Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Some Scattered Thoughts On Drugs And Baseball

Let's play a hypothetical game together.

Two baseball players, X and Y, look a lot alike. Player X stands 6'4"at a muscular 240 pounds while Player Y is 6'2"/220.  Player X and Player Y are in fact identical twins, similar enough looking that they have multiple times attempted to impersonate one another at various public (and allegedly, private*) events. Both dream of playing baseball professionally, and both make it. With the aid of steroids, Player X hits more than 450 home runs over the course of 17 seasons. Player Y, on the other hand, barely sniffs the Majors, hitting a grand total of zero home runs in 3 different short stints in the Big Leagues. With this information alone, we could assume that steroids (along with a slightly bigger frame) give Player X a significant advantage, but you probably already know that I left something out.

Player Y also uses steroids, uses them in the same way as his twin brother, Player X, whom he trains with. So here we have it: same training regimen and diet, same genes, almost the same size and same steroid use, but vastly different results. Can we really quantify how much steroids altered performance?

By now, you also will have figured out that this isn't actually a hypothetical. Player X is Jose Canseco, while Player Y is his brother, Ozzie. Clearly steroids helped Jose's career, as he wasn't a top prospect until he started taking them, but why didn't they help Ozzie in the same way? What percentage of Jose's success can we attribute to steroids, which were nominally illegal but not tested for, and what percentage was just his natural ability?

Even externally aided, Jose Canseco's numbers don't quite add up to a Hall of Fame career, but it has become impossible to talk about Canseco's career outside of the context of drugs. Part of that is his insane, whistle-blower persona, but part is that we like assuming everything is as clear cut as "steroids are the reason Jose Canseco was great." Looking at the success, or lack thereof, of Ozzie, I would contend drugs had less to do with Jose Canseco's career than many suspect.

* There is an unverified claim on Wikipedia that Ozzie Canseco once impersonated Jose and slept with Jose's wife. Considering Pat Jordan's profile of Jose which touched upon his sexual proclivities, that may or may not be a good thing.
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I should get out of the way that I'm pretty libertarian when it comes to baseball players and steroids, and tend to think that they should be able to do what they want. I especially have a hard time blaming players who used steroids before 2005, the first year MLB tested for them. In my mind, these players were simply a product of their era. I can think of three particularly compelling counter-arguments to this opinion, beyond the simple protestation that it's cheating: first, there are numerous historical comps wherein people were could claim to be simply "a product of their era" and yet a lot of evil occurred; second, this laissez-faire attitude toward PEDs is a tacit admission of how much I'm willing to commodify athletes' bodies, to the point where I would encourage (or not discourage) an athlete in taking on future bodily risk for the sake of my enjoyment; and third, in an essentially closed monetary system like the MLB, we tend to reward the cheaters at the literal expense of the honest.

I am sympathetic to each argument but would counter in turn that sports are fundamentally meaningless and we're not talking about real evil here, this commodification of athletes is not exclusive to PEDs (remember when we all wanted Ray Allen to pump his ankle full of cortisone and risk never being able to walk again?), and that if I were given a chance to take a drug that could net me millions of dollars I probably would, even if it meant others didn't get a chance. Like it or not, that selfish ethos defined this era. But steroids are not the only difference between 1990s baseball and 1920s baseball; they're just one in a long line of modifications that make this holier-than-thou sanctification of baseball's past such a sham.

There are the obvious historical changes, breaking the color barrier or morphing into the live ball era or lowering the mounds, but there are more subtle advances along the lines of steroids that we never think twice about. In 1965, if a pitcher blew out his elbow he was done pitching. In 2000, he could undergo Tommy John surgery, taking a ligament from elsewhere in the body and replacing the medial elbow, and be back in a year. In my mind, steroids and HGH aren't too far from that lineage of medical advancement.
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Jose Canseco won't make the Hall of Fame because he's both admitted to steroid usage and he ultimately wasn't quite good enough. Jeff Bagwell has neither such problem, and yet he still might be frozen out. Bagwell's counting stats don't jump off the page (back of the baseball card?), but in my mind he absolutely has the numbers to be in the Hall, though that's not the point of this post. There are some voters who probably just don't think he's deserving - only 449 home runs and 2,314 hits - but most people not voting for Bagwell are doing it because of steroids. The problem is: Jeff Bagwell has never even been accused of using steroids.

If he were, I don't know that it would change my opinion on his Hall of Fame candidacy, but as of now, the only suspicions anyone can have are that he was muscular and played in the '90s. It's total guilt by association and he's being painted with a pretty wide brush. Soon, players like Mike Piazza, Ivan Rodriguez, Vlad Guerrero and many more will come to a vote for the Hall. Rodriguez has basically admitted to steroid usage, but we don't really know with the other two (to be honest, I wouldn't be surprised if either of them juiced). Blacklisting Bagwell is setting a terrible precedent for a plethora of future cases. If the voters are so worried about electing someone who it turns out was a steroid user, they could always put that information on his plaque when it came out. Of course, I don't think there's any mention that Ty Cobb was a virulent racist, but that's besides the point. I'm worried about this Bagwell case, though. He's not Sammy Sosa or Mark McGwire who, like it or not, are being kept out for admitted steroid use. He's just a guy who played when they did. Are the writers going to keep out all the power hitters of the '90s on suspicion of suspicion of guilt?
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I bet those of you reading this right now are thinking, "I love reading all of your brilliant yet terrifyingly endless thoughts, but where's the big cultural metaphor where you sort of attempt to tie everything together before it runs off the rails and you move on quickly?" First, thanks for the part that sounded like a compliment, and second, I have a doozy of a metaphor: the Steroid Era is the sub-prime mortgage boom.

