By: James Smith
Unless you’ve been living under a rock as far as sports news is concerned, you’ve noticed by now that Major League Baseball dropped the hammer on thirteen steroid users, issuing 50-game suspensions to a dozen players for performance-enhancing drug violations as well as handing down a whopping 211-game suspension to megastar Alex Rodriguez when he was still in the game (pre J-Lo). The latest round of suspensions emerged from the involvement of the thirteen implicated players with the rejuvenation clinic Biogenesis of America, which supplied them with performance-enhancing drugs.
Meanwhile, athletes from at least five other sports, including the NBA and NCAA, are also reported to have been supplied with PEDs by Biogenesis. Strangely, though, none of the implicated leagues have taken any action, as MLB has, to find and discipline those players. That begs the question: Why does steroid use seem to mean more in baseball than in any other sport? Could the league’s aggressive, and very public, stance against drug use actually hurt the game by highlighting the problem to the public?
The answer to those questions comes in two parts: First, doping hurts baseball more than it hurts other sports, and so baseball necessarily has to be more aggressive in trying to combat doping than other sports do. The reason steroid use hurts America’s national pastime is simple. In most sports, the effect of steroids is not immediately evident; athletes can run further, and play harder, for longer stretches of time, but what an audience sees as a result of that is mostly limited to a largely intangible sense that the game is being played at a higher level. Sure, a tennis player might fire a few more aces, but the impact of steroids on his game is going to be more in his covering the court better and getting more balls back than in an easily measurable impact on performance.
In baseball, by contrast, almost every single aspect of performance is measured, which means that the impact of steroid use is clearly visible. It’s most obvious, of course, in bloated home run totals, but PED users also demonstrate upswings in batting average and slugging percentage, while pitchers on performance enhancers fire more strikeouts. Because there are more statistics on which to quantify performance, unexpected gains in performance become more obvious and more suspicious in a way that an NFL player making a few more tackles, or running for a few extra yards, would not.
Of course, the statistical aspect of baseball also leads to the larger reason that steroid use damages that sport more, which is that, more than in any other sport, baseball players are competing against history as much as they are competing against each other. There is a mystique around statistical baseball achievements in history — Maris’ 61 home runs in a single season, Aaron’s 755 career home runs, and Williams’ .406 season batting average — that simply does not exist in other sports. Tradition and history in other sports is measured by team performance, not by individual achievement; as revered as players like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson are in basketball, their greatness is part and parcel of the success of the teams that they played on. Babe Ruth, on the other hand, is the most iconic athlete in American history, not for winning a bunch of championships but hitting home runs in a way that no one else could.
So steroid use in baseball, by distorting the game’s statistics, also warps our perception and understanding of the history of the game, and of the great players that have come before. No one watches football because they remember the great players of the 1970s; they watch to be engaged in the here and now. Baseball is different; it draws its significance not from its excitement but from its atmosphere and from its history, the element that steroid use most impugns.
For that reason, baseball’s stance on steroids isn’t damaging, but necessary.
[Pic via Wikimedia Commons -- Keith Allison]