Sunday, May 10, 2009

Another good look at why the steroid problem matters

The best ever explanation why steroids in sports are a tragedy came from the late, lamented Batgirl years ago:

There is little doubt that Bonds would have been one of the best players of his era without the BALCO--but these substances have elevated him into one of the best players of all time. And it is a lie. A fraud. Smoke, mirrors, and "the clear." He pretends to show us something beautiful and rare, but he lies. Professional sports are supposed to be fun, a wonderful diversion--but they can come to mean so much more. And when we see Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan[...]we're reminded of humanity's capacity for greatness. True greatness inspires, excites, and enlivens--whereas false greatness breeds nothing but disappointment and cynicism. And it hurts baseball. And no one hurts baseball on Batgirl's watch, dammit.

But a close second is unabashed Red Sox fan Bill Simmons this week:

"So you won the World Series twice because of Manny and Papi," my son says, "but they might have been cheating the whole time, and so were some of their teammates? Dad, your whole book was about how you could die in peace because they won in 2004. If they cheated to win, does that make what happened OK?"

The question hangs in the air. And hangs. And hangs.


Chris Snethen said...

Wait a minute...what makes Tiger so great and so rare? He has technological advantages that those just a generation before him never dreamed of. If Arnie had hurt his knee the way Tiger did, would he have been able to have the same surgery? Hardly. And the's light years beyond the stuff anyone has used before. Yet Tiger is some great, pure saint. Right.

Professional sports are no longer about the purity of competition. It's about earning a living. And if earning a living means you turn yourself over to science to cash those eight-figure paychecks, so be it.

What frustrates the hell out of me right now is the fact baseball is getting pilloried for essentially catching one of it's biggest stars doing steroids, proving the system works while the other three big leagues all get a pass. Despite the fact I plan to vote early and often for him, Manny won't make the all-star team this season while guys like Shawne Merriman get suspended for steroids and still make the Pro Bowl. That's completely out of whack.

This isn't baseball's problem.

pankleb said...

Chris, I keep ranting about Merriman to people. I could've written that.

And there were both tennis and auto racing-related drug issues this weekend. Why hasn't Canzano written an article about ignoring those sports until they clean themselves up?

I think Simmons and TRP are right about one thing, though: baseball players have to be our heroes. The average football player -- who seems to be getting 20-30 pounds larger every decade or so -- has to hit people and crunch them and seem tough. The average NFL player is so huge now that a rash of injuries resulted simply from the force of large bodies hitting each other. The NFL has spent the last decade re-writing its rules to reduce the chance of these injuries.

Of course, quarterbacks don't hit people. They get to be heroes if they have any talent, and the NFL knows it can't have half its QBs blow out knees each year.

The question no one asks: do you think a retiring QB with a history of painkiller abuse should make the NFL Hall of Fame? What form of cheating is the NFL willing to condone?

It'd be naive to think some golfers aren't taking stuff for strength, stamina, etc., just as it's naive to think auto racers are totally drug free. (Please insert hockey, basketball, tennis, or any other sport if you feel like it.)

I don't mean to excuse baseball. Some players used drugs and messed up the record books, and some did not do any of that. But I am totally sick of everyone pretending that advances in training techniques explain why players in other sports are so much larger and stronger today than they were twenty years ago.

This is a huge problem for all the sports. The NFL drug policy is praised, but it has as many holes as any other drug testing policy. People should stop turning a blind eye to that.

TeacherRefPoet said...

I don't disagree with anything either of you wrote. They're not really responsive to Batgirl or Simmons, however, who point out the real tragedy of the "steroid era."

I called my dad on the phone so we could watch Mark McGwire hit his 61st together. That was a special moment. But, for whatever reason, it's less -real- now. It's like knowing that the girlfriend you cared about was cheating on you the whole time. Even if the signs were there, you can't look back at the best moments of your relationship and feel the specialness of it.

Your argument, that we should have known better all along, may be accurate, but it doesn't lessen the tragedy.

Your other argument, that there's a blurry line about accepted pharmacological help and illegal pharmacological help, is another good one. It was addressed in the movie -Bigger, Stronger, Faster- that I saw last year. Someone needs to sit down and figure out a brightline here--and give a moral reasoning for that brightline.

I don't like it when people screw with my good memories. That's what steroids do to my sports memories.

Alison said...

Another thought on the steroid era, albeit not specifically baseball-related:

Throughout the Cold War, the US and USSR were pretty much always gold and silver in most Olympic events, although which was which varied. Bronze was frequently the GDR, a country with a minuscule population by comparison. As a country, we used to feel pretty self-satisfied about winning "honestly," as opposed to the doped Soviet athletes.

In light of, say, Marion Jones, and her husband (whose name escapes me just at the moment), and who knows how many others who haven't been caught, how smug do we really get to be?

Chris Snethen said...

I don't like it when people screw with my good memories. That's what steroids do to my sports memories.I'm not so sure about that. I have a feeling that Maris, Mantle, Ruth, and Aaron would have all taken the cream and the clear were they available. I don't think steroids lessen any of it. Time and technology both march on.

I saw McGwire's 35th homer in 1998. He hit it in Arizona. It's still special to me as is the memory of watching him crank one out of the park, through one of the giant outfield windows, during batting practice.

If I may beat a dead horse, I think the media is as much to blame for harming these memories as anyone. Are steroids a factor? Yes. But the hyperbole and nonstop media noise has an effect on all of this too. If we were to turn off SportsCenter and sports talk radio, quit reading Deadspin, and just watch the game, I wonder how special the game would become again.

TeacherRefPoet said...

I'm certain you're right that stars of the past would have taken the cream (I remember an interview where Mike Schmidt said so point-blank).

Here's the thing, though: they didn't. So Maris and Mantle's accomplishments are a combination of God-given talent and work and luck. I can't say that about anybody in the game post-Canseco, and that hurts.

Your last paragraph, Bean, advocates ignorance as a way to enjoy the game. That may be true, but it's not a direction I want to go.

Memories are personal things. My memory of seeing Sosa homer at Shea Stadium in 1999...watching him do the hop...well, I now know that there was something less real about it, and that makes the whole experience, in the aggregate, a sad one. It's not real. It was never real. And the argument of "well, nothing is real anymore, so you might as well enjoy the fake" isn't acceptable to me.

I feel better about baseball with it's more reasonable HR numbers now. You're right about football and the other sports, as well. And, to me anyway, the analogy holds. I'd rather watch Dick Butkus than Shawn Merriman. I'd rather watch Jesse Owens than Ben Johnson--for the same reasons.