Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Some Idle Thoughts on Steroids

So, I was reading Tom Verducci’s article over at Sports Illustrated, which was a little unusual. Don’t get me wrong, Verducci is a great writer. However, his writing about steroids usually comes off a little too overly-moralizing. This piece, which I decided to read after seeing the praise given to it at Hard Ball Talk, is about a more-or-less career minor leaguer, Dan Naulty, who used, and the darker moments of his life and career (not all of them are steroid-related). It is interesting, I guess, if nothing else. There are a few issues and thoughts I have that I want to address, though.

First is a minor issue that I saw brought up by a commenter over at HBT, and it sort of drives home my point about Tom Verducci getting a little too over-emotional about steroids: he calls the implementation of the testing program “the biggest reformation in baseball since commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis banned eight members of the 1919 White Sox in what stood as the denouement of an era dirtied by gambling”. That’s quite the praise, considering that time has also seen the end of the reserve clause, several large collusion cases, a large recreational drug scandal (which I would argue are just as bad or worse than steroids), and the end of segregated baseball. Is it truly that much worse for players to take drugs to heal faster/allow themselves to practice more so they can help their teams? It’s even worse than cocaine and segregation? That’s some pretty high condemnation.

That’s the other thing-reading Naulty’s quotes made me think more about the steroids themselves. He mentions that he “[worked] out like a fiend”. These drugs didn’t just make you magically better at baseball, or even magically stronger; the players taking them did actually have to put in work. That doesn’t absolve them fully or anything, but I would think that’s better than taking amphetamines, which give players the energy to make it through a game regardless of their work out schedule. Or scuffing balls, which can also benefit anyone independent of the time they put into training. On that note, Verducci does mention amphetamines in his story and players taking them, but they are more or less glossed over to focus on the “great evil” of steroids*.

*Also falling under the category of “major things Verducci glosses over” is “black beauties”, pills Naulty references while talking about amphetamines that were powerful enough that they even worried him, despite the fact that he took steroids. We are unfortunately given no more information-those aren’t important, because steroids.

Also, while I’m on the topic of common narratives of steroid-outrage, steroids were not magically introduced to the league by Jose Canseco in 1989 in order to ruin Hank Aaron’s record an all that. In fact, it’s possible that Aaron himself could have taken steroids.

Another big thing Verducci seems to have confused is the whole rule-breaking-legality issue. He brings up the fact that steroids were illegal...without doctor permission. Call me a skeptic, but I don’t think players would have had a hard time getting doctors’ permissions to buy steroids. Heck, even after MLB banned non-prescription Adderall as a stimulant, the number of prescribed players remains suspiciously high (never mind the fact that some of the users were non-U.S. citizens who could have easily obtained things while out of the country). He also mentions Fay Vincent’s memo “prohibiting” steroids. As nice as it was to see Vincent trying to be somewhat proactive and all, his memos mean nothing without approval from the players’ union. He could have passed memos requiring players to play under the reserve clause again and teams to hold every fourth game on the moon and it wouldn’t have had any effect unless he got it approved. The memo just wasn’t anything that could actually be enforced, realistically or legally, without MLBPA’s consent.

Finally, I want to leave this with just a final thought. Naulty claims that his fastball gained about ten miles per hour with steroid use, which is substantial (after two years of using and working out, but still). That’s an actual, tangible benefit; we know pitchers with faster pitches generally do better. However, most of the benefits steroids supposedly give hitters seem rather less supported. So, my idle thinking: is it possible that steroids actually helped pitchers more, and that the hitters era that ensued in the ‘90s an ‘00s was the result of other factors, like different baseballs and smaller strike zones? I feel like it’s at least worth considering.

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