I was going to try and stay away from this, I really was. The very last thing I wanted to do was wrap myself up in an issue like this, but it’s impossible now that Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon, and the leagues of sportswriters with much bigger audiences than I have deemed that all baseball conversation be driven with the underlying question Is he clean?
I didn’t want to be a part of this because I feel that this conversation steers us as an audience away from much better stories – it allows sportswriters to stand on a soapbox, ignoring the reality of the sport they cover, and hide behind the aura of their collective glory days in a relatively safe position and easy way to eat up column-inches for the month. It’s tiring.
So I’m going to come out and say it in this piece, and hopefully never speak of it again: I don’t care about steroids.
It was a long road to come to this position. I dealt with all the Ryan Braun crap last year (and now that he’s passed his 2011 home run total with 34, hopefully it can all be laid to rest) and I ran a bit of a roller coaster with my position on the subject of PED’s in general. I read up on the issues of Testerone and HGH, and I have a basic understanding of why drug test policy has evolved the way it has.
I understand the arguments about role models, and why someone has to think of the children. I just don’t care.
Because in the modern era, cheating has simply caught up with expanded technology and medical enhancements. In fact, that’s now the only way to cheat at baseball, a game once described by Thomas Boswell thusly:
"Cheating is baseball’s oldest profession. No other game is so rich in skulduggery, so suited to it or so proud of it."
To come out and decry baseball’s modern players for using steroids, whilst harkening back to the glory days when baseball men were ‘real men’ is nothing short of hypocrisy.
The problem is perspective. Many of the people writing so strongly on the subject grew up with the great Golden Age players in the ’50s and ’60s. It’s not normally mentioned, when these men decry the rise of free agency and prima donna players, that nearly all of the players in their era were forced to play their whole career with one team due to the infamous Reserve Clause. They also discreetly leave out the idea of players like Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Nap Lajoie, Jim Foxx, and others holding out for better contracts during Spring Training or seeking lucrative endorsement deals. In that same breath, while they pine for the glory days where work ethic was king, they leave out the rampant use of amphetamines, chewing tobacco, and even cocaine as energy supplements and ‘performance enhancers’.
And let’s not forget how teams would rampantly steal signs, catchers and pitchers alike would load up balls with foreign substances, and cheat using their own greens keepers. The Orioles would manipulate the ground in front of home plate so it would suit their ball-deadening bunts and allow more base runners. Teams would regularly let outfield grass grow to enormous lengths in hopes of making it tough for opponents.
Why is all this ignored while modern ballplayers are made out to be villains? Times have changed, to be
sure, but the essence of getting an edge in a game any way you can has never left. It’s so deeply entrenched in the fabric of the game that it can never go away. Because baseball is hard to play at even an average level. And average doesn’t cut it in the Major Leagues.
The modern clubhouse is nothing like the one that many older fans grew up with today – only because the media won’t allow it to be that way. Just look at the modern sports media outlet – they have investigative teams, legal experts, and social media advisers. All of this is designed to get us closer and ever more involved in the game and with the people that play it. This never would have happened 50 years ago – and if it did, the same stories would have came up then that come up now. Cheating, performance enhancers, bad attitudes, drinking in the clubhouse – all of this was always there in professional baseball.
I’m not saying any of it is right, per se, but that I simply don’t care about it. These guys on the field are professional athletes playing a very difficult game that can net them a large sum of money if they do it at an elite level. To say that it should be so easy to avoid such pitfalls as steroids is taking an easy road from a particularly high horse. Especially when there are so many tired sportswriters hanging on past their prime as well. How easy is it to let go of such a privileged position? Would you do it? Would you let yourself decline gracefully – move from an everyday player to a bench reserve to a journeyman free agent just hoping to have one more good year? Or would you try to give yourself an edge to help sustain the peak of your career, even if it won’t necessarily make you any better?
You can ask Barry Bonds that – even though he’s never tested positive, he is the highest order of supposed steroids users – and he had Hall of Fame numbers BEFORE anyone knew what BALCO was. You can ask Roger Clemens that, or Mark McGwire, or Sammy Sosa. None of these people are bad people, they just decided to take that extra step to keep chasing that feeling of respect, that feeling of dominance.
It’s easy to say no when you’re sitting at home, upset because an athlete did something wrong. We have the luxury of not being exposed to the pressure on this side of the outfield wall. But they do not – they have to live with it day in and day out. And, despite what we write in headlines and ledes and in comments, they’re only human.
Humans, as a general rule, will do whatever they can to continue being successful. Stress, ego, money, and influence are all great motivators for people to do something that toes the line between right and wrong. And baseball is a constant struggle not only on the line of right and wrong, but between being great and being forgettable.
That struggle is NEVER going away – not as long as fans pack stadiums and people make millions of dollars playing the game. So be as mad as you want about today’s players cutting corners and cheating to win. Call me out, call me an apologist. I don’t care – at least I’m honest about where we stand and where baseball’s officials have always stood. It may not be right, but it really doesn’t matter.
The only thing that’s going to change is how people cheat.