Mark McGwire and the Hunt for Steroids

When Mark McGwire made his steroid confession a few days back, I really only had mild interest in what he had to say.  Pretty much everyone assumed he’s experimented (and probably more than that) with steroids and various PEDs.  This assumption was so great that, despite having a Hall of Fame level career, McGwire has struggled to top 25% of the vote in his first years on the ballot.

Now, I find that to be particularly ridiculous – voters deciding whose performance “counts” and whose doesn’t – but that’s not my point.  My point is that clearly everyone already assumed that McGwire used steroids.

For the most part, McGwire’s confession was pretty complete.  He named years, the types of things he used, and why he used them.  Clearly, he didn’t name other players, but if you expect a respected member of the baseball community to out his peers, then clearly you don’t understand how baseball works.  There is a reason why Jose Conseco is so reviled – and why when Jon Heyman claims that McGwire is a coward and would have been a hero if he completely came clean in front of congress, he’s fooling himself.

So fine, McGwire made his statement and is returning to baseball.  What is most shocking about it?  The pompous and heavy-handed reactions to McGwire’s confession.

The thing that seems to have gotten everyone riled up is that McGwire thinks he was a good hitter without PEDs.  How anyone can A) doubt that McGwire thinks this and B) know for certain that he is wrong, is absolutely ridiculous.

Here’s the thing about steroids: they don’t create a good baseball player.  Hell, they don’t even create a good athlete on their own.  If combined with a tremendous amount of work, sure they can give you an edge.  But let’s not pretend that you can just sit on the couch eating potato chips and as long as you keep up with your steroid cycle you’ll be a superior athlete.  And let’s also not pretend that steroids can make you develop baseball skills.  If I start doing steroids, I will not be hitting home runs in the majors this season.  I’m not trying to say that steroids can’t help a baseball player.  What I am saying is that we have no idea how much they can help.  Barry Bonds certainly helped prolong his career, but how much of that was him simply getting in shape?  It’s easy to say that McGwire and Bonds are proof enough that steroids help you play baseball, but what about the countless number of steroid-using baseball players who were never any good and whose careers were actually derailed by steroid-induced health issues?

(Random aside here: this is exactly why I think the Roger Clemens situation is difficult.  The public as a whole has decided that anyone who experiments with any sort of PEDs in baseball (and only baseball) is immediately ruled as a cheater and a fraud.  Well, I’m sure Clemens experimented with lots of things when he became a workout fiend in Toronto.  But none of that changes the fact that Clemens DID work his butt off.  So if you’re Roger Clemens and you’ve spent years and years getting up early every morning and absolutely killing yourself with insane workout regiments, are you really going to let the public discredit all that because you experimented with a few illegal supplements at a time when everyone else was doing the same thing?  It happened somewhat to Alex Rodriguez, but he’s young enough that he can still show how great a baseball player he is.  Clemens doesn’t have that chance.)

So here’s the question I keep coming back to: what is it about steroids in baseball that gets everyone so riled up?  Well sure, they’re illegal.  But why are they illegal?  Well, because they are dangerous to your health (though in the case of HGH, that might not be true).  So we’re upset that these baseball players chose to sacrifice their health to play the game we watch – for entertainment – at a higher level?  What about the NFL linemen who put on so much weight that they develop type 2 diabetes and cut their lifespan in half?  What about players who are addicted to painkillers(does Brett Favre put up all those “numbers” without them?)?  And speaking of the NFL, why don’t we care if those players use steroids?  With baseball, are we upset because we want to have healthy athletes to emulate?  That’s doubtful.  We don’t emulate these players; we sit and drink beer and eat hot dogs and simply watch and enjoy their performances.  Heyman claims at the end of his article on McGwire that Babe Ruth did it with just that – hot dogs and alcohol.  So for some odd reason, we want to think we emulate great baseball players or that they emulate us.  These players are just like us except they have this magical ability to play the game at its highest level.  But it isn’t magic and to think so is naive.  Professional athletes are not like us and yet we are passing judgment upon them and their culture when we don’t really understand it.  Let’s face it: drug-use in baseball only effects the way we consume the game if we let it do so.  You could even argue that performance enhancing drugs have the ability to improve the entertainment value of the game (I don’t think that it does, but it’s a plausible argument).

