Sunday, March 27, 2005

Steroids: The Fault Is Not in Our Stars

From "Play's the Thing," the Woodstock Times, December 9, 2004:
Did he or didn’t he? What did he know, and when did he know it? Did he violate Federal law, his contract with his club, or his implicit pact with the fans? Are his accomplishments rendered suspect? Is his health at risk? How could he? Why would he?

The steroids issue in baseball, dominating the press these days, is a tangled mess that neither lawmakers nor pundits, neither owners nor players, seem able to address squarely. Each faction seems intent upon answering a question not posed, while evading the basic pragmatic problem of what to do now. Whispered below the din of owner hypocrisy, editorial cant, and political grandstanding, the players might well be saying, “But we thought you wanted this.”

Up until the leaked testimony of grand-jury testimony by Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds – in which the former confessed to knowingly injecting and ingesting steroids while the latter admitted to unwittingly using two substances that may, with the benefit of hindsight, have been designer drugs – the baseball world had been resolutely blasé about hints that steroids were making players into androids. Only when the game’s biggest star, indeed perhaps its greatest player of all time, seemed to have stuck his foot in a bucket of slime did the press commence its imitation of Claude Rains (“I am shocked … shocked … to find gambling in Casablanca”).

Previously it had been in everyone’s interest to appear to be against performance-enhancing drugs without actually being against them. The fans liked the home run, and after the ruinous strike of 1994 the owners were so happy to give it to them that they made the ballparks smaller while encouraging the players to get bigger. They lowered the top of the strike zone from the shoulders to the belt buckle, making dinosaurs of those pitchers with rising fastballs. A steady diet of breaking balls thrown a foot off the plate proved no impediment to the new behemoths that could belt a drive into the opposite-field stands or even to deepest center field. Multimillion-dollar salaries encouraged topflight players to condition themselves year-round rather than loll about in the offseason; this combination of improved training and pecuniary incentive kept skill levels high at ages formerly thought ripe for the rest home. Mickey Mantle had retired after the 1968 season at age 36, a spent wreck, and later joked, “If I’d-a known I was gonna live this long, I’d-a taken better care of myself.” Yet Barry Bonds seemed to start a second career at that age, even though like Mantle he had already won three Most Valuable Player Awards and was a lock for the Hall of Fame.

In recent days, as the legal arguments about performance-enhancing drugs became confused with moral and ethical and pragmatic considerations, many of my colleagues in the 7,000-member Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) attempted to straighten out the mess and to call things by their proper names. Once Bonds became a suspect, the mood among the public and the press was reminiscent of The Ox-Bow Incident (“hang ’im first, ask questions later”). As Richard Zitrin wrote to the SABR list-serve, “Tim Kurkjian was the only reporter I heard yesterday who was even remotely fair to Bonds. The ESPN poll – over 60% think there should be asterisks next to his numbers and more think steroids are worse than gambling – was absurd, but egged on by a slanted press. ESPN actually had several people say Giambi should be complemented for being a stand-up guy when he was the one who admitted guilt.”

Thus personalized, the issue became at once larger (more heat if not more light) and smaller (almost all of the talk focusing on Bonds). Were his civil and legal rights (and Giambi’s of course) violated? Of course. But who would stand up for something as un-sexy as due process when schadenfreude (one’s delight in another’s misery) was in bloom? While I recognize as well as anyone the societal value of scapegoats and burnt offerings, I must point out that we have all gone quite mad, and neither baseball nor the world as we know it will change anytime soon, let alone come to an apocalyptic end.

As Zitrin continued, “Even if the cream and the clear (the two medications that not only Bonds but also Yankee outfielder Gary Sheffield had received from the same trainer) had been identified and added to the [Federal] controlled substance schedule, nothing in those sections prevents the POSSESSION, just the making or distribution. This means that Bonds’ use of the steroids, and indeed Giambi’s acknowledged KNOWING use of the steroids, were almost certainly not crimes. Since this use was not against baseball ‘laws’ either, as no MLB policy banned these newly fashioned substances, neither will be suspended. Nor should they be, any more than [Mark] McGwire should have been [for using androstenedione, a substance now banned as a steroid but sold over the counter back in 1998 when he established a new home run record of 70]. You can be suspended for breaking a rule, not for breaking a future rule.”

