Heroes and Steroids

So Jason Giambi has admitted that he took steroids. Barry Bonds has admitted that he apparently, unknowingly, did as well. What are we to think? Is this a scandal? If so, how big a scandal is it?

First of all, although Barry Bonds claims he did not understand what “clears” and “cream” were, it’s naive to think that he’s an innocent. Maybe he didn’t ask because he didn’t want to know. In the legal sense, that’s as good as knowing. I don’t mean to be cynical, but if you believe that Bonds didn’t know he was ingesting and applying drugs of some questionable legality, I’ve got a new ballpark in Washington D.C. that I’d like to sell you.

Some people claim that players like Giambi and Bonds weren’t cheating, because taking steroids is not explicitly outlawed in the MLB rules. That’s silly. Taking prescription drugs without a prescription is illegal. Prescriptions exist for a reason — to protect patients from taking drugs that might harm them (also, to protect the profits of the drug companies and physicians, but that’s another story). If a ballplayer takes a prescription drug to enhance his performance without a prescription, that’s cheating, regardless of the rules.

By chance, I was reading Keith Hernandez’s fine book, Pure Baseball, last night, and came across his view of cheating in a section in which he talks about peeking at the catcher while at bat.

Is peeking cheating? Absolutely not. Poor sportsmanship? No more so than stealing signs or doctoring the ball. I consider all these tricks as part of the art and craft of playing baseball, not as cheating. Now, hitting with a corked bat, that is cheating because there’s no way to catch this trick on the field. But if you can stand on the mound and somehow scuff the baseball in full view of the umpires and everyone else and not get caught, more power to you.

In my mind, this is a nice summary quote of what a baseball player’s morality might be. There is a difference between scuffing the ball and taking steroids, and Hernandez articulates the difference pretty well. In the end, illegal performance-enhancing drugs give an edge to the player who’s willing to break the law to use them. It’s unfair; it’s cheating. And it should be punished.

On the other hand, the rules about steroids and related drugs have not always been clear. Witness the Mark McGwire Androstenedione controversy several years ago, in which McGwire found out that the over-the-counter dietary supplement he was taking was a steroid. In a way, you can’t blame baseball players for stretching the rules as far as they have. The rules aren’t particularly clear. And Major League Baseball has not articulated or enforced any related rules very well, until their most recent attempts.

Major League Baseball is ill-equipped to handle the consequences of these actions. Applying a retroactive punishment would only exacerbate the problem. Forget about asterisks and Hall of Fame criteria; just let the courts handle what is essentially a legal issue. Major League baseball should set its sights forward.

Performance-enhancing drugs are everywhere, not just professional sports. In the past 30 days, the New York Times has run stories about a drug scandal in European homing pigeon races as well a concern that professional musicians are taking drugs without a prescription to calm their nerves and improve their performance. This is not uncommon behavior, and it exists in every sport, in every competitive endeavor.

But baseball fans have a different relationship with baseball players than do fans and players of other sports. I cannot imagine myself on a offensive line, staring down a 300-pound defensive end who’s three times faster than I am. I cannot imagine myself dribbling, running and dunking over a 6’6″ forward. But I can imagine myself scooping up a groundball in the hole and throwing out the runner at first. I can imagine myself running down a ball in the gap or swinging at a major league fastball and actually hitting the ball, maybe for a hit. It may well be an illusion, but the skills of a Major League baseball player are somehow accessible to us. This makes the baseball player a different kind of sports hero.

Barry Bonds breaks that mold. What he has accomplished on the field is superhuman, inconceivable (and I know what that word means). And his impressive physique — like Giambi’s — just reinforces that impression. Bonds is the superhuman basketball/football player on the baseball field. To a lot of baseball fans, he just hasn’t belonged. And, to top it off, he’s apparently a very unpleasant person, particularly to the media. So fans and the media have reacted. We’ve called for his head. We’ve questioned his morality and the validity of his achievements. It’s an understandable reaction, but one that misses the boat. What Giambi and Bonds did is past. We need to move on.

Like most everyone else, I want to see MLB ownership and the player’s union set clear and enforceable policies and practices regarding performance-enhancing drugs. I understand the concerns about privacy, but the reputation of the sport is at stake. Find the right balance, and do it soon.

References & Resources
All-baseball has a fine review and discussion of the steroid scandal.

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