July 31, 2009


So the names of the hundred MLB players who tested positive will come out in ones and twos, in declining order of fame and salary level.

There was a time when I was of the "their bodies, let them do what they want" school of thought.

That view evolved. I gradually realized that if steroids are bad for people, that permitting them would have two bad implications. The first is we, sports fans, would be taking advantage of people willing to damage themselves for fame and fortune. The second is that we, sports fans, would be collaborating in a policy regime that would exclude more talented or hardworking athletes because they refused to juice. The Mark Caminitis would drive out the Frank Robinsons.

Well, that's an exaggeration. What would really happen is the replacement level players who got into the majors would all be juicing. And, if it IS bad for you, then the League would be setting up a system where their most marginal players were risking their health to try to earn enough service time for a pension.

The nice thing about evolution is it never stops. Seeing the ubiquity of juice in the baseball (seriously, is there anybody left who would surprise you, after Petite?), I've come to doubt the "if" part of the syllogism above. And if it is true that taking steroids under a doctor's supervision isn't dangerous (as Manny apparently was doing in LA), then what's the problem?

Players are permitted to use any number of performance enhancing methods. In the drug realm, they are allowed to use caffeine and nicotine (the latter proven to enhance concentration), even though the delivery mechanisms for nicotine are mostly life shortening. Amphetamines were rife throughout the majors (there is a story of a pair of coffee urns, labeled "Coaches" and "Players"), use that didn't stop after Jim Bouton went public with this in Ball Four

They are allowed to have cortisone shots, not just for injuries, but for normal wear and tear on the joints that afflict older players. And, of course, cortisone IS a steroid. It is just not an anabolic steroid.

Players are also allowed to have performance enhancing surgery. One of the complaints about the impact of steroids on baseball is that their use allows older players, especially sluggers, to extend their careers by reversing the effect of aging that reduces muscle mass. Bonds hitting 72 home runs at the age of 37, as Hank Aaron remarked recently, is unnatural. But the same is true of Tommy John, whose "injury" was wear and tear on his left arm. How is replacing a worn out tendon any different from using a drug that allows a player to use weightlifting sessions to retain muscle mass as he ages?

The performance-enhancing surgery that really gets my goat is Lasix. Ted Williams had extraordinary eyesight. In spring training events, he would put pine tar on the bat barrel, and then call out the number of seams (None, 1 0r 2) the bat had hit. Now a player like Derek Jeter (on everybody's never juiced list) can get surgery to duplicate Williams's genetic inheritance.

What is really going here is that the career home run numbers of the players using steroids is wreaking hell with all of the standard Hall of Fame threshholds. It's also raising doubts about win totals of players like Roger Clemens, who would have been a lock for the Hall after he left Toronto. But a key element in evaluating players for the Hall is their career numbers. Jim Rice's rapid fall off hurt him badly in HoF ballotting. Likewise, a compiler like Mussina is helped by the focus on career threshholds.

But one is stuck with the world one is in. If steroids aren't dangerous, when properly used in a doctor supervised weight training program, why not legalize their use? That is certainly better than reading stories of high school kids ordering drugs over the internet from fly by night companies in Mexico because scouts have told them they have to get bigger.

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