'Roid Rage


Revelations of apparent steroid use among big league baseballers has resulted in the inevitable knee-jerk reaction to ban certain players, strip players and even teams of records and titles, and otherwise insist on that great misbegotten dream of a "drug-free workplace."

Not suprisingly, the strongest reactions emanate from the greater Bay Area, where several of the most successful alleged malefactors–Barry Bonds, Jason Giambi, Jose Canseco, and Mark McGwire–spent large chunks of their careers. In the San Jose Mercury News, Mark Purdy beseeches Major League Baseball Commish Bud Selig to:

immediately suspend the likes of Bonds, Giambi, Gary Sheffield, Benito Santiago and any other major leaguers named in the Balco documents.

Selig shouldn't stop their paychecks. But he has to keep them off the playing field until baseball conducts its own investigation into the Balco case—or until prosecutors release all of the investigative information and grand jury testimony, so we know precisely which players are accused of doing what. An independent investigation by baseball would sift through the mess.

Selig should also convene a panel—Hall of Famers, baseball historians, current players—to formulate a pre-emptive policy on the next thorny question: Should the records or honors achieved by Bonds or any other men be nullified, if it can be proved they were taking performance-enhancing drugs while attaining those records?

My personal opinion: If Bonds produced a record with dishonorable drug matter in his system, his records should be erased. Yes, that includes his 73 home runs of 2001. The same goes for the 40-40 season of confessed steroid consumer Jose Canseco. The same goes for Ken Caminiti's MVP award in 1996, produced while he admittedly used steroids.

Call me a draconian thug. But I am even in favor of taking away team titles attained by a franchise that employs a drug cheater to win them.

It's the notion of "dishonorable drug matter" that bothers me most in this sort of formulation. Apart from still-important questions about the veracity of the charges, why is it inherently dishonorable to change yourself via "drugs" rather than, say, diet and exercise? Such claims are especially worth scrutinizing since steroids alone–or any other drug for that matter–won't enhance performance if they aren't used in conjunction with other sorts of training and practice.

If drugs give ballplayers some sort of advantage, isn't that equally true of other forms of training and technique innovations? Should Mickey Mantle's performance be questioned because he may have eaten Maypo, which was fortified with essential vitamins and minerals?

And when it comes to negating baseball records and performance, there's a host of other related questions: How much did heightening the pitcher's mound in certain parks enhance the records of '60s era power pitchers like Sandy Koufax (and did the introduction of cortisone and anti-inflammatory medicines give pitchers extended careers?) What about shrinking and expanding strike zones? The introduction of relief pitchers, designated hitters, batting helmets, Astroturf, and more, all of which substantially changed the way the game was played? Should Hank Aaron's home run record be questioned because of his home ballparks? Should Babe Ruth's records be struck down or asterisked because he didn't have to play against blacks? If Jim Bouton's Ball Four is in any way accurate, players during Willie Mays' day were using amphetamines and other drugs–should their performances be called into question (certainly the cocaine scandals of the '70s and '80s are pertinent here, too). Etc., etc.

There's a double standard when it comes to drugs that I think stems more from a reflexive distaste for pharmaceuticals as somehow being "unnatural"–as if there's anything pristine about the rigid and highly contrived diet and exercise regimens that pro athletes undertake. There's an unexamined sense that if you use "drugs" (though not vitamin supplements, which are "natural," right?) to become better at something, you're cheating. Even in sports where the suspect substances are not officially or completely banned (MLB, for instance, bans steroid use if the player doesn't have a prescription and various 'roid-like supplements are still not officially banned).

On an up note for baseball: The Nazi-admiring, cheapskate, foul-mouthed former Reds owner Marge Schott has followed mascot Schotzie I into that great big dugout in the sky.