President Bush had made baseball’s drug problem a bully-pulpit issue in his State of the Union address, and Senator John McCain of Arizona recently “suggested” that Congress would be happy to clean baseball’s house if baseball could not do so itself. SABR member Mary Groebner wondered whether Federal intervention in baseball’s business was even possible, given the landmark ruling by the Supreme Court of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in 1922 that baseball was not an interstate business, but rather a series of localized exhibitions by vagabond players.

Larry W. Boes, an antitrust litigator and counselor for about thirty years, ncluding a case on baseball, offered this view to the SABR listserve: “Thus, just as Congress has comprehensively banned ‘controlled substances’ in interstate commerce (except under strictly limited medically prescribed safeguards), so also it might attempt to require drug-testing of all professional athletes competing ‘in interstate commerce.’ This has traditionally been viewed very broadly. Recent decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court have put some outer limits on that authority, for example, in United States v. Lopez, 514 U.S. 549 (1995), the Court held unconstitutional a law making it a federal crime to possess a gun within some distance of a school, holding there had to be some connection with or effect upon ‘interstate commerce’ in order to make this a federal crime. But here, there is no doubt that Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Victor Conte and others pursue their trades and business in interstate commerce and that their sale, use or distribution (or not) of anabolic steroids might adversely affect that trade and commerce. If such a law were enacted (or even seriously threatened), any MLB or union opposition would melt like ice cream in a southwestern sun.

“Has anyone seriously questioned mandatory federal drug-testing of truck drivers, locomotive engineers or heavy-equipment operators (or in my village our municipal garbage truck drivers), even when they might never cross a state lane in their trade or business? The danger of drug use (say, amphetamines) on interstate highways or even state or local highways might seem more dangerous than the use of anabolic steroids to aid an already skillful batter get more weight, pop and sustained speed in his swing, but if this legislation is drafted and hearings held, we’ll hear a lot about players as national role models for youngsters and the corrosive and unforeseeable effects of steroids on the long-term health of countless athletes. One might express some skepticism about such claims, but given the present furor on the subject, such a law would be difficult for any legislator to oppose (or not enthusiastically support). As a matter of fact, did anyone seriously complain when anabolic steroids were added to the list of federally controlled substances?’”

This is surely the path by which players and owners will come to the same conclusion: that external regulation is inevitable if they decline internal responsibility. Until this past week, the players’ union had quite properly resisted opening up a collective bargaining pact that had another two years to run. And the owners had been properly sensitive to the civil rights issues surrounding drug testing, in which all are presumed guilty until proved innocent. Sub rosa, they had been highly sensitive as well to the prospect of their regulations working to deprive them of some their best assets, through suspensions or even exile.

In this regard, the drug situation is reminiscent of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, in which not only Buck Weaver had guilty knowledge that a “fix” was in, but so did Charles Comiskey, the club’s sole owner, who knew that his successful “investigation” only meant the destruction of his family’s fortune. Furthermore, the owners and players’ bullheadedness had brought baseball to the brink of disaster in 1994, when the season was stopped on August 12 and the World Series was canceled. It was not until this past year that baseball attendance surpassed, on a franchise-equivalent basis, the figures of a decade ago. What had returned the fans to their seats was the home-run duel between the Cardinals’ McGwire and the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa, and then the heroics of Barry Bonds commencing in 2000 and running up to the present day. It has been argued that fans flocked to the ballparks because of interesting teams and tight pennant races, but these were plentiful between 1995 and 2000 too.

Baseball has enjoyed a long and colorful history of dealing … or not … with the abuse of controlled substances as well as plain old John Barleycorn. Tommy Barlow, shortstop of the Hartford Blue Stockings in the 1870s, earned two distinctions: he invented the bunt hit and he became the game’s first dope addict, held in thrall to morphine after an on-field injury.

As the late Joe Overfield wrote in the first edition of Total Baseball, “Countless players of the game’s early years were lushes. Liquor was readily available to them, often on the house, and there was plenty of time for carousing, especially when on the road. Some of the worst offenders were quietly blacklisted and faded from the game. Others who were heavy drinkers continued in uniform, because they were star players and the owners winked at their alcoholic escapades. Future Hall of Famer Michael “King” Kelly, for example, drank as hard as he played; yet in 1887 Boston paid an unheard-of $10,000 to Chicago for his contract. Toward the end of his career, he opened a saloon in New York, which was like putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop. His performance level deteriorated rapidly, and by 1894 he was in the minors. That fall he developed pneumonia, and on November 8 he died at the age of 36.”

