Bill James on Steroids: The Ancient Humans of the Near Future Will Shrug

The baseball analyst Bill James, who might be my favorite living writer, takes a look [PDF] at the sport's most contentious issue–the use of performance enhancing drugs–through the prisms of human advancement and shifting societal mores. Excerpt:

One of the characteristics of the steroid era was that we had several dozen players who continued to improve beyond the normal aging time frame, so that many of them had their best seasons past the age of 32. This is historically not normal. In the post-steroid era we are returning to the historic norm in which players hit a wall sometime in their early thirties. But what does this mean?

It means that steroids keep you young. You may not like to hear it stated that way, because steroids are evil, wicked, mean and nasty and youth is a good thing, but...that's what it means. Steroids help the athlete resist the effects of aging.

Well, if steroids help keep you young, what's wrong with that?

What's wrong with that is that steroids may help keep players "young" at some risk to their health, and the use of steroids by athletes may lead non-athletes to risk their health as well. But the fact is that, with time, the use of drugs like steroids will not disappear from our culture. It will, in fact, grow, eventually becoming so common that it might almost be said to be ubiquitous. Everybody wants to stay young. As we move forward in time, more and more people are going to use more and more drugs in an effort to stay young. Many of these drugs are going to be steroids or the descendants
of steroids.

If we look into the future, then, we can reliably foresee a time in which everybody is going to be using steroids or their pharmaceutical descendants. We will learn to control the health risks of these drugs, or we will develop alternatives to them. Once that happens, people will start living to age 200 or 300 or 1,000, and doctors will begin routinely prescribing drugs to help you live to be 200 or 300 or 1,000. If you look into the future 40 or 50 years, I think it is quite likely that every citizen will routinely take anti-aging pills every day.

How, then, are those people of the future—who are taking steroids every day—going to look back on baseball players who used steroids? They're going to look back on them as pioneers. They're going to look back at it and say "So what?"

Also discussed in the essay are sex standards on television and the inevitability (if not advisability) of Dick Allen being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Link via Baseball Primer. I wrote about James (pictured) in a 2003 review of Michael Lewis' Moneyball, and about Dick Allen (also pictured) in a 2005 essay on "Locker-Room Liberty." And Reason has a lengthy archive on steroids, which you can start perusing here.

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  • White Sox fan||

    Dick Allen should definitely be in the hall of fame. And Ozzie Guillen should get his own wing named after him.

  • Kyle Jordan||

    I can't wait until we get super quick acting steroids that athletes can take mid game. Like seeing some linebacker shoot up on the sideline and then basically Hulk out. It'll be like LT/Theisman every game.

  • ev||

    I can't STAND Ozzie Guillen. Granted I'm a Cubs fan and know nothing of his accomplishments as a player. Were I a player I'd almost flat-out refuse to play for such a blowhard. That type of motivational outlook just makes me angry.


    Semi-random aside: Mark Grace should be in Cooperstown. He had the most hits in the '90s and was the best first basemen that I've ever seen.

    Also, I remember with great fondness his at bat in the top of the ninth, game 7 of the best (maybe 1991 was better, true...) World Series ever. Against Riviera in his prime he slaps a single up the middle to get the rally started.

    He was one of those few Tony Gwynn-like players that could, with intention, foul off pitches he knew to be strikes but also that he couldn't do anything with them. And the no batting gloves really works for me.

    This is the end of my fawning.

  • ||

    We already have quick acting steroids: http://www.steroid.com/Cheque-Drops.php

  • The Angry Optimist||

    Frankly, I know that reason has a niche as being the reliable contrarian, but I have never understood this notion that we are all supposed to embrace cheating. If steroid users want to have a steroid-using league, let them start one. Otherwise, they are in breach of contract.

    *SLD Applies

  • SpongePaul||

    Dont worry EV Gracie will get to the hall. he was prolly one of the best players of his time, and a hall worthy player without question.
    on steriods, really WTFC! its a game, let em bulk up all they want.

  • short, fat cat||

    I can haz steriods . . . .

  • ||

    TAO,

    Since a steroid league is illegal, you are offering a false option. One place to work (at that level) is a massive incentives to take steroids, especially considering how many of them don't get caught.

    I view drugs in sports as a very "Harrison Bergeron" situation. The willingness to possibly fuck up your health with steroids is a competitive advantage available to those without the "natural" talent to succeed at the game.

