Tuesday, February 10, 2009

MLB, Steroids, and False Idols: If PEDs Ruined the Purity of the Game, That Means It Was Once Pure

Today is February 11, 2009. The story about Alex Rodriguez' steroid use and positive test from 2003 broke on February 7th, followed by the interview with Peter Gammons on the 9th. That means we're four full days from the "news" breaking and another two full days from A-Rod's skin-deep mea culpa.

Yet Major League Baseball's problem with performance-enhancing drugs is still all anyone can talk about, although Brett Favre's annual look-at-me-fest has bumped it a bit...temporarily.

Even FOX Sports is guilty—letting Mark Kriegel have his way with the subject.

There are a lot of things to sincerely like about FOX. For one thing, it's helped bring Bleacher Report a larger audience through a partnerships between the two. For another, it doesn't fall prey (as much) to the sensationalistic side of sports that ESPN loves to splash all over its front pages and flagship channels.

Seriously, Terrell Owens and Manny Ramirez run amok over there.

But Kriegel's latest piece on the Steroid Era isn't one of FOX's brightest offerings. In fact, it's almost an out-and-out disgrace because it includes two of the more ignorant and transparent crticisms of the Steroid Era. Criticisms that speak to a deeper bias (I'd guess bitterness, but I've never met the man so who knows).

The first is the idea that PEDs are magic; some secret ingredient that turns every juicer into Brady Anderson.

I'll let Kriegel hang himself with his own words: "I'm talking about answers to questions that link [McGwire's] fate and yours. What wouldn't you do to stay healthy for a full season in the big leagues? What wouldn't you do to set a home run record?"

While I think it's probably impossible to overstate the prevalence of PED use in MLB and other professional sports, I think just the opposite is true of their impact. It's very convenient to say that none of these guys are great athletes, just a normal Joe that got on the magic sauce.

That's exactly what Kriegel's implying—if the juicer's fate is linked to mine, it's because I could've taken PEDs to stay healthy and hit major league pitching. Possibly to the tune of breaking some records.

Clearly, human growth hormone and anabolic steroids improve/inflate numbers. But they do not turn your average chump in the stands into a prospect destined for the Show. That's simply not the way it works.

The chemicals augment natural ability and pretty effectively if modern numbers are any indication. But the talent's gotta be there to begin with (either in the form of biological gifts or abnormal drive).

Furthermore, baseball is a mental game—the wear and tear is not merely physical—so there's more to it than muscles and coordination. There's an entire side of the game (and many would argue it's the more important one) that PEDs don't help nearly as much.

Sure, feeling physically stronger will help with focus, confidence, etc. But a slump will destroy a juicer's mental state the same way it will anyone else.

And nothing—NOTHING—prevents a slump.

Kriegel's second flawed argument is more problematic because it's a greater sin than dismissing the achievements of culpable men. Plus, it's one repeated—either explicitly or implicitly—by every fan who is up in arms over performance-enhancers, arguing that the purity of baseball and its record books have now been tainted.

Again, I'll let Mark's words draw the noose: Kriegel says Mark McGwire symbolized "baseball's transformation from a pastoral sport to a menagerie of muscleheads."

Pastoral, huh?

I'm guessing Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige felt differently. I'm betting No. 42, Mr. Jackie Robinson, and the woman he widowed at the tender age of 53 would beg to differ. How about all the African-American and Latin American ballplayers who never got a shot. The ones who were relegated to toiling in the obscure summer heat of the Negro Leagues, far away from the public spotlight that shined on the Bigs?

When we wail and bemoan the fate of MLB, when we rue the day the Bash Brothers burst on the scene as the moment baseball lost its innocence, what are we saying about the Era of the Gentleman's Agreement?

That baseball was innocent?

For instance, you'll often come across the name Babe Ruth whispered in reverent tones. The Sultan of Swat is a particularly common protagonist foil to Barry Bonds' arch-villain of the Steroid Era.

Babe played his last game in 1935. Jackie played his first game in 1947.

I understand that Babe had no significant role in baseball's segregationist stance while today's juicers have made individual, informed, and voluntary (more or less) decisions to use PEDs. Additionally, today's pros have spread the problem by tacitly endorsing its use and many are spoiled, ungrateful malcontents.

Those certainly are arguments for assigning different moral grades to the players. So maybe the players were more pastoral (except a lot of 'em weren't). But if you think that the Steroid Era is a more damning blight on baseball's history, well...

And if you think the lack of color in MLB prior to Jackie didn't skew performance/numbers, then you haven't been paying very close attention to the racial demographics of most major American sports.

Then there are the societal ramifications of implying a sport—rife with racial animosity and barely 60 years removed from its segregated roots—was "pastoral" until the introduction of performance-enhancers.

Let's say they're unflattering and leave it at that.

Yet, every time another "the sky is falling" PED article comes out, that's exactly what the author is doing. Whether he/she realizes it or not.

So, enough. Yes, performance-enhancers are a problem. Yes, it needs to be addressed. Yes, the Steroid Era is bad for baseball. So was segregation.

But baseball survived the Gentleman's Agreement and it'll survived this, too.

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