Drug Policy

Is Barry Bonds a Cyborg?

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Writing in Editor & Publisher, baseball mechanics consultant Michael Witte argues that the protective armor Barry Bonds wears on his right elbow confers at least as much of an advantage as steroids might. With Bonds expected to break Hank Aaron's home run record this week, Witte counts seven ways in which the apparatus, meant to compensate for an injury, enhances Bonds' batting performance. Since I know almost nothing about baseball, I'm in no position to evaluate Witte's claims. But assuming they're true, shouldn't this "unfair advantage" arouse as much outrage as Bonds' alleged steroid use? Or is there something uniquely offensive about using a drug to do better at baseball?

Yesterday Aaron Steinberg, who reviewed Jose Canseco's pro-steroid book in the June 2005 issue of reason, asked whether Bonds should be blamed for steroid use by teenagers. Matt Welch analyzed the government's smear campaign against Bonds in a 2004 reason article. Nick Gillespie took up the subject in 2005 and  last June.

Back in 2003, Dayn Perry deflated steroid hysteria for reason readers. In 2004 I wondered why sports have to be drug-free; I revisited the subject vis-a-vis cycling last year, and in January I considered the civil liberties damage done by the anti-doping crusade. Also relevant: me on altitude rooms and Ron Bailey on artificial legs.

[Thanks to CK for the link.]

NEXT: Who Killed Gary DeVercelly?

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  1. While it may not attract the widespread attention that steroids do, Bonds’ body armor has been a topic of discussion in baseball circles for quite some time. See also: Biggio, Craig.

  2. “But assuming they’re true, shouldn’t this “unfair advantage” arouse as much outrage as Bonds’ alleged steroid use? Or is there something uniquely offensive about using a drug to do better at baseball?”

    The only thing makes using a corked bat an “unfair” advantage is that using a corked bat is against the rules. If using a corked bat was okay in the rule book…

    …I’d complain about it just like I complain about the Designated Hitter rule in the un-American League.

    …People who used corked bats to beat the home run record wouldn’t be comparable to people who didn’t use corked bats.

    …People who used corked bats and lied about it would still be liars.

    …Pete Rose still wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame.

  3. Why the hell would MLB want a league of players with shriveled nuts who have to take steroids just to compete?

  4. The “unfair advantage” regarding steroids is that it creates a situation whereby other players become compelled to put a harmful drug in their bodies in order to compete on the same playing field. I see nothing wrong with baseball doing everything possible to eliminate the incentive for players to destroy themselves from the inside.

    As far as body armor goes, I’ve long hated it because it allows players to fearlessly crowd the plate, and umpires for the most part are too afraid to call a strike on a guy who gets hit even though he’s camping out in the strike zone. I won’t hold my breath waiting for the used car salesman to come up with a workable solution, though.

  5. One difference could be that the armor is worn for all to see (I forget if we’re talking about something under the sleeve or not but either way, everyone knows it’s there, right?) and he can’t claim he isn’t wearing it, unlike steroids. Of course, when you basically go all Hulk in a few short years, it’s also pretty hard to deny the steroid use, but still kinda different. And if you start the steroid use earlier in your career, perhaps before you hit the majors, you might already be hulkish by the time anyone starts paying attention to you, thus concealing, to some extent, your steroid use and allowing you to claim it’s all Charles Atlas’ doing. Which reminds me that I need to go listen to The Who Sell Out.

  6. But assuming they’re true, shouldn’t this “unfair advantage” arouse as much outrage as Bonds’ alleged steroid use?

    No one’s ever heard of it before.

    Or is there something uniquely offensive about using a drug to do better at baseball?

    Well, wrist guards don’t harm your health. If an arms race involving elbow armor breaks out in the major leagues, it players won’t be faced with the choice of taking something with potential side effects or falling behind.

    I’m sending this in to my local AM radio sports yakkers. I wonder if they’ll pick it up.

  7. I don’t know why (or how) Bonds puts up with all this? I wish people would just leave him alone. Is that too much to ask? Can you people leave him alone?

  8. Steroids are *illegal* and *against the rules*.

    Body armor, unfortunately, isn’t.

    (SHEE!)

  9. Bullshit that Bond’s “armor” conveys as much of a muscular advantage as steroids. We’re not that stupid.

  10. “…other players become compelled to put a harmful drug in their bodies…”

    With a doctor’s supervision steroids are pretty safe- just about every drug can be harmful if taken improperly. Most of the major problems that make the press are due to stacking (using multiple enhancement drugs at the same time) and failure to complete PCT(post cycle therapy).

