Knowing that Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi both did isn’t any different.

It’s not that I’m jaded. If I was, then at least I’d feel some scorn towards Giambi and Bonds. I don’t even feel that. I honestly couldn’t care less whether they did or didn’t; I couldn’t care less how much it impacted their performance.

Am I just a bad person? I mean, I’m supposed to care, right? These guys cheated; they damaged the integrity of the game. It’s the greatest scandal since the Black Sox, right? Why don’t I care?

My feelings are best summed up by a sentiment expressed on the old sitcom “Mad About You”. In one episode, the show’s stars (Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt) get free cable, and find that they have the “blue channel”. They’re sitting in bed watching this, and Hunt turns to Reiser and says, “You know, they’re not real.” And he says, “You know, I don’t care.”

I don’t watch baseball to see great athletes. I don’t look at Barry Bonds and think, “Wow, he must have worked really hard to get that good.” How they got the way they are is irrelevant to my enjoyment of their performance.

Unlike, I suppose, pretty much everyone, I don’t consider steroid abuse to be cheating at baseball. It’s cheating at working out, it’s probably cheating other players out of playing time in some instances, and it’s certainly cheating those players and teams out of money — but it’s not cheating at baseball. The positive effects of steroids are the same as exercise, just dramatically increased. When you take steroids, the ball doesn’t jump over the fence on a bunt. Foul balls don’t suddenly curve fair, and you can’t suddenly hit any ball anywhere at any time. It makes you a better hitter, but you could achieve the same results with actual hard work. The results in the gym are a fraud, the results on the field are not, because the other team will be able to ascertain very quickly your physical attributes, and play you accordingly.

In contests of strict athletic skill, I can see, and agree, that steroid abuse is cheating. In weightlifting the point of the contest is to see who is stronger. Track is to see who’s faster, or can jump further, or can throw further, and swimming is to see who can swim faster. But in baseball, the point of the contest is to score more runs than the other team, and not by displays of athletic prowess. Sure, athletic prowess helps, but the team that wins is not always the more athletic one. If the most athletic teams have an advantage in championships, in fact, I’d be surprised if it was a very large one. Technical skill is much more important than athletic prowess in baseball, I believe.

And none of that takes into account the fact that this is a professional sport, not an amateur competition. In theory, at least, the Olympics are supposed to be a contest thrown for the sake of the contest, and the glory of winning. Professional sports, on the other hand, are entertainment. The goal of them is not to find the best athlete, or the best team, but to entertain the fans and make them willing to part with their money — consider the postseason format. If a player wants to do long-term harm to their bodies to make more money, or simply gain more fame, then to me that’s their own personal choice. The consequences those choices have on their health is a satisfactory penalty to me.

This isn’t a big scandal to me. I think collusion was vastly worse than steroid abuse is. A lot of fans look at that and think about greedy players, but consider this: for at least three seasons, major league baseball teams agreed to not try their hardest to win. Steroid abusers tried a little too hard to win. Which is worse?

I can see why others get upset by steroid abuse. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t; I’m saying that I don’t share their view of things. Maybe I’m alone on this, but if I’m not, then my viewpoint certainly isn’t getting much airtime in this debate. According to the media, I should be outraged, shocked, and want to banish these players from the game, the Hall of Fame, and expunge their records from the books. In fact, I would be genuinely outraged if any of those things came to pass. Suspend abusers who test positive for a time, but don’t banish them from the Hall or try to pretend that what they did didn’t really happen. It did.

The party that has been really wronged here, I feel, is the players. Not the abusers, of course, but the clean players, and perhaps those who started using because they felt that it was necessary to do so to keep up with others that were using. It is they who have been cheated out of opportunities and money. It is up to them to decide how important it is to eliminate steroid abuse, how to find it, and how to punish it. This shouldn’t be about the trust of the fans, it should be about protecting the players. This shouldn’t be about sanitizing the world for our children — if you don’t want your kids using steroids then talk to them honestly about their effects.

I have my own ideas as to how steroid abuse should be handled — I think testing should be heavily increased, and that penalties should be more preventative and corrective than punitive — but I don’t think it’s really my business, though I’ll give my support to efforts to eliminate steroid usage. But as a fan, my interest is in being entertained. I don’t support using steroids; I’m not going to be more entertained by ballplayers who do use. But I’m not going to be less entertained if the players decide that steroids are something that they’re okay with. I just don’t care.

So can we talk about baseball again?

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