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Thursday, June 13, 2002

McCarthy at the Bat

Before the next scare begins, we vehemently deny the use of writing-enhancing substances by any of the Primer writers.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, apparently an accusation is worth a million. At the start of May, baseball had been going about its business assuming that the topic they’d be forced to discuss all year would be the potential work-stoppage in August. They really ought to have known better by now, but hey, we all forget sometimes. Instead, the sport finds the great steroid scandal of aught-two thrust upon it.

The titters and jabbers about steroids in baseball have gone on for a while   now. Baseball does not "randomly test" its athletes for steroids or   other chemical substances, like the NBA and NFL does. So there’s been lots of   idle speculation about how many players in MLB are actually on the stuff.

With the retirement of Jose Canseco and his promises to "tell-all"   in his upcoming book, the engines of scandal sprung to life setting in motion   the current scandal. With the subsequent admission in Sports Illustrated of   former slugger Ken Caminiti that he had indeed taken steroids during his MVP   season in 1996 and that half the players in the league also used steroids, the   dog was now officially off the leash.

If one had guessed that such a story would tap into the nobler instincts of   the media at large, one would be in for a huge disappointment. Almost immediately,   San Jose scribe, Skip Bayless, accused Home Run record-holder, Barry Bonds,   of steroid usage. His argument was that Bonds didn’t react correctly to his   out of the blue accusation that Bonds was on "the juice." According   to Bayless, "When you (Bonds) have recently been asked about steroids…(o)ne   response began with: ‘You want an interview or you want to irk me?’ You send   up red flags faster than the Yankees do pennants."

Bill Conlin was less diplomatic: "to all the freaks, geeks and ‘roid
  zombies who have turned major league baseball into a Muscle Beach version of   the Medellin Cartel: Take your records and get lost…"

One of the hallmarks of McCarthyism, as it has been called, is that vague hearsay   becomes evidence, accusations become proof and the lack of a strict outright   denial becomes a confession. People who question the accusations are labeled   as "naiive." Particular phenomena are labeled as being further evidence   of guilt and other explanations for the phenomena are tossed out the window.   And, basically, an entire group of people are cast into a net of suspicion where   they are guilty until proven innocent.

In his interview with Sports Illustrated, Caminiti estimated that about "half"   of the players in MLB are on steroids. Jose Canseco, after retiring, estimated   it was about 85 percent. Other players have come out and estimated that it was   probably much less than either. But what all of these numbers lack are specifics.   It is quite easy to come out and throw a nice round number like "half"   out there without naming names or providing any sort of evidence. Think about   it, how in the world would Ken Caminiti be in a position to know about steroid   usage for that many players in the league? If every single player Caminiti has   ever shared a clubhouse with was on steroids, that still wouldn’t account for   as much as half the players currently in the league. Jose Canseco says it’s   85 percent? How could Jose possibly have any reliable information to back up   that claim. And if Canseco thinks it’s 85 percent and Caminiti thinks its 50   percent, doesn’t the vast difference between those estimates call into question   the accuracy of one or the other or both? Face it, what we do know about the   percentage of MLB players who are taking steroids is that the range is anywhere   from one percent to ninety-nine percent; a statement with as much information   value as your average beer commercial.

But that hasn’t stopped the charges being leveled at Bonds and others. The   logic goes something like this:

1) Steroids helps players hit more home runs.
  2) Barry Bonds hits more home runs than anybody.
  3) Barry Bonds uses steroids.

The implications of Bonds using steroids are, of course, enormous. Bonds’ 73   homers in 2001 are a major league record, and if that record was found to be   broken due to the use of illegal substances, we’d have quite a story on our   hands.

Which presumably is why the accusations are being leveled without any actual   evidence to support them. If proof that he did would be one of the biggest stories   of the decade, an accusation has to merit being one of the biggest stories of   the month.

What we do know about Bonds from several far more reliable sources is that   there are probably few athletes in the history of the world with a greater dedication   to conditioning. Bonds workout habits are legendary in the Bay Area, and few   would argue that Bonds doesn’t lift weights to a near religious extent, whether   he "juices up" or not. It seems to me that you have a player with   obvious genetic athletic gifts (son of one of the most athletic players of the   1970s, Bonds has been a baseball phenom since high school). You have a player   who has been a good player since 1987 a great player since 1989 and one of the   greatest ever since 1992. You have a guy who works out religiously and is now   entering his late thirties where generally a persons body mass has already started   to shift to a more bulked up version from a lean version. You have all of this   information and yet apparently Bonds has not earned the benefit of the doubt.   Think about it. An active player caught using or abusing performance enhancing   drugs would be more or less ruined as the media would devour him within a week.   Who is the more likely candidate for taking such an enormous risk? A guy who   has made untold millions in his career, who could have a job in MLB for as long   as he wants one, a player whom they’re already clearing space for in Cooperstown…

…or the AAAA veteran trying desperately to turn some heads and carve out   a career in baseball before he’s forced to go work back at the factory? For   whom is the risk (and likelihood) of getting caught greater? This doesn’t mean   Bonds doesn’t use steroids, but I find it hard to believe he’s the most logical   choice for such initial baseless speculation.

