Am I the only diehard baseball fan in America not particularly put out by the ongoing baseball steroids scandal, now starring Baltimore Orioles slugger Rafael Palmeiro? The well-regarded Raffy—by the end of this season, he will almost certainly join Hank Aaron and Willie Mays as only the third major leaguer to have 3,000 hits and 600 home runs—is coming off a 10-day suspension for using steroids. That infraction may not only hurt his relationship with his fans and teammates but also send his Hall of Fame chances to the showers.
While a half-dozen lesser players have been caught violating Major League Baseball's policy, Palmeiro is the first star to be nabbed. It hardly helps matters that Palmeiro was fiercely insistent at congressional hearings in March that he "never used steroids. Period." He's since downgraded such metaphysical certitude by elaborating that he never had "intentionally" used steroids.
In the wake of Palmeiro's bust, Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig has called for "an even tougher" drug policy, claiming that the "very integrity" of the national pastime is on the line.
There's no question that MLB, which banned steroids in 2002, has every right to set and enforce whatever drug policy it wants. But it's also worth asking why performance-enhancing drugs are such a bugaboo in the first place. After all, they are simply one tool among many that top-level athletes use to gain and maintain an edge. So why single them out for special opprobrium, especially when it seems likely that no enforcement regime is likely to work fully (just ask every other sport)? Better living through chemistry is as American as, well, baseball. Most of the knee-jerk anti-steroid arguments—that they compromise competition, player safety, and historical records—fall apart faster than the Chicago Cubs in September.
The main argument against steroids and similar drugs is that they somehow screw with the "natural" abilities of players and disrupt the "level playing field." That is, they give "unfair" advantages to players willing to use them. That's why Commissioner Selig frets over the "integrity" of baseball. Steroids, goes this line of thought, turn an authentic competition into something less…real? But if any of that is true, why not ban, say, weight training or off-season workouts? Or special nutritional regimens that stop short of including certain banned supplements? What should be done about Lasik and other interventions that result in better than 20/20 vision? Or reconstructive surgeries that let pitchers throw faster than before undergoing the knife (just ask Chicago Cubs' hurler Kerry Wood)? All of these things muddy that wholly mythical level playing field.
And if player equity is an issue, why not go after "fair" advantages? Why is it OK that a biological crapshoot gives one ballplayer the 6'6″ frame of, say, a Dave Winfield and entombs another in the petit 5'5″ body of a Freddie Patek? The uncomfortable fact to purists is that ballplayers are no more "natural" than the Astroturf—or the painstakingly synthesized "natural," for that matter—of the ballparks in which they play. They are the result of years of practice, exercise, and training, equipment, and coaching, none of which can be considered "natural" in the normal sense of that word. The only "natural" ever to play the game was Roy Hobbs, the eponymous protagonist of Bernard Malamud's novel—and even he had a magic bat for most of his career.
What about player safety? There's little doubt that, like most drugs, steroids can be used responsibly. As Charles Yesalis, a Penn State epidemiologist and steroid expert, has put it, "We know steroids can be used with a reasonable measure of safety." Yesalis, author of The Steroids Game, also pooh-poohs poorly documented tales of "'roid rage," noting, "What's perhaps just the intensity that's common to many athletes gets perceived as steroid-linked outbursts." In fact, if player safety is an issue, then it makes more sense to make steroid use fully legal and above ground. Whether we're talking about booze in the '20s or Dianabol in the locker rooms of today, prohibition creates or intensifies all sorts of safety issues by stymieing the flow of information and creating impediments to treatment. If steroids were used in the light of day, players and owners alike would be far more likely to regulate their use in their longer-term interests.
Have steroids affected baseball records, especially home run totals? Almost certainly. But they are also only one factor among many, including today's smaller ballparks and smaller strike zones, both of which make it easier for the long-ball hitter. And as Sammy Sosa could tell you, the occasional corked bat might help a bit, too.
Steroids have surely helped ballplayers and other athletes by increasing muscle mass and helping the body recover from exertion more quickly. In Palmeiro's case, his stats are suggestive. As a 25 year-old player, he popped a dinger every 43 at-bats. A dozen years later, he parked one every 13 times he came to the plate. Most intriguingly, his home run totals skyrocketed after human test tube Jose Canseco became his teammate. Canseco has admitted using steroids and turning other players onto them; he has claimed that up to 80 percent of current ballplayers have used steroids. As the Sporting News' Dave Kindred has written, Palmeiro "hit 95 home runs in his first seven season; after Canseco's arrival, [he] hit 99 in three seasons."
But so what? Baseball records may not in fact be made to be broken—will anyone ever top Hack Wilson's 191 RBI? or Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak?—but they are always subject to specific historical contexts.
Surely it matters that Babe Ruth faced only the best white pitchers of his day. Or that Ty Cobb spent a chunk of his career in the deadball era. Or that Ted Williams coughed up his best years to fight in World War II and Korea. Or that Hank Aaron played most of his career in a period in which parks and strikes zones were pitcher friendly. The point is that baseball itself changes over time and fans of the game will quickly put players in relevant contexts. Hence, Kindred is probably right to note that, despite Palmeiro's massive offensive totals, "no one will ever mistake [him] for Henry Aaron or Willie Mays." That's not simply because of possible drug use—Palmeiro has never been the team leader or personality that Hammerin' Hank or the Say Hey Kid was. At the same time, baseball's paying customers don't seem to mind shelling out for tickets to watch possibly steroid-stoked players. "These are relatively good times for baseball attendance," notes The New York Times.
To be sure, Rafael Palmeiro is a hypocrite when it comes to steroid use. If he wants to play big league ball, he ought to stick to the rules he's agreed to follow. But those rules—which have always been arbitrary and have often been pernicious—shouldn't be mistaken for wisdom.
Depending on how many other marquee players test positive for banned substances, MLB may well be better off embracing open drug use as a way of intensifying competition.