*by Larry Mahnken
March 24, 2004
It didn't start with Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi, nor did it start with Ken Caminiti. It didn't start with Mark McGwire and the bottle of Andro in his locker, or with Jose Canseco and his freakishly large body. It started years before any of that, when some ballplayer decided he wanted to be stronger, but didn't want to put in all the work that was necessary to do it. Maybe he got it from some guy at the gym, or a crooked doctor, or maybe he drove across the border. Nobody knows who it was, or when it was, but when that unknown ballplayer stuck the needle in, the Steroid Era began in Major League Baseball.
And it will never, ever end.
It's not at all surprising that 5-7% of the tests Baseball took last season came back positive for steroid abuse. Even before money enters the equation, the desire to win pushes many to a point where they're willing to do anything, even at the risk of their own health, and even though they know it's not legal or moral. Considering the financial incentives for doing well, it's surprising that even more tests didn't come back positive.
What's not surprising is the reaction by the media, the public, and old ballplayers. The method of testing has been dismissed as too easy to evade and the penalties for testing positive have been scoffed at as being too lenient. More than that, the offensive records set in the past decade have come into question. If the players who set those records were using performance-enhancing drugs, then how valid are those records? Should separate records be kept? Should asterisks be attached to all the records of the era, or should we even go so far as to remove the records from the books?
None of these actions are unprecedented in sports. In International Track and Field, officials will measure the wind velocity during an event, and if the tailwind is too strong, they will not recognize any records that are set. That makes absolute sense, since the officials are trying to eliminate as many external variables as possible. The measurements of distance and time remain the same, and while the equipment and training have improved in modern times, these improvements are not considered unfair.
It can’t work like that in baseball, though. There are far more variables in a baseball game than in a track and field event. Batters don’t face the same pitchers, they don’t see pitches thrown to the same spot at the same velocity, and they don’t play in the same parks, with the same environmental conditions.
The fences aren’t the same distance away, and they’re not the same height. The ballparks don’t face the same way, they don’t have the same hitters’ background, and the wind doesn’t blow at the same speed in the same direction. They don’t come to the plate an equal number of times in the same game situations, and the batters in front of and behind them aren’t the same. In past eras, walks counted as hits, or just as at-bats, and a ball that landed on the field and bounced over the outfield wall was a home run. And, of course, over time, training techniques, changes in the construction of bats and balls, as well as protective padding and the desegregation of the game has changed the conditions of the competition as well.
Simply put, baseball records are surrounded with so much noise already that segregating or deleting them because of the inclusion of one additional variable is ridiculous.
However, there are other justifications for changing the record books. Some say that a player who used steroids to gain a competitive advantage is cheating. That is quite probably true. Although using a substance to enhance one’s performance is not in and of itself wrong, using a substance that could potentially be harmful to the user is, not because of the potential negative effects on the user, but the pressure that it places on other players to use the substances in order to keep up, and the potential negative effects it has on them. If a player has used such a substance, they should be considered a cheater, and their records should perhaps be distinguished from the rest, because they came by them unfairly.
But until the current Collective Bargaining Agreement was negotiated, steroids were not banned by baseball. It’s fair to classify the use of non-banned, but illegal substances as cheating, but substances such as THG and Androstenedione were not illegal until recently--Andro could even be bought over the counter--and Human Growth Hormone is still legal.
You can condemn the motivations of a player who used a performance-enhancing substance that was neither illegal nor banned at the time of use, but you cannot punish them, because they committed no crime. Unless it’s proven that the players in question used substances that were illegal or banned at the time they were used, the records remain legitimate.
The record books in baseball are not unchangeable, and if there’s good reason to change a record, it should be changed. In 1876, walks were counted as at-bats, and in 1887, they were counted as hits. Some record books have retained the original records, but other have changed walks to being non-hits and non-at-bats. But these changes were made not because of some circumstances in the competition, but because the definition of what a hit or an at-bat is different now than it was in those seasons, and there is a desire for the record books to reflect the same measurements.
Ultimately, the record book is about what, not why. Barry Bonds may have used performance-enhancing drugs, allowing him to hit home runs that he never could have hit. But he still hit the ball over the fence, and touched all the bases in order. Sure, the record would be tainted, but every record already is to some degree.
It’s far more important for Baseball and the MLBPA to take proper and fair action to try and prevent players from using these substances in the future. But they'll never get performance-enhancers completely out of the game, and they'll always have an impact on the record books. Still, the records are just numbers, but the players are people. Protecting the record books is not really that important, protecting the people is.
Larry Mahnken is a staff writer for The Hardball Times, and co-editor of the Replacement Level Yankees Weblog. You can contact him with your comments, questions, romantic propositions and incoherent rantings at DLMahnken@hardballtimes.com.
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