Of course, this is sportswriting and logic left town a while ago. No, if you   can connect the dots the right way, and point the fingers at the right targets,   people will read your column. Even Caminiti’s own testimony has all sorts of   problems with it. Caminiti said he started taking steroids midway through the   1996 season, after which he hit 26 homers en route to a career high 40 homers.   What isn’t mentioned is that Caminiti’s most noticeable power spike happened   two years previously in 1994, when he hit a career high 18 homers in only 406   at bats, an increase of 96 percent over his previous career high rate. The next   year in 1995, his rate went up another 11 percent after moving out of the worst   home run park in baseball in Houston. In the year he said he started on steroids,   Caminiti’s rate went up another 49 percent, before dropping back down after.   It seems that if the numbers mean anything, 1994 would be the logical place   to assume he started taking steroids. If 1994 wasn’t when he started, then obviously   other factors besides steroids could explain such an increase in power and therefore   the accusations leveled at Bonds and Sosa aren’t fair based on a power increase   alone.

But then fairness took the last bus ticket out of town as well. Since the retirement   of Albert Belle, Bonds has taken the mantle of "least liked player by sportswriters."   Being fair to Barry Bonds is not one of their main objectives, and being fair   to the players themselves aren’t real high on their list either.

The seemingly eternal war between the MLB owners and the Players’ Association   is not just a background issue here. The players, in their efforts to avoid   the fate of being crushed by ownership as the unions of the NFL and NBA had   been, decided that the PR war was a war they couldn’t win and so they should   direct their efforts elsewhere. The players, already wary of media with direct   ties to MLB ownership (The Chicago Tribune, LA Times, Fox Sports, ESPN, The   Arizona Republic and countless others all share common ownership with major   league franchises), ceded complete control of this stage to the owners and instead   focused their efforts on the labor courts where they felt they could win. While   the strategy proved effective in the labor war in the last strike, the resulting   after-effects were that the players allowed themselves to be portrayed as a   group in a most unflattering fashion. How many stories have you read about the   "greedy players?" This standard reaction over the last few years has   manifested itself here as various scribes level charges against the Players’   Association that it’s stonewalling on the issue of steroids. If it really cared   about its players, they argue, it would allow random testing for the "good   of the game" and the "welfare of the players." Cleverly, the   "greedy players" objective correlative has been used as a base of   operations against another anti-players offensive.

Though steroid testing may have direct benefits to the standards of competition   for the sport, that doesn’t change the fact that there are a bunch of people   whose day at work doesn’t involve pissing in a cup, and yet demanding that another   group of people should have to. While as an employee I might agree to such testing   under strict guidelines (the issue of "false-positives" is critical   here), I sure as hell wouldn’t volunteer for it unless I was promised something   significant in return. I would fight hard for a system where the testing was   not random but rather used only in cases of previous offenders or credible hard   evidence existed that suggested steroid use.

No doubt MLB will use this issue as a club in their negotiations with the MLBPA   since it seems to have gained considerable traction in the press. The owners   will likely send out one of its field agents-I mean a baseball columnist will   write independently about how the "greedy players" don’t care about   anything but the almighty buck. There will be more and more accusations that   this guy who just hit four homers in a game is on "‘roids," and that   guy who just struck out fifteen is on "the juice," and so forth. It’s   an issue that the cult of righteous indignation running rampant in baseball   coverage can really sink its fangs into. Baseball writers have increasingly   dashed to the moral high-ground in an effort to tap into the masses’ willingness   to tear down its public figures. Joe Fan now can rest assured that it wasn’t   the reason Bonds and others are such good baseball players is not that they   are simply more gifted, or worked a million times harder at it than the average   person, but rather that he cheated by pumping. Each fan pretends to act disgusted   at the substance abuse running rampant from steroids to the tragedy that has   become Darryl Strawberry. They long for the days of Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth   where their heroes could be assured to have steered clear of such problems.

In the end, no one really knows whether steroid use in the majors is an epidemic   (as Ken Caminiti told Sports Illustrated) or simply isolated in a few players   (as Caminiti told others after the Sports Illustrated article was printed).   Whether some players are using performance enhancing drugs is a serious issue,   since it could affect the integrity of competition. However, it should be noted   that these substances are used for valid medical reasons and in some instances   could be an appropriate course of treatment for a player sustaining certain   types of serious injuries. This is not heroin we’re talking about here despite   what much of the public hysteria might suggest. It is the responsibility of   calm, rational adults to weigh the problems and issues involved with the situation   and come up with a well reasoned policy that is acceptable to all parties involved   in the industry. Of course all the calm, rational adults all moved out years   ago so we’re left with nothing but a barrage of verbiage ranging from speculation   to unfounded accusations, while the core problem of trying to find a fair and   evenhanded way of dealing with the issue goes unaddressed. "Tailgunner   Joe" would be so proud.

