It’s time to go long on steroids

Many people have thrown up their hands in disgust with all of the steroids news lately, and I understand that. It’s not baseball, for one thing. It’s also so unseemly and tabloidy that it’s easy to get fed up with it all in short order. But it is news and it is relevant, so simply hiding our heads in the sand about it all makes little sense either. What to do? Will Carroll has a suggestion:

If journalists are going to admit that they were asleep at the wheel throughout much of the steroid era, it’s time to start asking the hard questions. I’ve seen, so far, only one instance of this, with Ivan Rodriguez. Credit to whoever it was that asked, though I can’t find it online.

Finally, we need to take a look at players who have played their entire minor and major league career under a testing program and decide whether or not we believe in professional sports’ strongest testing program. I’m pretty sure that it’s done baseball no good, because no one seems to believe that it’s stopping things, despite positive results going from 96 to 2 in five years. I was at the NFL Combine today, watching 350 pound men running sub-5.0 dashes, lifting cars … and being called undersized.

We can continue to cover this story as if we’re the sports section of TMZ or we can do the hard work it takes to try educate and enlighten the story. If I were Dinn Mann, the editor of MLB.com, or any sports editor across the country, I’d have my beat writer asking the question.

Will plays with the idea of asking individual players if they used or not. I don’t think that’s the way to go. Way too Salem for my tastes, and it really only gives us one piece of information. But I do agree that we need to veer away from the sensationalism in which the current state of the coverage seems to wallow and focus less on the names for the name’s sake, because that leads us into the cycle of shallow journalism and opinion that gets us all sick of this subject to begin with.

As things are, your standard steroid story goes as follows: (a) user identified; (b) hysteria over the identification; (c) coverage of the apology/statement; and (d) some backfill on the player, usually of the salacious variety (e.g. Mindy McCreedy; phantom cousins in the D.R.). Then things are forgotten for a while, only to have the cycle begin anew when someone else is identified. How much nicer would it be if, instead of this endless cycle of tabloidism, we had some bedrock perspective on the issue as a whole? Some context into which we can throw the A-Rods of the world in at least an attempt to gauge the seriousness of their offenses against baseball and nature. Some depth of information that will allow us to properly analyze the history, culture, and impact of the steroid era and allow us to compare it with that which came before and since. To do that, we have to eschew the paparazzi mentality that currently reigns, roll up our sleeves, and ask some difficult questions. Questions like:

  • How often did ballplayers actually use and what specifically did they use?
  • What, if anything, is the profile of a PED user? Were they mostly people who got hurt and were trying to come back more quickly? Stars who wanted to blast their way into the Hall of Fame? Minor leaguers who wanted to become major leaguers? I suspect all, but is one dynamic more prevalent than the others?
  • When did users actually start using? High school? College? In the minors? After making The Show? This is important if we are interested in prevention and education. If elite ballplayers have already made decisions about PEDs before being drafted or signed, that will affect how resources are marshaled.
  • Was drug use a personal thing? Specifically, did guys decide on their own, based on their own personal experiences to use steroids, or was it a peer pressure thing in which certain clubhouses promoted a “steroid culture?” We suspect that the Rangers, Orioles, and Yankees clubhouses were worse off than many others, and maybe they were. But maybe that perception is simply a function of who got caught.
  • How did players connect with their dealers? Word of mouth, or did the dealers seek out their customers? This is another key to prevention.
  • Were the people who didn’t use choir boys who had moral objections, or did fear of the dangers of steroids and/or a belief that they simply didn’t need them inform their decision making?
  • Obsessive followers of this blog will recognize those questions because I’ve raised them before in the wake of the Mitchell Report as a means of pointing out the flaws in that exercise. They’re still good questions, and remain largely unanswered. No, no one or two ballplayers are going to sit down and explain all of this stuff to someone, but they are questions that ambitious reporters and researchers can use to guide them over time as they explore this story with the depth that is so desperately needs.

    And until they are answered, we will never be able to get past the gawker mentality of the steroids story. A mentality that sickens so many of us and accomplishes so little.

    (thanks to Pete Toms for the link)

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    Comments

    1. Jason @ IIATMS said...

      Good capture of the salient points of this mess, but the practical side of it is that no one is going to willingly fess up to using.

      Just like no player will fess up to being gay until after they leave the game.

