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…. Steroids and Baseball, ad infinitum

I have recently gotten some emails that lead me to believe that people think I am OK with steroid use in baseball. As I read my own writing, it seems to be what I am saying a lot of the time, so I thought I’d better take a minute to work it through, and make sure I am being clearly understood.

First of all, I do not believe that using steroids should be a crime, at least not for an adult. If I’m old to enough to take the life-threatening risks involved in going to war, drinking beer, smoking cigarettes or driving, I am old enough to decide whether I am willing to take similar risks in any way I see fit. Personally, I do not believe that using steroids (under a physician’s careful care) will lead to serious long-term health issues; a conclusion I’ve come to from a careful reading of objective writings on the subject, as well as my own experiences, (I was involved in body building for several years in the eighties). That is not to say I couldn’t be wrong, or that it’s great. I just don’t believe the hype, as it were.

Also, I know that everyone is saying that a player using steroids is cheating, Well, I’m not so sure that it is, right now, it is not against baseball’s rules; although, as a controlled substance, it is illegal to use steroids without a physician’s prescription.

As for the irresponsible slander being published in many of the major media outlets; I do not believe that steroid use in baseball is anywhere near as widespread as is being suggested. I do not believe that Bonds, (or for that matter, Sosa or Giambi) uses steroids. The ridiculous idea that because Bonds is bigger, particularly his head, he must be using steroids or GHB or whatever, I mean, come on. I’m 39 years old (same as Barry), and I haven’t lifted weights in over ten years. My head is probably a size and a half bigger, as is my waist, my shoulders, my ass…. This is what happens when you get old. You get bigger.

All professional journalists are required to follow the Journalistic Code of Ethics laid out for their profession. I believe that journalists like Tom Verducci and Rick Reilly are violating that code when they repeatedly insinuate that any player is using steroids with no proof whatsoever. Frankly, they should be censured; as it is, their articles and columns should be published in supermarket tabloids. And as for mandatory steroid testing in baseball, I’ll leave it at this; when they can guarantee that not one player is doing it, that’s when they should make it against the rules. Until then, all they’ll accomplish will be the vilification of those dumb enough to get caught.

We live in society that has criminalized a number of personal actions (smoking marijuana, for instance), while allowing enormous profits to be generated on others that are just as bad or worse (say, smoking cigarettes). To say that it’s OK for athletes to undergo radical surgeries, take pain-killing injections; to describe as heroic the athlete that will “play in pain,” while portray as weak those that can’t or won’t; to suggest that one kind of performance enhancement (amphetamines or supplements or surgery) is acceptable while another (steroids or GHB) is not…. I’m sorry, I cannot go along. This is hypocrisy at its highest form, and I will continue to treat it as such.

Furthermore, it is hypocrisy to suggest that baseball’s hallowed records are tainted by the suggestion of steroid use. There can be no doubt that throughout baseball history, athletes looking to gain an edge have tried virtually anything they could find to gain it. Whether it was to drink some strange concoction brewed up by the team trainer, rubbing liniment on sore arms, popping greenies or reds, beer before the game, beer after the game, you name it. I’ve read (probably apocryphal) stories of ballplayers sticking their heads out of a train so the soot would make their eyes water; the better to clean them out, or so the thinking went.

Virtually any athlete in any sport will do just about anything to be the best of the best, and a manager or coach will push them to do so. Some athletes will push the envelope only so far, while others will throw it away, and risk their very lives, if they truly believed it would make a difference, the difference between winning and losing. We, as fans, not only ask this of them, we demand it. Their coaches demand it, their teammates demand it, the game demands it. Be the best, win at all costs, do whatever it takes; these are the credo of virtually every championship-caliber player, coach, or team.

And now, hysterical media-types are fanning the flames of controversy; “Oh no, it looks like so and so really did do whatever it takes. Shame on him!” Please. Don’t insult my inteligence. Of course he or she did, what did you expect? The only difference between what one athlete will risk as opposed to another is based on their own personal decision-making values. As for their choice, I’d ask you; is it appropriate for one person to decide what another should be willing to risk? Is it OK for you to tell me what I should be willing to do to improve my life, my career, my earning potential? Not in my book, it isn’t, not as long as my actions don’t harm anyone else, or take from anyone else.

