Performance-enhancing drug use isn’t natural, but neither are many aspects of baseball.
Dial down the outrage for just one moment and think about it: What’s so bad about steroids anyway? We accept that they’re wrong, and whenever a baseball player gets caught taking them we engage in this odd game of one-upsmanship to prove we’re the angriest about it. But why?
Former Rockies utility man Ryan Spilborghs, who’s now playing in Japan, brought up an interesting conversation in his excellent and thoughtful blog for the Denver Post:
Let’s just cut to the chase. The root of the problem is simple: it’s money and the means to make it by everyone involved in the sport. Trying to get money is always going to be a problem. It isn’t a baseball-specific problem; we know that. It simply drives the baseball industry to create the actual monster: The length of the season.
A baseball season is a marathon. It’s an absurd amount of games — 162 games in 184 days! Not to mention spring training, and for many guys (the majority of Latin players) winter-ball, as well as offseason conditioning (which changed drastically from when I first signed in 2002. Can you say ‘high force plyometrics?’). The amount of travel, the number of days you are expected to perform (and your performance leads to your salary), the lack of sleep, the lack of proper nutrition all push players’ bodies to their limits. Often you hear veterans of baseball say, “you can’t play this game on just coffee and water.” And it’s more or less true….
A close friend of mine, a doctor and trainer of Olympic athletes, suggested one time that the Olympics should administer their own steroid program to ensure the health of their athletes -— that it would level the playing field. So rather than try to eliminate the use of PEDs, steroids would be an MLB administered program (Madson did not suggest this, but I am simply playing devil’s advocate) that gives players safe and healthy doses that would help prevent injuries, and probably prolong many careers and lives.
Spilborghs concludes that it’s a bad idea, and he’s right. Allowing players to use team-administered performance-enhancing drugs would just move an already blurry line, not eliminate it. If the game ended PED prohibition, it’d not only put their doctors in a very murky ethical position — since steroids are a controlled substance requiring a prescription — but also handcuff testing programs and allow players willing to endanger themselves to take doses beyond those recommended by their teams.
But the suggestions that performance-enhancing drugs are inherently bad or immoral simply because they’re an unnatural way of improving a player’s recovery doesn’t hold up. Baseball players get shots of cortisone and anti-inflammatory drugs all the time, because what professional baseball players are asked to do is not entirely natural.
What would people say if the first Tommy John surgery occurred in 2013 instead of 1974? That procedure harvests a tendon from another part of the body or from a cadaver to replace a frayed or torn one in the pitcher’s elbow. But we see it more as an incredible medical advancement — which it is — than an unnatural way to extend players’ careers and help them earn more money — which it also is.
So if it’s not that performance-enhancing drugs are unnatural that bothers us, is it that they’re illegal to use without a prescription in the United States? OK, but almost no one calls for lifetime bans for players arrested for driving drunk, a crime that endangers themselves and innocent others. Is it that they’re against the rules of the sport? Sure, but so are spitballs and emery boards and corked bats, and few grimace at the Hall of Fame plaques of players guilty of all of those things.
I’m oversimplifying, I know. Performance-enhancing drugs are illegal in baseball because they benefit players willing to jeopardize their long-term health without medically advised dosing to gain a short-term advantage over those that won’t, even if there’s no strong evidence yet that steroids can help a guy layoff a curveball in the dirt or smack a change-up the other way. It’s in the best interests of Major League Baseball and the Players Association to keep them out of the sport, for the sake of fairness and for the protection of their employees.
But it’s at least worth considering that guys turning to steroids are probably not thinking, “I’m a bad man and thus I will cheat,” and far likelier thinking, “this might help me feed my family forever,” or “everything hurts and this will make it go away,” or “I now find myself demonstrably not good enough at this thing to which I’ve dedicated my entire adult life and am counting on as a career.”
And to me, that doesn’t seem worthy of outrage so much as pity and sadness.