  11. No one’s ever heard of it before.

    I don’t know in re: Bonds, particularly since I haven’t followed baseball that closely in a few years, but I’ve definitely heard this kind of argument before. The armor reduces the cost of getting hit by a pitch from pain and possible injury down to a minor annoyance, allowing the batter to more freely crowd the plate and get a piece of fat outside pitches. Or are you saying no one knew Bonds was wearing this piece?

  12. Bonds’ use of steroids isn’t unfair at all. It actually leveled the playing field. Unless, of course, you think the Major League pitchers are steroid free (if so, see: Roger Clemens).

  13. Anonymo,

    Check out the article. The device in question goes beyond just offering protection, if the writer is to be believed. He claims that it improves the mechanics of Bond’s swing.

  14. Also, the article says that elbow protection is no longer allowed in MLB unless the player can provide proof of an existing elbow injury.

    Apparently Bonds’ was “grandfathered in”; I don’t understand why a grandfather clause would have been put in place for that. Maybe it’s like how they licensed spitballers after banning it for new pitchers in the 1910s.

  15. Maybe it’s like how they licensed spitballers after banning it for new pitchers in the 1910s.

    Seriously?

  16. joe,

    OK cool; I hadn’t really heard anyone go in that direction before, but the broader concept of armor offering an advantage, which some may consider unfair, has been around.

  17. I won’t hold my breath waiting for the used car salesman to come up with a workable solution, though.

    There is a workable solution. Allow any and all players to wear armor wherever they think they need it. In addition, change the rule so that if a player gets hit on the armor, he is not awarded first base.

    He claims that it improves the mechanics of Bond’s swing.

    He claims a lot of things, yet never offers any proof.

    There’s a discussion of this article with what appears to be the actual author and a lot of intelligent baseball fans over at Baseball Think Factory.

  18. What I don’t understand about Hit&Run is the constant refusal to believe that sports can have arbitrary rules that don’t have to be justified. Bonds’ steroid use is at issue because it was against the rules; his body armor isn’t because it isn’t against the rules. I think the rules would be better if they banned the body armor for reasons others have enumerated above, but since it’s not currently against the rules, and you can’t exactly make the argument that he’s hiding it, you can’t blame him for taking advantage.

  19. I don’t know much about the mechanics of pitching, but the St. Louis Cardinals seem to think this guy knows something. Link

  20. With a doctor’s supervision steroids are pretty safe- just about every drug can be harmful if taken improperly. Most of the major problems that make the press are due to stacking (using multiple enhancement drugs at the same time) and failure to complete PCT(post cycle therapy).

    True enough, and I am not disputing that. However, how many players can get legitimate prescriptions and take steroids under a doctor’s supervision? As long as the law is the way it is (and I don’t see it changing any time soon), we have a situation where players are forced to either take steroids in a potentially dangerous manner, or else lose out on the big contracts given to guys who are enhancing themselves.

    Standard libertarian text about how anyone should be able to put anything they want into their bodies goes here. Even if that were the case, baseball still has the right to police the sport as it sees fit.

  21. Christ, I forgot I’m not Eric Cartman anymore.

  22. Bonds’ steroid use is at issue because it was against the rules

    Actually, I’m not sure it was, at least until recently. Thought it was arguably against the law.

  23. “What I don’t understand about Hit&Run is the constant refusal to believe that sports can have arbitrary rules that don’t have to be justified.”

    I think most libertarians (read most Hit&Run posters) would agree that any sport should have any rule it wants. What peeves me is that the anti steroid rules in sports are government imposed and result in congress holding hearings (where they can grandstand and “protect the children”) and then justify using my tax dollars to promote a failed drug war.

    On the Bonds thing, I have no problem with him taking steroids, I do have a problem with him being such an asshole.

  24. The MLB is reaping the whirlwind for screwing with the ball. Baseball at it’s best awards the quick and the clever, but with the way balls are flying out of the park these days subsidizes the big, slow, and musclebound. Screw it.

  25. Folks, Barry just broke Hank’s record. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

  26. …People who used corked bats to beat the home run record wouldn’t be comparable to people who didn’t use corked bats.

    Lenny Dykstra’s was a baseball shyster and now he’s a car wash shyster.

    Funny how ethics carries over from one endeavor to another.

  27. Folks, Barry just broke Hank’s record.

    No he didn’t [turns and spits]

  28. I was watching him celebrate 756 and that arm armour is massive, it sure as hell looks like it would be capable of guiding a perfect swing.