      I, for one, would like the whole “let’s rip the scab off and deal with it all at once, once and for all” approach, but I also don’t think that’s happening anytime soon.

      So that leaves us with a new ”(a) user identified; (b) hysteria over the identification; (c) coverage of the apology/statement; and (d) some backfill on the player, usually of the salacious variety (e.g. Mindy McCreedy; phantom cousins in the D.R.). Then things are forgotten for a while, only to have the cycle begin anew when someone else is identified” every February, coinciding with a pending book release.

    2. lar said...

      The first thing that popped into my head while reading this, Craig, was a completely, 100% anonymous survey that could be given to every major leaguer from the past, say, 10 years and that would ask them all the tough questions. It could then be used to give everyone a good idea of what’s going on in baseball. I know, it’s likely that many players would lie and such, but if it was treated seriously – like a medical history or something – then it could provide some really useful information.

      Of course, with the whole A-Rod thing, I can’t imagine the Player’s Association ever again agreeing to “anonymous” testing of any sort, no matter how much MLB begs and pleads and promises to keep things protected.

    3. Pete Toms said...

      “It’s not baseball, for one thing.”

      No, it’s not, but the reason I follow this “story” is that it has had/will have a direct impact on the “game” that I enjoy watching.  PEDs in MLB were a major contributor (not the only one) to the “HR era” and the decrease in HRs the past few (handful?) of years is a result of the decreased usage of PEDs.

      I agree with Carroll though, 2 positive tests is laughable.  It indicates that either MLB ain’t tryin that hard to catch cheaters or cheaters are just hopelessly ahead of testers.

      The Presinal tales are the latest proof of the incompetence of baseball writers and MLB.  If he did (and I believe the allegations) spend the 07 season travelling with the Yanks and rooming with Sucart, how could the writers not notice he was around?  And not know his history?  How the hell did none of the writers or anybody in MLB not notice that he was part of the Dominican club in the WBC?

      Presinal, McNamee, Radomski, Anderson….the baseball writers aren’t stupid, their observations and instincts would tell them what the role of these “nutritionists/trainers/personal assistants” was, they just didn’t want to get blackballed out of the club.

      If there is a problem we should be concerned with it is the reports that steroid use amongst young athletes has increased dramatically.  And steroids aren’t going away, because they work, because athletes want to be and need to be bigger, faster, stronger.  And to hell with Congress and their grandstanding, they deregulated the “supplement” industry and made it easier for kids to get on the juice.

    4. Pete Toms said...

      Oh, I’m also scornful of club management for not questioning the roles of the likes of Presinal, McNamee, Radomski and Anderson also.  I do think Peter MacGowan paid a price for this though.

    5. Chipmaker said...

      The mystery of the 103 names remaining on the 2003 survey list could be obliterated if the players from that year, in a show of union solidarity to make Marvin Miller shed a tear, would each and all go public proclaiming that Yes, I Used Steroids.

      Call it the “I’m Spartacus” movement.

      1. It obviously would be a massive joke.
      2. It would be a gigantic Finger to Bud Selig & friends.
      3. It would be a gigantic Finger to the media, who were completely asleep at the wheel for years.
      4. It would be a monumental Finger to the fans, many of whom deserve it.
      5. It would confound future revelations, much like JFK assassination theories—so much noise that the truth, while probably in plain sight, is obscured beyond recovery.
      6. And if the list comes out, so what? 103 confirmable names mixed among the 1100 others, each of whom can claim, well, I was using things the testing couldn’t find.

      I’m sure there are a host of reasons for this not to happen, some of them legalistic, but gosh, that would be a grand display to have hit the air.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mOCsNrzlV2k&fmt=18

    6. William Jameson said...

      If we’re going to go long, let’s do it for real and acknowledge that steroids have been part of MLB since the 1960s. Then start asking about some of the hallowed heroes of the game who are held up as paragons of the good old days. The current narrative of the 90s as the “steroid era” is a convenient myth.

    7. Laurence Davison said...

      What about the most obvious question of all:

      - What does the use of PEDs actually *do* to a ballplayer, both in terms of literal performance enhancement and injury recovery?

      Perhaps if we had a realistic idea of how many – if any – extra home runs users can hit, or how much faster their fastball gets, we could have some kind of sensible discussion about how we view things like tainted records.