A list of baseball’s biggest drinkers would have to include Babe Ruth, who in the years 1920-33 could also have been called an abuser of a controlled substance. As Steve Hall wrote in that first edition of Total Baseball as well, “That fine Yankee tradition was upheld by Mantle and [Whitey] Ford, aided and abetted by their drinking partner Billy Martin. But alcoholism unquestionably shortened the career of Cub outfielder Hack Wilson, and drinking problems came to be associated with such players as Paul Waner, Jimmie Foxx, Don Newcombe, Ryne Duren, and Dennis Martinez, to mention but a few. For many decades, during which sportswriting shared more with hagiography than with journalism, incidents of alcohol abuse never reached the public. It could be argued that only upon the publication of Ball Four by Jim Bouton in 1970 did the hangover earn its rightful spot in the locker room.”

Bouton also highlighted the prevalent use of “greenies,” later augmented by “red juice.” Were these performance enhancers? You betcha. And the players typically received them not from a Victor Conte or anyone associated with BALCO, but from the team’s trainer.

Recreational drugs like cocaine, marijuana, and LSD (Dock Ellis of Pittsburgh claimed he had thrown a no-hitter while tripping!) were the ruin of many a fine young man in the 1980s, and the baseball field proved no exception. Dwight Gooden, Vida Blue, Dale Berra, Darryl Strawberry, all suffered suspensions. Montreal base-stealing sensation Tim Raines may have epitomized the period when he admitted that he often slid headfirst into second base during a steal so as to protect the gram bottle of cocaine he kept in his back pocket. Unless instead of Raines you look to the truly harrowing story of San Diego second baseman Alan Wiggins, who died on January 6, 1991 of an AIDS-related pneumonia. Only 32 years old, the fleet and gifted athlete had wasted away to only 75 pounds at the time of death.

But steroids are not recreational drugs. They are designed to boost performance and prolong careers, and thus they translate to money for both athlete and owner, as they had translated to glory for East Germany in the Olympic competitions of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet the athlete may pay a price nearly as terrible as that paid by Wiggins. As Sean Lahman wrote to the SABR listserve, “The tragedy was given a face by Lyle Alzado, a four time Pro Bowl defensive end, who died from brain cancer at the age of 43. He spoke out about the problem in an interview with Sports Illustrated in 1991:

“‘Istarted taking anabolic steroids in 1969 [in college] and never stopped. It was addicting, mentally addicting. Now I’m sick, and I’m scared. Ninety per cent of the athletes I know are on the stuff. We’re not born to be 300 pounds or jump 30 feet. But all the time I was taking steroids, I knew they were making me play better. I became very violent on the field and off it. I did things only crazy people do. Once a guy sideswiped my car and I beat the hell out of him. Now look at me. My hair’s gone, I wobble when I walk and have to hold on to someone for support, and I have trouble remembering things. My last wish? That no one else ever dies this way.’
“Alzado was immensely popular, and that helped drive the NFL to adopt strict anti-steroid policies and a mandatory testing program. While a handful of players test positive each year, rampant steroid abuse is no longer a problem in the NFL.

“Eleven years after SI published Alzado’s revealing interview, they published a strikingly similar story from Kan Caminiti. Rather than prompting a call to action, baseball folks dismissed Caminiti’s claims of wide spread steroid abuse within baseball. Caminiti’s death at the age of 41 did not serve as the same sort of wakeup call as Alzado’s did. Sadly, I fear that nobody will be outraged until a bigger star faces an early death.

“Anyone in St. Louis know how Mark McGwire’s doing? He turned 41 in October.”

Steroid use is not a drug issue the way that cocaine was. Steroids, human growth hormone, etc., invoke the matter of cheating, which baseball has always encouraged or winked at, from Gaylord Perry’s spitter to the 1951 Giants’ sign-stealing or Whitey Ford’s scuffball. As fans, we like rules-flouters if they are bad-boy rockers or sympathetically helpless drug-crippled Hollywood stars. Why must baseball and baseball alone be the museum for our archaic values?

As I wrote in the latest edition of Total Baseball, “Barry Bonds has surpassed long-held records, changed the way his opponents play the game, and distanced himself from the performance level of his peers to a degree not thought possible, let alone made real, since the days of Babe Ruth. Over the course of half a century of paying serious attention to baseball, I have never seen anyone like him.”

Are you convinced that Bonds is the greatest? I didn’t think so.
--John Thorn


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