  29. Just wanted to note that the pitcher against whom Bonds tied the homerun record….steroid user. Seriously.

  30. The only thing makes using a corked bat an “unfair” advantage is that using a corked bat is against the rules. If using a corked bat was okay in the rule book…

    For the record, corked bats do nothing to help hit the ball farther. At best, there might be a placebo effect because players think it helps.

  31. For the record, corked bats do nothing to help hit the ball farther. At best, there might be a placebo effect because players think it helps.

    Bat speed. Hollow out the core, fill it with a light material, like cork or ground up superballs, and you lighten the bat, allowing the hitter to swing it faster. It doesn’t make the ball bounce off the wood any faster at the same swing speed, but it allows a batter to swing faster.

  32. “For the record, corked bats do nothing to help hit the ball farther. At best, there might be a placebo effect because players think it helps.”

    I heard Gwynn, the other week, talk about how he swung one in batting practice once–I think he said trainers use them for something or other–and he said the difference was striking.

    …no, they don’t make you hit farther, but they can help with you with your timing and give you a quicker swing. …not farther hits, more hits.

  33. And Gwynn used videotape to adjust his hitting. DiMaggio didn’t have that advantage. The older players didn’t have special exercise training regiments like today either.
    A percentage of pitchers Bonds hit off of were on ‘roids too.
    Whatever Bonds did was legal at the time. Capitalism is all about doing what it takes to succeed as long as it’s within the rule of law, morality be damned. Bonds is a great libertarian.

  34. The “grandfather clause” part reminds me: Is there anything less conducive to maintaining liberty than the “grandfather clause” Setting aside it’s despicable original meaning, if a law or rule has a grandfather clause attached, that almost guarantees that it’s fairly onerous. Almost all gun control legislation involves some sort of grandfathering-in of rights. It really goes against egalitarian principles to have these all over the place.

  35. Just wanted to note that the pitcher against whom Bonds tied the homerun record….steroid user.
    Seriously.

    Oh, and I suppose Pitch-O-Mat 5000 was just a modified Howitzer?

  36. To answer Joe’s short question:

    Yes, the spitball was legal in the early years. When they tried to ban it, a lot of clubs protested because they had some good spitballers. So the existing spitballers were grandfathered.

  37. With a doctor’s supervision steroids are pretty safe

    Sure, but using them to excess creates additional, marginal competitive advantages. So that is what players do now, and would continue to do if you licensed “safe” steroid use. So I don’t really think this really changes anything in the debate over steroid use.

  38. The “grandfather clause” part reminds me: Is there anything less conducive to maintaining liberty than the “grandfather clause”

    Any change in the law has to balance the value of progress embodied in what is new against the justified reliance of people on the old law. People who were actually relying on the old law, doing something legal under it that is illegal under the new, have some claim to having their reliance respected.

  39. “The “unfair advantage” regarding steroids is that it creates a situation whereby other players become compelled to put a harmful drug in their bodies in order to compete on the same playing field. I see nothing wrong with baseball doing everything possible to eliminate the incentive for players to destroy themselves from the inside.”

    This was well put and sums up a position that I have always agreed with and thought was a pretty obvious stance to take, but a lot of libertarians seem determined to go beyond the agrument that “the government has no right to ban drugs that only harm the user” (an argument I don’t fully agree with but respect) to the argument that “the drugs that are currently illegal are often not harmful in reality” (which I find obviously false).

  40. MLB put the steroid ban in place back in 2002, years after all the players who took the drugs benefited from using them. Simply put, even if Bonds knowingly took them, it was perfectly legal to do so under MLB rules. So in my opinion, the debate is moot. This doesn’t make what Bonds did any less distasteful. What it means, however, is that MLB really can’t take any action against him on those grounds unless they somehow act retroactively.

    If they do so, then they would have to ding Babe Ruth for using corked bats and Ty Cobb for placing spikes in his shoes in order to steal more bases.

  41. Sevenmack,
    “MLB put the steroid ban in place back in 2002, years after all the players who took the drugs benefited from using them. Simply put, even if Bonds knowingly took them, it was perfectly legal to do so under MLB rules.”

    That’s not technically true. Steroids were banned by Fay Vincent in 1991 (or at least illegal/controlled steroids), although the ban wasn’t enforced at all. So they could technically get Bonds for using them in 2001 and before.

    From Vincent’s 1991 memo:
    “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…”

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