In the five years prior to 1997, Mark McGwire played 139, 27, 47, 104, and 130 games. Was it his use of andro that allowed him to play 156, 155 and 153 over the next three, hitting 58, 70 and 65 home runs? During those five injury-riddled seasons, he hit a home run every 9.44 AB’s. In the next three, in which he played almost every game, he hit a home run every 8.17 at bats, not a tremendous difference. He stopped using andro sometime during the end of the 1998 season, right? Only one full season later, he was back on the injured list, and his career was over by 2001. If his use of andro enabled him to stay healthy enough and strong enough to get enough at bats to break Roger Maris’ record, how exactly was that wrong? Why should Mark McGwire give up his right to do whatever he can to help his body heal itself and stay strong enough to endure the rigors of baseball, his chosen profession? If there are risks involved, why shouldn’t he be the one to decide if they are worth it? It’s his life!

Here’s a different way to look at it: If it was so bad for McGwire to use andro, mostly because so many kids went out and bought it after reading that he was using it; why wasn’t it bad when literally thousands of articles were and still are written about it?

Who gets to decide what’s OK and what’s not, the condescending and sanctimonious Rick Reilly? If it’s OK for Tommy John to undergo a radical surgery on his pitching arm, one that constituted the only way for him to continue what became a potentially Hall of Fame-worthy career; a surgery that was unavailable to, say, Herb Score or Dizzy Dean, does that somehow tarnish his accomplishments? Were there risks involved in the surgery? Of course there were. One person dies from anasthesia in every 80,000 surgeries, not to mention the other risks involved when a surgeon cuts you open, infection, mistakes, etc. Why is that risk OK, but the risks associated with steroids are not? What if there were a surgery that Jose Canseco could undergo that would insure he could play injury-free for three more seasons, but he might need knee replacements when he’s fifty, would that be acceptable? It is for football players. How come that risk meets Tom Verducci’s requirements for morality? Where’s his outrage over the practically crippled Earl Campbell?

Stan Musial was one of the first baseball players to use strength training year round, and was rewarded with a long and virtually injury-free career. Conventional wisdom at the time held that he was lucky; everyone believed that lifting weights would only increase a players susceptibility to injury, a belief that persisted into the 1980′s. He knew that that was a bunch of bullshit, and he ignored his coaches and trainers who tried to tell him otherwise. Should his advantage over his ignorant fellow competitors weigh against any analysis of his standing among baseball’s immortals?

It’s a slippery slope, this misplaced morality. There is no sure-fire way to stop a player from using steroids, or any other substance to enhance their abilities. Experts acknowledge that drug testing in the Olympics or more cryptically, cycling, have only forced all the competitors to use drugs up to the legal limit to remain competitive. What will be the test that baseball uses, what limits of testosterone or GHB or whatever will all baseball players have to meet to remain competitive? What team will declare that its players will heroically compete against the rest of the league free of any enhancements; a stance so absurd as to be unimaginable, given the enormous financial benefits a championship can offer.

This is the path we are heading down, just like the one that international cycling finds itself on. Where the only way to remain competitive at the highest levels is to follow the leaders. It’s not the path baseball should take. If you’re really worried about it, do something constructive. Spend some of the billions of dollars generated by baseball to fund real, objective research studies (something that to date has not been done, contrary to popular belief), and discover exactly what the use of steroids will do over the short and long-term. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that steroids are, in fact, harmful. I also wouldn’t be surprised to discover that careful use of steroids is actually beneficial in aiding athletes who put themselves through such rigorous and demanding lifestyles as our heroes. Right now, it would be premature to suggest that either conclusion is correct. Those who are sounding the clarion are jumping to just such premature conclusions, and using moral outrage as the foundation of their cries against the so-called cheaters. Their hypocrisy will be exposed by history, hopefully sooner, rather than later.


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All commentary is the opinion of John J Perricone unless otherwise noted.
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