Now, if you’re a baseball player on the fringe of making it to the majors and you’re upset because you don’t want to potentially sacrifice your health to overcome what you perceive as an athletic disadvantage?  Alright, complain away (and really, that’s why MLB should worry about steroid use).  But if you’re just a fan or a sportswriter who follows the game, I don’t see where you have any credibility in passing judgment.

Bottom line is this issue is not nearly as black and white as people make it out to be.  Look at parts of this article by John Schmeelk for WFAN:

Baseball needs to use the information from the Mitchell Report and other criminal investigations and decide who was clean and who was not. Guys like McGwire, Jason Giambi, Manny Ramirez and Jose Canseco who tested positive or admitted their use need asterisks next to their numbers, or simply have them removed from the record books completely. If baseball decides players like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Ivan Rodriguez used performance-enhancing drugs their numbers should go too. Whether Selig makes these decisions unilaterally (scary) or creates some type of panel of former players, historians, or journalists (preferable), it doesn’t matter.

This is a classic variation of the “remove their numbers from the record books” argument, which is absurd.  All a record book is, is a record of what happened.  McGwire hit 70 HRs.  Bonds hit 73.  It is impossible to ignore those achievements; they happened.  If you take them out of the “record book,” then it is no longer a record book.  And to have a panel just decide who they think should count and who shouldn’t?  How scientific.  What about a player who tried HGH once?  Is he gone?  What about those players who got to play during segregation?  What about those using amphetamines?  Will you investigate players from the “pre-steroid” era?  Because, despite the label, athletes DID use steroids then.

The craziness continues:

The players placed into this group of cheaters can still gain entrance to the Hall of Fame, but they won’t be put into the regular wing. Instead, they will be put into a separate area reserved for those who cheated. Let’s call it the Steroid wing. That will be their punishment. Of course, it will still be up to the baseball writers to decide whether or not the steroid cheaters deserve entrance at all. But the above solution is perfect for players like Bonds and Clemens who might have been Hall of Famers before they started using performance enhancing drugs.

A wing for cheaters?  Obviously, no one knows for sure who did or did not cheat.  Essentially this would be a wing for “cheaters-who-got-caught,” and by cheating you really mean those who used steroids.  Was steroids “cheating” pre-testing?  Well sure, but no more than taking any prescription drug without a prescription, or spitting on a baseball, or corking your bat, or anything else.  So do we investigate all of those things too?  And for all eras?

The worst part of this is to suggest that the baseball writers should arbitrarily decide who is a cheater and who isn’t; as is, the writers have already taken it upon themselves to pass moral judgment.  To actually formally give them the go-ahead to do so is scary.  These are the same guys who can’t figure out that Tim Raines was a better baseball player than Jim Rice and Andre Dawson!

Heyman does point out, and I would argue correctly, that McGwire is only giving this admission because he has to if he wants back in the game.  I would ask: why would McGwire do so otherwise?  Look at the way his apology has been torn apart by the media.  When you admit to using steroids, you cannot win.  All you can hope for is that people will eventually look back on you with indifference.  When Jason Giambi gave his “non-apology,” he was criticized because he couldn’t say steroids.  Then, sportswriters had the audacity to critique A-Rod for not being as forthcoming as Giambi (who said nothing).  Now McGwire suffers the same fate and he probably knew it would happen.  He knows he’ll be made one of the paragons of steroids (if he wasn’t already), even if he is just one of many, being judged by those who have no context.  But he loves baseball and wants to be involved again.

You have to wonder though: was his crime really taking steroids or was it that he took steroids and was really good at baseball?  People like to act like it’s the former, but really it’s the later, and the truth is our understanding of how those two things connect is very limited.

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