 

Dan Szymborski Posted: June 13, 2002 at 06:00 AM | 4 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. bob mong Posted: June 13, 2002 at 12:31 AM (#605293)
Well said, Voros.
   2. Walt Davis Posted: June 13, 2002 at 12:31 AM (#605294)
Thanks Voros, well said.
   3. Charles Saeger Posted: June 13, 2002 at 12:31 AM (#605295)
Well put, Voros.

The biggest problem I see with random testing is the presumption of guilt. That is, the owners are asking players, "Piss in a cup and prove to us you're clean." There should be the presumption of innocence, as there is in MLB's drug policy.

The biggest reason I can see to ban steroids is akin to the reasons for banning gambling. I have no moral issues with steroid use, and I can find no reason for its illicit status. Same with gambling. It does me no harm when you gamble or pop steroids. However, there is a definite negative effect of gambling on baseball.

The issue is whether steroids enhance performace and, if they do, whether they have a detrimental effect on a player's health. If both of these statements are true, then a player, in order to perform at peak ability, not have others pass him in skill and earn the most money, must endanger his health. Since one can play baseball without steroids, this is an unnecessary danger. In this case, it is in the players' interests to ban steroids.

Here are some implications of these assumptions:

* Were a steroid found to not enhance performance but prove detrimental to a player's health, it is unnecessary to ban it. MLB should certainly make this information available to the player, of course, in the humanitarian interest. Such a steroid would be like cocaine -- it doesn't enhance performance but does harm a player, so it is not MLB's or the MLBPA's concern, but rather the player's. Of course, that MLB has chosen to ban cocaine (which is already illegal) speaks volumes as to its poor judgment, but I digress.

* Were a steroid found to enhance performance and prove not detrimental to a player's health, it is not only counterproductive to ban it, but it would be in the best interests of players, fans and teams to have teams provide it to players free of charge. Or, as I said in BBBA 2k1, who really wants to see Manny Alexander without steroids? Were we able to safely bulk up Alexander, why shouldn't we?

Were it necessary to ban steroids, the first step the owners should do is ask the players not to take steroids, and agree on punishments were players to take steroids. In spite of all the posturing, MLB has not, to the best of my knowledge (which is probably faulty), actually asked the players to not take steroids. Truth be told, it really is in MLB's interests to pass out steroids to the players, regardless of their health effects (unless we're talking about quick-kill stuff here). If steroids really do enhance performance (and we really do not know) and do not harm a player immediately, a team would be in its selfish interest to milk the player's career for all it is worth. I kinda suspect the owners know this, which is why they are using this in the press to fight the players, rather than at the negotiation table.

OK, first, you agree on a ban and punishment. Only in case of someone who has violated that ban do you start testing. This is similar to the drug ban (which I oppose, but that's another story). You do not have random testing without cause, which violates the privacy rights of the players. The reason why the owners want random testing has nothing to do with the game or the players' safety, but rather for reasons of power.

Truth be told, if there really are detrimental effects, the players may well develop some sort of snitch network. I'm not fond of snitching, but it would be in their interests. This would be a much better method of policing the game than random testing.
   4. Devin has a deep burning passion for fuzzy socks Posted: June 14, 2002 at 12:31 AM (#605305)
The problem with the "does it help performance?" and "does it harm the athlete?" way of looking at it is that these are not simple yes/no questions, especially the latter.

To deal with the first, just because something isn't proven to have a benefit doesn't mean that people can't believe that it does. We all know there are lots of gullible people in the world, and there's no reason to believe some of them aren't pro ballplayers. Besides, we know that steroids help increase muscle mass. It can be questioned whether that's a good thing for a baseball player, but that's a separate issue.

The second question is even trickier. Are we talking about short-term or long-term effects? Is there a safe level of usage? Most importantly, is the tradeoff worth it? It's foolish to assume that ballplayers would not take a performance-enhancing substance because it would their health ten or twenty years from now. Is it a dumb thing to do? Yes. Do people do dumb things every day? You bet. In any case, I tend to believe that you can usually find a scientist to give you the results you're looking for in a case like this. Look at any environmental-related issue. Both sides will try to down you in their own scientific studies proving their point.

Do I think players should be tested? I think they should agree to it, but I'm not going to get bent out of shape if they don't. But trying to base decisions on getting specific answers to these types of questions is a fool's errand.

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