Standing in for the banks and lenders we have MLB leadership. In place of the lessees we have the players. For the media we have, well, the media.

The banks/MLB essentially created a system wherein their profits were tied to a fundamental deceit, all the while deluding themselves that this success wasn't just a house of cards and was in fact laying the groundwork for short-term and long-term profits. The lessees/players were then encouraged (or again, not discouraged) to take advantage of this corrupt system as a way to better their own economic standing. The media, as usual, were complicit in hyping both and then blaming them retroactively when it turned out neither era could last. Ironically, the era which resulted in mass foreclosures and a worldwide fiscal crisis augured less change and accountability than in baseball, but then I never said this was a happy metaphor. Obviously, everyone who took out a loan was not doing so irresponsibly, just as everyone playing baseball was not cheating, but both systems were set up to encourage dishonesty.

PEDs are undeniably cheating and against the spirit of the game, but to keep players out of the Hall of Fame simply for their association with an era of cheaters is harsh. For one, we don't know the full benefit of these drugs, and even the most public admonishers of juicers would admit that some players who used steroids would undoubtedly be Hall of Famers even without PEDs. However, while we can say that Clemens and Bonds would be in the Hall even without steroids, it doesn't work the other way. If we knew with 100% certainty that a player didn't juice and he had 80% of a Hall of Fame career playing against users, would that qualify him for the Hall? I don't think many people would vote this way, and if we can't incentivize honesty, then how can we blame these players for looking out for themselves? Taking PEDs was definitely in a hazy moral no-man's-land, but there was no true downside to taking PEDs other than some nebulous ideas like personal moral integrity and future health risks because again, MLB didn't test for them (and took essentially an out of sight, out of mind approach). Demonize the players from this era at your own peril.
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What is a performance enhancing drug, anyway? For a long time ballplayers were reliant on greenies, stimulants which were available like candy in the trainer's area, to get them through the season. Those have recently been banned, but obviously a player can use caffeine or Red Bull for the same effect. Certainly a pain-masking drug or injection is performance enhancing but we seem generally okay with that. If the metric determining cheating is whether or not a player ingested something foreign that improved his performance, then pretty much everyone is cheating. Obviously there's a threshold as to what constitutes cheating and what is fair play, but it may not be so clear cut.

Take the case of Zack Greinke. He was a much hyped prospect who came up to the Big Leagues at 20 and promptly took fourth in the rookie of the year voting. The next year though, the league caught up and Greinke lost 17 games with an ERA approaching 6.00. The following spring, Greinke walked away from baseball, leaving Spring Training to deal with personal issues. It turned out that he was dealing with severe personal anxiety issues, and after missing almost all of 2006, he returned to the Royals in 2007 with the aid of anti-anxiety medication and a sports psychologist. In 2009, he won the Cy Young Award.

Obviously, the anti-depressants didn't help him throw the ball 95 MPH with good location or uncork insane 57 MPH eephus curveballs. Greinke had and has the natural physical ability to do all these things, but the drugs were undeniably performance enhancing. Greinke went from flameout to Cy Young winner and drugs played a key part in that turnaround. Yet we totally accepted this narrative of events because Greinke wasn't adding 30 pounds of muscle in the offseason and totally remaking himself as a new guy. We believed that he already had the ability, but that he was merely taking drugs to essentially heal himself in other ways.

Why is that so different from HGH, though? Many players, like Andy Pettitte, used HGH not to bulk up but to hasten recovery from injury. Unlike anabolic steroids, HGH does not push people above their natural limits so much as allow them to rejuvenate and more easily push themselves to their own limits. There is a distinction between Greinke's drug use and Pettitte's but it's not of that great a magnitude.
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Ultimately, steroids and HGH are now against the rules. Those players that are caught (and punished *winkwinkRyanBraun*) deserve to be treated as cheaters. Those that used before there was a system in place, in my mind, don't deserve to be panned in the same way.

I think we need to be careful when we state conclusively what steroids do because we really have no idea, and we may need to move to a new definition of performance enhancing drugs. I think we need to use extreme caution when throwing around labels like cheater. And while I'm glad we're no longer in the midst of the Steroid Era, I think we need to treat it with same the historical reverence as any other era of baseball, one that had its flaws but also a plethora of great players. 


  1. A few random thoughts on your random thoughts: HGH doesn't work exactly how you think it does. The primary benefit to it is that you can recover faster (just like steroids). When you work out you are basically tearing your muscles slightly and to recover your body creates growth hormone. During this recovery process you are sore and cannot work out these same muscle groups. However, HGH and steroids get rid of this soreness by allowing your body to recover much faster. Less recovery time leads to more ability to work out, equal more strength, equals more homers, velocity, etc.

    A second point is that baseball didn't test for PEDs prior to 2005 but it did have in its rule book that they were illegal. This obviously doesn't mean that they are off the hook, but they didn't just give people carte blanche to do whatever they wanted. Rules existed they just weren't enforced through testing.

    Finally, you f'ed up by not saying subprime mortgage boom (BOOM!). What's the point of a great analogy if you can't make the next logical joke. Shame on you.

    1. 1. Thanks for pointing that out, because I totally oversimplified toward the end. I should have been clearer in the HGH comparison that I was taking guys like Pettitte at their word that they only used HGH for regenerative purposes, not to add muscle.But you are right that I was off on the differences between the two, because HGH does have almost the same benefit as anabolic steroids.

      The comparison to Greinke that I should have used is Leo Messi, who used HGH for similar life-related purposes as Greinke's anti-depressants.

      2. I understand that the drugs were illegal but I think MLB is at least as culpable as the players and choose not to blame them for taking advantage of a situation where their cheating was both encouraged and rewarded.

      3. You're right. I fucked up.