      Dare I suggest this is a weakness in the coverage of baseball between mainstream media and the blogosphere? Sportwriters are generally too lazy or unqualified to do the research necessary to cover this angle, and bloggers generally can only comment on material that’s already out there rather than producing their own.

    8. Pete Toms said...

      @ Jason. Media – incompetent and cowardly.  Management – complicit.  (BTW, welcome back!)

      @ Laurence – “how many – if any”  As for individual players….A Rod’s HR totals on the road from 01-03 weren’t impacted (IIRC), his home HRs were up substantially during that period because Texas is a better hitters park.  The flip side…Bonds HR production on the juice speaks for itself.  As for the “era”, HRs went WAY up (I’m not gonna look up the numbers) but one of the examples is the 50 homer club.  When Cecil hit 50 it was a big deal.  Once Brady Anderson and Luis Gonzalez started doing it, not so much so.

    9. Jason @ IIATMS said...

      @Pete: thanks.  great to be back!

      Re: the Media….remember back in our dad’s days when the media would protect players.  Now it’s adversarial.  Perhaps the PED usage was a residual effect of trying to protect the players to curry favor.  Perhaps I am simply stretching too far.

    10. Laurence Davison said...

      Pete – that’s exactly what I’m talking about: it’s all supposition. Are we meant to assume that A-Rod took steroids for no gain at all? Why would he bother? And just saying HRs were up is not sufficient – what about smaller ballparks, “juiced” balls…

      I’m not arguing for a second that steroids don’t do anything. I don’t know. What I *am* saying is that I’ve never seen any proper examination of what they actually do to professional ballplayers that has any more detail than pretty much saying “there were more HRs in the 90s”.

    11. Pete Toms said...

      @ Jason.  I think it’s just the day to day grind of being a beat reporter.  If you are ostracized , you can’t do your job, so you don’t rock the boat.  Wasn’t an AP reporter shunned by his peers for making too big a deal out of the andro in McGwire’s locker?  A lot of those same reporters have since found religion.

    12. Pete Toms said...

      @ Laurence.  HRs are down the past couple (handful?) of years.  If it isn’t because of testing and reduced usage of steroids, what is the cause?

    13. Laurence Davison said...

      Ok Pete, I’ll reply to this one but in future please read what I’m actually saying before coming back to me.

      I don’t know what caused the offense explosion. I all likelihood I think steroids probably had a lot to do with it. Ok, happy with that?

      What I am asking for – all I have ever asked for – is that someone actually study the effects of PEDs on professional athletes so we, the baseball consuming public, can be presented with an analysis of exactly how much difference they make.

      Just saying “oh well HRs were up” and assuming that was all to do with PEDs is insufficient; for instance, it doesn’t even break down how much was because of players being more muscular and how much because they didn’t get injured so often.

      Wouldn’t you like to know, for instance, how PEDs apparently added about 35 HRs a year to Barry Bonds’s numbers and zero to A-Rod’s? I bet A-Rod would.

    14. James said...

      ARod’s home run totals weren’t affected in 2001-2003 because he had been roiding since he was a teenager.  Since steroids were supposed to be so prevalent in high schools in the late 90s, why would anyone assume that only the mediocre players took them?  Since something was always available over the counter in the DR and other Latin countries (or so readily available that it might as well have been OTC), why would Latin players refuse it?

      Bonds had been hot before, check out the last 45 games of 1994 after he was moved to 3rd in the lineup.  (http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1994/Ibondb0010091994.htm).  Many guys were having incredible years that year.  Bonds and Williams would have broken Mantle/Maris.  Bonds obviously did not add 35 home runs a year, having just one huge home run year when several people had huge home run years.
      In the early 2000s, he had a shorter swing with more lift than he had had say 1994, a harder bat, more fans in the park, a better family life, more experience, etc. – it’s impossible to separate the variables.  Because Luis Gonzales hit 57 home runs in 2001, you wonder how much pitching was down that year or if the umps were calling it very tight.

    15. VanderBirch said...

      I think the really moralistic response from the media may in fact increase steroid usage amongst young athletes. MSM fear mongering really suggests steroids provide some sort of magic bullet.

      Agree with you Jason and Pete re: beat reporters. It’s a fairly natural reaction to the conditions of their job, and perhaps also to the fact that most beat reporters really wish they could be ball players themselves. I do find it funny that most of the calls for players to come forward and be completely honest are coming from writers who have completely avoided acceptance of their role is this problem.

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