    MLB can do what it wants, of course, but they are hobbling people out of a misguided attempt to maintain an illusion of "natural."

  • Matt Welch||

    Angry O -- As someone who writes about it more than most here, I *don't* necessarily think we should embrace cheating. I'm more concerned with how anti-steroids animus leads to prosecutorial witch-hunts, degraded privacy rights of non-professional athletes, and some of the most consistently asinine sports commentary this side of Furman Bisher.

  • Some dude||

    I'm not sure because nobody reports on it, but is it true that using steroids was not actually cheating according to the actual rules of baseball until very recently? Is it against the actual rules of baseball right now?

  • Matt Welch||

    Some dude -- This is true. Wasn't explicitly against the rules until 2002, though I think there was an "if-it's-illegal-it's-against-the-rules" kinda rule.

  • ||

    I stopped caring what Bill James had to say after he wrote that the Dowd Report was a lie. As if baseball would frame its all time hits leader and one its most popular players. I know James invented a lot of interesting statistical ways to look at baseball. But his disbelief of the Dowd report is pretty hard for me to get past. It is like finding out a noble prize winning economist is also a 9-11 truther. Some views are just too idiotic to look past.

  • ||

    "This is true. Wasn't explicitly against the rules until 2002, though I think there was an "if-it's-illegal-it's-against-the-rules" kinda rule."


    No Matt. They were known to be illegal.

    "On June 7, 1991, MLB commissioner Fay Vincent distributed a seven page memo entitled "Baseball's Drug Policy and Prevention Program" to all Major League clubs. A part of the memo read "The possession, sale or use of any illegal drug or controlled substance by Major League players and personnel is strictly prohibited ... [and those players involved] are subject to discipline by the Commissioner and risk permanent expulsion from the game.... This prohibition applies to all illegal drugs and controlled substances, including steroids....".
    http://web1.rootzoo.com/threads/view/MLB-Baseball/General/for-people-who-somehow-thing-steroids-were-legal-in-2003_221769

    The rule didn't mention steroids specfically but the Commissioners memo cleared up any ambiguity. No one post June 1991 can in any way credibly claim that steroids didn't violate baseball rules.

  • ev||

    I guess I'm against steroids. Not really. I just prefer small-ball. I like bunts and steals and hit-and-runs. I like double switches. This is why I simply cannot watch the American League. A good game is a good game, true, and I will watch Sox/Yankees series.

    It's just not baseball. You have to have nine players and nine hitters and nine fielders. Period.

    ALSO. Pitchers have no fear of retribution if they don't have to hit. In this sense I find baseball very libertarian. To hell with the warnings to the benches. If you hit one of my best players I'm going to plunk one of yours.

    That dynamic simply polices itself if you allow it to.

  • Eric S.||

    What's that in the corner? Oh that's Tom Verducci, crying.

  • dfd||

    I like bunts and steals

    Of course these have been proven to be a waste of an out and a long-run negative in the first instance and a long-run break-even at best in the second instance. That old-time superstition continues to dominate baseball "wisdom" is not something to celebrate.

    I do agree about the DH though - hate it.

  • ||

    DFD,

    I have never gotten the logic of sacrificing the runner to second with no outs. Hit and run to avoid a double play definitely. But the sac bunt always seemed to be just a waste of an out. It almost never works. I would rather take my chances stealing or hoping that my guy gets a hit.

    Of course all that is true in the American League. In the National League you have little choice but to sacrifice bunt if your pitcher is at bat.

  • Matt Welch||

    John -- That Vincent memo, and its implications/interpretations, is the subject of much debate.

  • ||

    ev: I respectfully disagree with you. Even though I'm from Queens (home of the Mets), I grew up a Yankee fan primarily because I HATE double-switches, bunts and steals. OK, maybe I've overplayed my hand with the last two, but I really hate pitchers hitting. I'd be OK with it if more than a handful didn't look like the Joes from the Pros vs. Joes TV show at the plate. However, I like the idea of a pitcher facing the best 9 players on a team at the plate, not the best 8 and some guy who's either going to bunt or hit a weak grounder 95% of the time. Watching NL Baseball is distracting, because once you have a rally going, you either have to burn a bat off the bench or hope the pitcher doesn't fuck it up. Besides, haven't you noticed that it's much easier for pitchers from the AL to make in the NL than the other way around?

