With the recent release of the Mitchell report, the subject of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in baseball has once again come to the forefront. But considering that this topic has been widely discussed for many years now, isn't it about time people moved beyond the emotional, self-righteous moralizing and finally started looking at the issue in a more informed, rational way?
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George Mitchell's report has given us the opportunity to take a wider look at the issue of steroid use in baseball.
In a world where Botox, Viagra and anti-depressants have become as commonplace as air and water, it's no surprise that the possibility of finding off-the-charts success via a pill, cream or syringe might appeal to some baseball players. The players don't live in a vacuum. Like any number of other people in society, some players are looking for their own magic potion. They too want to drink from the fountain of youth.
Many people have fallen in love with baseball's mythical "pure" past. But baseball never was, nor will it ever be, "pure." From actions as simple as pitchers throwing spitballs and hitters using corked bats, to more profound social issues like racial segregation, the reserve clause and owner collusion against free agents, Major League Baseball has enjoyed its fair share of less than "pure" behavior over the years.
After the players' strike in 1994, MLB conveniently looked the other way as the staggering steroid-fueled numbers of the post-strike era brought fans back to the sport. MLB finally agreed to institute drug testing for steroids in Sept. 2002, only to impose a secret "moratorium" on testing in 2004, as stated in the Mitchell report. Similar to the way that MLB wants to act like steroid pariah Jose Canseco does not exist, this suspicious chain of events clearly demonstrates that there was no immediate desire to deal with this problem openly and honestly. Baseball's hypocritical inconsistency on this issue sent mixed messages to the players and, in turn, many players it seems interpreted this ambivalence as a green light to indulge.
In a country that prides itself on being a "nation of laws," you cannot hold someone responsible for doing something that was not considered a "crime" at the time they committed it. So anything that happened before the testing during the 2003 season shouldn't even be discussed, because there was no baseball law in place at the time to govern it.
In a society driven by capital, productivity is the objective. Baseball players need to be productive in order to increase their own salaries. But, more importantly, their play needs to bolster the profits of their owners. This comes into play in a major way as it pertains to human growth hormone. Players use HGH to recover from injuries faster, so they can come back and help their team. You cannot be productive if you're hurt. You cannot help your team if you cannot play. The pressure to return from injury is ingrained in us from the earliest possible age. When you factor in the intense public scrutiny that accompanies player salaries these days, the pressure on the individual is greatly heightened. So, in the interest of being more productive and more accountable, players feel forced to do whatever they can to get healthy as fast as possible. It is hypocritical to criticize players for "doggin' it" and exaggerating their injuries, and then turn around and lambaste them for using HGH when attempting to accelerate their recovery.
Further, I have never been convinced that the use of performance enhancers alone automatically translates into superior athletic performance. The Mitchell report proves this point. For every Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds mentioned, there's a relatively nameless scrub who popped up on the list as well. If steroids were the all-encompassing elixir that so many people assume they are, then wouldn't every player who indulged in them be able to put up the kinds of numbers that Clemens and Bonds did over their long careers? The point is, though Clemens and Bonds both have been accused of using steroids -- and both have denied those allegations -- there had to be an immense amount of talent there in the first place in order for them to be so much more successful than their peers.
One of the reasons that sports is so enjoyable is the strongest and the fastest, those perceived to be the best, often lose to those who lack the same talent. Upsets and underdogs make the sports world go 'round. Otherwise we wouldn't need to watch -- we could just crown the best teams and best players on paper without ever playing the games. But we do watch, because the drama of live sports always holds the possibility of the unexpected. Steroids may build muscle, and perhaps confidence, in the user. But steroids don't enhance the internal desire to succeed, increase a person's intrinsic will, amplify one's own sense of determination or develop one's baseball IQ. These are all human qualities that transcend science and it's qualities like these that often determine the difference between winners and losers.
The great jazz genius Charlie "Yardbird" Parker was, in addition to being an incredible saxophone player, a junkie. Bird was so influential, though, that many other jazz musicians thought in order to sound like Bird, they should use heroin as well. Many of these cats went on to develop their own heroin addictions, but none of them ever came close to sounding like Bird. The brilliance with which Bird played his ax resided in Bird himself, not in the heroin. One could apply the same logic to being able to pitch like Clemens or hit like Bonds. The baseball brilliance of both players had way more to do with their own exceptional abilities and success than any drugs they might have taken.
When it comes to comparing the steroid-fueled era of baseball with the sport's storied past, it's important to remember that one cannot truly compare any two players from different eras. Though sportswriters and fans do this all the time, these comparisons amount to little more than subjective speculation. Yes, subjective speculation is what makes talking about sports so much fun. But it should never be confused with anything real or scientific. We have no way of really knowing how well Clemens would have fared against Ty Cobb, nor do we know if Bonds would have been able to hit against Bob Gibson.
Science often poses challenges to the dominant order while holding the promise of a better, more efficient long-term result. This could mean cures for cancer or it could mean cloning -- both possibilities exist. Technology functions the same way. The endless access to information afforded by the Internet exists alongside the unfortunate reality of identity theft. The impact of computer-generated graphics has transformed the movies -- but some would say the pervasiveness of this technology has taken away from the art of storytelling. Some would also say the reliance on sampled music has taken away from the craft of real musicianship that once defined the best musical expression. While such claims often reflect the age of the people who are feeling displaced by new technology, the idea of progress is already built into the very technology of film and recorded music. However much one may resist change in these mediums, the point is, change is inherent to the process. It is the adaptation to these changes that drives debate.
Adaptation is key for baseball as well. One cannot adapt with his head in the sand though. Adaptation requires an open, honest and transparent approach that will reconcile the current situation relative to the world we live in, not the imagined world of some mythical past that never existed in the first place. We need contemporary solutions for contemporary problems. And that does not necessarily mean resorting to the tried and true diversion of "getting tough on crime" by rushing to punish the supposed offenders either. Band-aids do little when applied to bullet wounds.
However flawed the Mitchell report might be, it is a golden opportunity to begin addressing this issue in a more forthright manner. Otherwise the church of baseball is no more than a Kool-Aid-drinking cult.
Dr. Todd Boyd, a columnist for Page 2, is an author, media commentator, and The Katherine and Frank Price Endowed Chair for the Study of Race and Popular Culture at USC. The paperback edition of his "hip hop history" of the NBA, "Young, Black, Rich and Famous," will be available in March 2008.