'Roids Rejoinder


Mike Van Winkle, the Armchair Analyst, has written an interesting rejoinder to my non-anti-steroids piece that ran last week at Tech Central Station; go here for Hit & Run comments.

Writes Van Winkle:

What's so bad about rampant steroid use by major league baseball players? According to Nick Gillespie, not much of anything. In his August 11th TCS column he thoroughly debunked the two most common criticisms of steroid use in baseball. No playing field is ever level and prohibition makes steroid use more dangerous. Okay…so maybe he's right about that. Yet, are these arguments, equity and health, really the driving force behind steroid derision?…

Because of the intensely psychological nature of the game, baseball fans, unlike most other sports, see real virtue in their stars…and have tremendous respect for players who exhibit virtue even if they aren't stars. It may be irrational to see virtue in a sport, but it happens nonetheless. This ethical association leads to an almost spiritual reverence for the good players, the guys that never slump for more than a day or two, hitting the field light as a feather no matter what happened the day before. There is virtue in it.

There is virtue in the player of only average ability, spending his off-season playing winter ball. There is virtue in the average player of above average talent finally figuring out what he's doing at the plate (figuring out that an important part of the game is in your head) and becoming a superstar in his ninth season. There's virtue in learning the discipline to lay off that slider low and away. There is virtue in a pitcher rehabbing for a year after an elbow blowout and subsequent Tommy John surgery. There's virtue in it.

What virtue is there in corking a bat? What virtue is there in greasing a ball? What virtue is there in shooting up before the big game? None that I can see….

However irrational it may be, baseball fans don't want the sport to be just like every other sport in which showmanship takes precedence over discipline and work ethic. Yet, most baseball fans also know that this is inevitable…but they're going to fight it every step of the way….

We can qualify the record book by acknowledging that different eras had different regulations: a higher pitcher's mound, a shorter season, a different ball. We can't qualify a record that came on the end of a needle or in a mysterious balm. There'd be no virtue in it.

If you're into baseball, his whole post, which is well worth reading, is online here.

A few quick ripostes of my own: First, I'm as uncomfortable in talking up the "virtue" of professional athletes as I am in talking up the virtue of professional politicians and other entertainers. I side with Sir Charles Barkley on the basic point that such public figures should not be confused with role models. For more on the tenuous relationships between fame, celebrity, and virtue, I recommend Tyler Cowen's study on the subject, handily excerpted a few years ago in…Reason right here.

Which is not to say that athletes don't offer inspiring examples of a great work ethic, triumph over adversity, and more. It's just that I wouldn't want to confuse any of that with being a good person. Who isn't stunned by Lance Armstrong's comeback from cancer and Tour De France victories? But that doesn't mean anything regarding his value as a human being. And let's not get overwrought about work ethic in baseball anyway, for at least two reasons.

First, consider Pete Rose, by his own admission a player of moderate ability but monster ambition and work ethic. And a pill popper (let's not even mention the gambling for the present conversation). We see in Charley Hustle someone who confounds the easy distinction between drug use and "virtue." Using pep pills were part of his work ethic. And he was a damn great player–the main reason, in fact, that the Phillies won a World Series. He was a team leader, a go-getter, a drug-user, and by all accounts a pretty horrible human being.

Second, consider Cal Ripken, the Titanium Horse of baseball. It's hard to believe that this dogged pursuit of a completely dubious record (consecutive games played) that is in some ways the ultimate tribute to work ethic wasn't detrimental to his–and hence his team's play. In the guise of being the ultimate baseball plugger, Ripken may well have sacrificed not only his career stats, but helped undermine his team's overall performance.

One final point: Steroids are not magic. They clearly help most athletes, but they don't turn zeroes into heroes. For them to work, especially over the long haul (and think about what relatively long careers Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, and even Jose Canseco had) they need to used in conjunction with pretty heavy-duty workout routines. It's not simply a question of "shooting up before the big game."

I dig what Van Winkle says about the "irrationality" of baseball fans. I think he's right and I think there's a place for such feelings. But I do think we can quantify changes in records based on changes in technology–and that's what steroids are, a technology.

A final note: I did underscore in my piece that Raffy and the others who have knowingly broken MLB's rules deserve to be sanctioned. Just as track athletes, swimmers, and others who contravene rules deserve to be. What I'm more interested in is why the anti-some-drug rules are there in the first place. I supplied a partial answer here.