    As for the Hall of Fame question, I'm divided. McGwire and Sosa shouldn't get in, if only because their careers were better living through chemistry. While Bonds was a jerk, he did win 3 MVP awards off of nothing stronger than coffee, so I think he should be in. Clemens is a borderline case. Pre-roids, his career compares with Hall-of-Very-Good-Not-Fame pitchers like Bob Welch, Jack Morris, Lon Warneke and former teammate Mike Mussina. Call me in 20 years when the Vets Committee tips their hand.

  • Matt Welch||

    I just prefer small-ball. I like bunts and steals and hit-and-runs. I like double switches. This is why I simply cannot watch the American League. A good game is a good game, true, and I will watch Sox/Yankees series.

    I prefer small-ball, too; or at least a lot of good baserunning and defense (I'm an Angels fan after all). But the AL runs more than the NL, you know, and there's nothing much interesting in watching a pitcher bunt.

  • ||

    "John -- That Vincent memo, and its implications/interpretations, is the subject of much debate."


    What is there to debate about? Every other sport in the world was testing for steroids in the 1990s. The players knew it was against the rules to use them. If they didn't, why were they so adament in lying about using them. IN 1998 there were a lot of acusations about McGwire using steroids and he lied and denied all of them. There is no credible agrument to be made that steroids were not against the rules and the players knew as much.

  • ||

    "Clemens is a borderline case. Pre-roids, his career compares with Hall-of-Very-Good-Not-Fame pitchers like Bob Welch, Jack Morris, Lon Warneke and former teammate Mike Mussina."

    No way. There is no evidence that Clemmens used steroids until at least the late 1990s when he was in Toronto. During his time in Boston he won three Cy Young Awards and four ERA titles and 20 games three times. He could have retiredin 1996 and made the HOF.

  • ||

    I stand corrected John. His win totals aren't sexy and his ERA for the Boston days is very good, not great. (For the record, his career BoSox line is 192-11, 3.06 ERA and 2590 SO). His ERA+ in Boston is where he shines though: 145, which is 4th all time among career starters. I could see him getting in on the Sandy Koufax principle though. (By the way, Koufax's ERA+ for his dominant 1961-66 period is 156, which would be tops all-time for a career ERA+)

  • edna||

    if you try to tell me that brooks robinson used steroids in 1970, i will personally rip off your head and shit down the neck-stump.

    really, who-the-fuck cares what players do to their bodies?

  • Fenric||

    Matt, I realize it's four years late for a comment on "Locker Room Liberty", but "Vida" is not a nickname:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vida_Blue

  • dfd||

    In the National League you have little choice but to sacrifice bunt if your pitcher is at bat.

    True enough. Because the odds of a typical pitcher getting on base are so low, that is the one time you might as well get something for your very-likely out. But nobody else should be wasting outs with very few exceptions.

  • Mike M.||

    I have the utmost respect for Bill James for his incredible contributions to our understanding of baseball statistics, but I get a strong sense that he's straying way too far from his area of expertise here, especially with the implication that with the proper drugs, people could live to be 1,000.

  • The Angry Optimist||

    Mr. Welch -

    That sounds fair, but I think it fair to admit that, yes, there has been a lot of writing in these pages that embraces steroid use as a contrarian position, and, even though never explicitly condones cheating, certainly does not have a problem with it.

    I agree that all of the subsequent developments are more disturbing, but I always got the sense that you guys kinda winked at cheating. Forgive me if I was wrong.

  • ||

    There is no credible agrument to be made that steroids were not against the rules and the players knew as much.

    I agree that this is the case, but as the the "winking at cheating" mentioned by TAO, etc. I don't think this is such an easy black and white ethical issue. I think anytime you have a rule with absolutely no enforcement, as was the situation throughout the 90's, it puts otherwise honest people in a difficult predicament. Sure, it's easy to say "just don't cheat" but the greater the advantage to be gained by breaking the unenforceable rule the more of a dilemma you're creating for everyone who wants to play by the rules.

    Imagine for example this scenario. You're an engineer or lawyer or whatever and work for a boss who truly believes in having well rounded, healthy employees with time for their families, etc. He believes working long hours leads to increased stress and its realted diseases and generally poorer health. In light of this he institutes a rule that states nobody is allowed to work more than eight hours a day, ever. Now, he is not the prying type and respects privacy, so he also says that no, he's not going to be checking to see when you get in or go home or log on to your computer or anything like that. In fact he isn't going to check on your hours at all. It's up to you to "play by the rules" and enforce your eight our limit on yourself.

