December 2007

A Book Far From Closed

Holding baseball players to a higher moral standard is akin to, in Cub terms, expecting Kosuke Fukudome to win an MVP award with the Cubs. They are both ridiculous propositions that will ultimately leave you disappointed, should you foolishly believe in them.

JC Bradbury says it best:

Athletes and entertainers make horrible role models. This is not because this class of individuals are inherently bad, but that they are in the public spotlight for something other than their upstanding behavior. Therefore, it should not be surprising when they let us down in a way that many people around us do.

And yet, we are outraged when a baseball player violates the supposed sanctity of his sport and does what men have done and always will do — attempt to gain an upper hand on their competition through means fair and unfair, in the venues of business, sport or, at the most basic level, survival — as if their fame puts them above such petty human follies as cheating or poor decision making. These people are famous because they have extraordinary abilities — they can do things the average person cannot. If fame happens to coincide with virtue, then it is just that: happenstance. Neither one is a function of the other.

Steroid use, then, should come as no surprise, especially when the baseball world so blatantly turned a blind eye to the subject. Players are always looking for an edge, be it a result of diet, exercise or chemistry. Performance-enhancing drugs are a means to that end. That is not to say that all players are or were users — far from it — but that many turned to PEDs, as chronicled in the Mitchell Report, like many among the common folk turn to a new diet.

Famous athletes are, in general, no more immune to the allure of cheating than a student writing a paper. With steroids, the athletes, however, had only the associated health risks to worry about, if they were informed at all, before testing was instituted. Whereas penalties help to reinforce the moral judgment of the student, no such penalties burdened the ballplayer. A player can make a poor decision, just like a student — the difference is in the penalty, not superior morality.

Of course, just like that new fad diet, steroid and other modern-day PED use have a questionable impact on performance. Sabernomics has a large archive of material on the subject. How much of the performance gains are due to the rigorous training programs that so often accompany and are prescribed for steroid use?

But that is really beside the point. MLB is trying to wipe out a form of cheating, no matter the effectiveness of that form, acting shocked and ashamed that its players would stoop so low, forgetting its own failings. It’s a noble cause, to be sure, but with one fundamental problem: Identifying users. I’m no chemist, but surely it must be difficult to develop tests for drugs and masking agents known only to those who made them. The creators are always a step ahead — by the time a test is developed for one PED, another variant is already in production — as Game of Shadows makes clear. For all the rhetoric about the testing program being “flexible enough to employ best practices as they develop” (Mitchell Report, pg. 305), it’s unreasonable to expect MLB to root out PED use through tests alone. They may weed out the less-sophisticated juicers, but eradication will remain elusive.

Plans I’ve seen range from testing to education to player policing to Pigouvian taxes. I doubt education will be enough to stop the Quadruple-A players of the world from turning to steroids and PEDs in hopes of achieving their dreams of making it in the majors, and player policing would be disastrous. How long before it devolves into finger-pointing and unfounded claims based on grudges? I can only think of the potential for a devastating witch hunt. A Pigouvian tax, which would take money from users and distribute it to non-users, is again at the hands of testing. Unable to determine, beyond a doubt, who the users and non-users are, MLB could easily end up taking money from cheaters and handing it back to their undiscovered kin.

What people want is closure, to say definitively that the Steroid Era is over. It’s the same desire that drove so many up the wall after the Sopranos finale, the need to sit back and say, It’s over.

The whole thing is enough to make anyone’s head hurt, and it’s becoming increasingly possible that steroid use will not die out by MLB’s hand, but by the next big performance booster. Everyone must accept that, unless some clever and radical new mechanism is created and put in place, there will always be something out there, and there will always be players, like any average person, looking for a leg up.

Dec. 19, 2007 baseball sports