Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Integrity? What Integrity?

This article was first published at I'm going to be a contributor there under the Sports section, so look for my column there.
The integrity of baseball is not at risk. This may seem like a rash thing to say these days, when pretty much everyone else is claiming the opposite. In the days since Alex Rodriguez's admission of the use of "banned substances," he has made the short list of the most hated baseball players of all time. He — along with Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds — have been publicly blasted for their admissions (and non-admissions) concerning their use of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs*). And, in an unscientific poll taken by John Erardi of the Cincinnati Enquirer, none of the accused PED users would win induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
* — It's very important to make the distinction between "steroids" on one hand, and "PEDs," on the other. Steroids are a specific type of performance-enhancer. But not all PEDs are steroids. PEDs refer to any substance giving the user an "unfair" advantage. Most stories on this subject use "steroids" as a catch-all term when they should say PEDs or "banned substances," which refers specifically to those substances outlawed either by law or by the MLB. For the best information about PEDs and steroids as it relates to baseball, read The Juice by Will Carroll.
Baseball columnists everywhere are outraged. In the Detroit Free Press, Drew Sharp
argues that you can't call baseball a sport anymore. Bill Madden of the New York Daily News says that the Yankees should just release A-Rod and eat the $270 million remaining on his contract.
The tone of the conversation in the sports media has generally been that A-Rod has forever tainted our most precious institutions and should be severely punished.
To this I say: Phooey.
At what point did our priorities become so out of whack that admitting the use of PEDs results in a bloody, public humiliation while offenses far worse than that go unnoticed or unpunished? Cheating is as American as baseball, apple pie, and . . . well, baseball. That's not to say that cheating is okay, but can we really be surprised when we catch people doing it? And in the scheme of things, aren't we holding them to an impossible standard when we publicly drag them through the mud?
I know the story. Steroids are a threat to the institutions of baseball because they constitute cheating, right? And cheating is fundamentally destructive to baseball. This is the argument quite often used by those angry at A-Rod, especially those who want to keep him, Clemens, McGwire, and Bonds out of the Hall of Fame. Any cheating that gives a player an unfair edge is wrong.
Our first problem is that there is no actual evidence that steroids improve the skills of a baseball player. That's right, folks, you've been snowed by an avalanche of circumstantial and anecdotal evidence. Yes, everyone "knows" that taking steroids buffs you up and makes you a better player — except that the truth is that we just don't know. Buffs you up, yeah. But if that's all it takes, wouldn't professional bodybuilders be the best baseball players out there? Is it possible that, despite what the media tells us, you may get some help out of a needle, but you can't get talent out of a needle?

In fact, for every player who is supposed to have gotten an "edge" from steroids, there are numerous other accused and admitted steroid users who got no apparent edge on the playing field. I hate to burst anyone's bubble, here, but for every Barry Bonds, there are about ten or twelve guys like Matt Herges or Gary Bennett, whose use didn't really do anything for them. Look at the names in the Mitchell Report again and then tell me how steroids are such a huge advantage to those that take them.
And even if you get down into the stats, it's hard to prove that anyone — even Bonds — got their boost in offense directly from steroids. "But," the devil's advocate says, "Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in one year back in 2001! He must have been using." Well, it's true that Bonds broke the home run record back in '01. It's also true that he hit just 46 home runs the next year, in 2002. If he was using, how does that make sense? Did he stop juicing after seeing such good results? Or is it possible that freaky things just happen in baseball? In 1973, Davey Johnson hit 43 home runs. He never hit more than 18 in any other season of his career. Was he a juicer ahead of his time? Or is it possible that, in over a hundred years of player seasons, you're going to see some freaky numbers pop up from time to time?
Okay. But whether they work or not, steroid users are cheating, right? And surely those cheaters should be denied a place in Cooperstown (so the argument goes).
Here's the problem: we've already set a bad precedent. If cheaters aren't allowed in Cooperstown, then we'd have to take out Gaylord Perry, Don Drysdale, Don Sutton, Whitey Ford, and every other pitcher who ever threw a spitball, shine ball, scuff ball, etc. We'll have to throw out all the players from the 1970s and 1980s who used amphetamines, or "greenies" (that'll get rid of about six people). We'll have to get rid of Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker who, the evidence is pretty clear, were either involved in or aware of the fixing of a baseball game, and so are just as guilty as Joe Jackson. (see Dewey & Acocella's The Black Prince of Baseball). We'll have to throw out John McGraw and all the members of the old Baltimore Orioles, who made cheating their very legacy and whose very strategy was built on the unfair advantage. We'll have to throw out any member of the 1951 World Series Champion Giants (that means Willie Mays), who used a spotter to steal the signs of their opponents.
I've seen this argument made before, that taking steroids is cheating but not any worse than a spitball or a corked bat, but it's usually tossed aside. "Anyone chemically altering his body is doing something worse than spitting on the ball," they might say. How so? Who gets to decide what kind of cheating is okay (and even folksy if your name is Drysdale or Perry) and what kind of cheating isn't?

Is the worst kind of cheating the kind that most directly affects the game? That seems to be the accepted standard; the worst "cheaters" in baseball history are usually assumed to be the 1919 Black Sox, who threw the World Series. So the bigger the unfair edge, the bigger the cheater. Here's the problem with that argument: it's easy to show that spitballs and scuffballs help a pitcher, and are illegal. It's a lot harder to prove that steroids do the same (and most were not against baseball rules or even illegal until fairly recently). And even if they do, there's no reason to believe that they're nearly as helpful as the spitter. If it were, wouldn't Matt Herges be a superstar by now?
Here's my final verdict: cheating has always been an integral part of baseball and an integral part of the Hall of Fame (whose very location — Cooperstown, NY — is based upon the lie that baseball was created there). We may not like it, but we have to admit it and get on with our lives. If only the media would let us.
Mainstream baseball writers and columnists are the self-appoined standard-bearers of baseball, and they guard that title with ferocious jealousy. Throughout history, the standard is that those who came before were Gods, no matter what they did (McGraw, Cobb, Mantle, etc.). But those who live now will be held to the standards of heroes and will not be allowed to fail.
But people have stopped listening to those standard-bearers. Their tidings of impending doom — saturating the airwaves ever since 2002 — have fallen on deaf ears. And as time goes on, and the doom doesn't come, their cries become more and more difficult to believe.
But instead of just moving on, they will continue to spout bitterness until they are supplanted by a new generation of commentators. All we can hope is that they do a better job of bearing the standard.

1 comment:

Sporting Chance Larry said...

This is a well-thought out piece. I agree with much of it, but for me the issue of allowing a ballplayer who cheated by taking performance enhancing drugs into the Hall of Fame is different than allowing players who violated some of the other lesser rules mentioned. Not all sins are equal. However, eliminating players from admittance due to their past behaviors when they have the stats to make it, is probably more harmful to baseball than helpful. And I think that's really the key. I think the whole business with having Mitchell involved is so he could get everyone looking forward rather than backward. That was the key to peace in Ireland, which Mitchell helped broker. Baseball needs to make sure that players who want the privilege of playing ball for a living ought to be PED free going forward. Those who can't manage to do that should not be allowed to play at all.