    Being the honest type, you (and I mean the general "you" here - not aimed at anyone) keep yourself to strictly eight hours a day. But pretty soon you start noticing that a lot of people are already at the office when you get there and many more still there when you leave. You wonder how they are keeping to only eight hours a day, but it's not your business you figure. However, you also begin to notice that others, based on their amazing productivity, are being promoted, given raises and working their way towards senior management, partnership, etc. but you have languished in your same old job.

    It becomes obvious to you that many, maybe as much as half or more, of the people are clearly working longer hours to get ahead. Further, when down times hit and some people are laid off, you get the unmistakable realization that it is largely the people who have kept to the rules and been less productive that are getting the boot.

    You consider going to your boss or further up the chain with your concerns, but the culture of this place tends to frown on "troublemakers" and you know your complaints will not only fall on deaf ears of managers who don't want to know (after all their departments are benefiting from these scofflaws - the last thing a manager can afford is to unilaterally punish his most productive subordinates while his fellow managers continue to reap the rewards). I mean, how would that make your manager's department look? Not so good. In fact, you know your complaining will only increase the chances that you will be shipped off to another department, or out the door altogether. Essentially there is no one you can go to who has any reason to want to hear the news or to help you out. You'll only rock the boat and make yourself an outcast.

    Also, assume this job pays pretty well and you have no real comparable alternatives. You could quit, but that entails taking a huge pay cut and you have a family depending on you.

    So you're left with the choice of voluntarily leaving with a loss of income, continuing to play by the rules in a stagnant career and worry about when your turn to get laid off is coming, or join the clearly dominant culture of sneaking in some extra hours and moving ahead. Sure you hate the idea of cheating, but it's obvious that only the cheaters are being rewarded and why should you leave it to them to get all the benefits while you bear all the costs?

    What would you do? Can all of you be so sure that in a similar situation you wouldn't sneak in some extra hours too?

  • ev||

    "I grew up a Yankee fan primarily because I HATE double-switches, bunts and steals. OK, maybe I've overplayed my hand with the last two, but I really hate pitchers hitting. I'd be OK with it if more than a handful didn't look like the Joes from the Pros vs. Joes TV show at the plate."

    This also goes for Mr. Welch who said there isn't anything fun about watching a pitcher bunt:

    Oh, to me that's the whole magic of it! Here you have a guy who isn't used to hitting. He's a pitcher for Christ's sakes! He's a fish out of the water...his goal is just to contribute, to flap his body until he gets back into the water. Games are often won (or at least runs are scored) because of a pitcher being able to contribute to a part of the game that he's not usually involved in.

    I know moneyball and its tenets but just selfishly I'd rather see a game with bunting and steals and sacrifices. I enjoy the romantic ideal of someone's job being to sacrifice himself for the betterment of the team. (Wow, that's unlibertarian. (Well, it actually isn't if the betterment of the team benefits you)).

    Also, watching pitchers try to hit against top shelf pitchers is just hilarious. I mean seriously. I love watching athletes be humiliated.

  • IceTrey||

    As always he misses the point. The problem with steroids is abuse not use. Maybe you could increase your testosterone levels 10% feel better, play better with no ill effects. Increase your level 110% your dick falls off and you go to prison for killing a guy over a parking space.

  • Matt Welch||

    That sounds fair, but I think it fair to admit that, yes, there has been a lot of writing in these pages that embraces steroid use as a contrarian position, and, even though never explicitly condones cheating, certainly does not have a problem with it.

    Well, it brushes up against a lot of interesting issues & tendencies, which is one reason why we've probably over-covered it through the years. You've got biomedical freedom and personal enhancement (which we like), idiot congressional meddling (which we hate), the ick factor (which we instinctively distrust), and the possibility of rules that deny natural human tendencies (think marijuana criminalization, or immigration laws). It's a rich subject, especially for people with our strange preoccupations.

  • JB||

    Screw Mark Grace. He is the reason Sandberg retired.

  • JS||

    Baseball sucks.

  • highnumber||

    Jim Parque wrote a piece published in today's Sun-Times about his decision to take HGH a few years back.

    Former Sox pitcher Jim Parque confesses: Why I juiced

  • Casey||

    Now make many kinds concerning harmless steroids, but also they do not need to be accepted in youth while also the forces it is enough. Human growth hormone one of the most harmless how initially makes it our organism, and to middle age manufacture decreases, from for what we grow old

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