Every time I do a column on steroids, or players linked with performance enhancing drugs, I generally end up with a not-insignificant number of e-mails where I have to explain that my parents were married five years before I was born, that no, I do not harbor an Oedipus Complex, I’ve got DNA records to prove that my mother was not a golden retriever, and I have no desire to engage in an auto-erotic exercise that is for all intents and purposes anatomically impossible. While Dr. Phil says that optimum mental health requires that we love ourselves, he has yet to mention the necessity of consummating that relationship.
But I digress.
In my four-plus decades of sentience I have picked up tidbits of wisdom which I have found keeps me reasonably sane (or at least keeps my insanity to a comfortably manageable level). For example: “God grant me the strength to change what I can, accept what I cannot and the wisdom to know the difference.”
In other words—other than the bringing on of sweet unconsciousness—there’s little benefit in life to banging your head against a brick wall.
Other bits, while jaded are absolutely true:
“Follow the money.”
“The dollar will never fall as low as the means people will stoop to acquire it.”
In short, if there’s money to be made there’s nothing some people won’t do to get their hands on it. Why do sphincterically inclined people deal in kiddie porn and child-prostitution? Why do the purulent among us sell street drugs to kids in public school? Why do people sue others when they suffer damage due to their own stupidity? On a lesser scale, while you’ve been surfing the web this week, how much annoying spam have you cleaned out of your inbox? How many popup ads have you closed/blocked?
Which brings us to this week’s birdcage liner (I recommend you print it off, since Tweety might be freaked out by having a monitor in his cage): baseball’s war on performance enhancing drugs. Earlier, when I wrote “God grant me the strength to change what I can, accept what I cannot and the wisdom to know the difference” I am forced to admit that I do not subscribe to this 100%. Even though some fights cannot be won, doesn’t mean that they should not be fought. Getting rid of the slimeballs mentioned in the previous paragraph should always be pursued vigorously, even though doing so might be the equivalent of trying to keep the tide from coming in. We will always have to take measures to protect our children.
… however some things are a constant:
Baseball players are always looking for an edge: Ty Cobb sharpened his spikes, players “bought off” opposing players, players boned their bats (yes, feel free to have some juvenile fun with that one—I always do), Gaylord Perry loaded up the baseball, others corked their bats, everybody and their Grandma Murphy used amphetamines. And of course there are anabolic steroids. Not I’m not going to argue the various levels of morality of each of these items. Yes, there are differing degrees here but they all spring from a common motive: to win, to have better stats, to get paid more money.
These motivations will never change.
Once it was corked bats and spit balls, yesterday it was amphetamines, today it’s steroids; do you honestly think tomorrow will be any different? That somebody somewhere isn’t going to come up with a new way to get an edge, to improve their stats, to get paid more money?
That’s why I can’t get overly indignant about Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Michael Morse, Manny Alexander, Juan Rincon or Ryan Franklin. It’s not a question of a few cheaters, it’s a matter of a tainted era.
But baseball history is littered with taints: a 45-foot pitching distance created a pitcher who notched over 500 strikeouts in a single season; the spitball and overused baseballs produced pitchers with a career ERA of 1.82 and a single season ERA of 0.96; not having to face all of baseball’s best hurlers allowed players to have seasons of 60 home runs, 191 RBIs, and seasons of batting over .400. High mounds and four-man rotations produced 30-win seasons. Over the last decade-plus we’ve seen a proliferation of tighter wound livelier baseballs, lighter and harder bats, smaller ballparks, a better understanding of nutrition and weight training, a smaller strike zone and the disappearance of the high strike, a crackdown on pitching inside and anabolic steroids. Because of all this we’re seeing seasons with HR totals of 63, 65, 66, 70 and 73.
Most baseball records are as much a product of the conditions in which players plied their trade as they are human achievement. That’s why we’re unlikely to see a pitcher throw over 500 innings in a season or strike out 500 in a season or win 500 games in a career. We probably won’t see a player leg out 36 triples, or finish their career with out 250 of them. I highly doubt we’ll see a batting average of almost .440 in over 600 plate appearances or bat an aggregate .402 over five seasons. It’s not that players are inferior than they were back then, it’s just that circumstances have changed.
But I’m getting off topic here.
What we have to understand here is that around the world there are scientists and chemists devoting staggering number of man-hours being funded by billions of dollars trying to come up with the next big thing and looking for ways to beat current drug testing.
There’s big money to be made at it.
And let’s not kid ourselves the money and time being devoted to this dwarfs the amount of time and money being put into effective testing.
There’s no huge profits to be made in testing for drugs.
So here’s the ultimate equation:
- Baseball players are always looking for an edge in order to win, to have better stats, to get paid more money
- Men talented enough to play baseball professionally either living in a consumer culture where we judge each other by the amount of jack in our pockets/wallets/bank accounts; where bling, bling equals respect, admiration, power and affection—or wish to be a part of said culture
- A hugely unequal amount of time, resources and personnel devoted to developing new drugs and beating drug testing, compared to the time that there is for testing/developing for drugs.
- Two entities (MLB/MLB Players Association) which historically would prefer to count the money than bother with things that might slow down the flow of cash
- A testing system that is known to have holes in it (HGH can only be tested for with blood tests)
It’s been said that baseball is a reflection of American society. Well, America fought the war on drugs and let’s just say drugs did a quicker job on America than Mike Tyson did on Peter McNeely. Sixty home runs fell to 61 due to a longer schedule. Sixty-one fell to 70 and 73 due to anabolic steroids. One day the circumstances of the game will have changed—perhaps honorably, perhaps not—and somebody will club 74 and then we might be doing this all over again.
Make no mistake, performance enhancing drugs are in baseball to stay. The powers that be should do everything they can to get rid of them. They will lose because they are outgunned, outmanned, and overmatched. They aren’t just fighting drugs, they are fighting human nature.
Yes, the good fight should, and indeed always must be fought, but we have to be realistic—otherwise we should get used to a life of indignation.
I, for one, am thrilled that Opening Day is almost upon us.