Baseball’s Salem

Witch-hunting steroid-users in baseball will do more to undermine the integrity of America’s national pastime than any amount of drug-taking.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

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Baseball season in America started in earnest last week. To many Americans, including me, this means much more than the beginning of Major League Baseball. The crack of a bat hitting a ball, the smell of newly-cut grass fields, the longer, sunnier days – baseball turns us into romantics swooning at the promise of spring.

The game is also strongly evocative of youth, and last week was also the start of Little League baseball for thousands of kids across the country. On Saturday, I had the pleasure of seeing my five-year-old son getting a big kick out of donning a uniform and joining in a baseball parade for his first time. In ‘only in America’ style, the parade was led by the Approaching Storm Marching Band. This consists of Brooklyn teenagers decked out in royal blue uniforms sporting shiny silver Trojan helmets with bright blue bristles, playing funky music. Even though it was 10 in the morning, it had the town dancing in the streets.

Baseball has been central to American culture in many ways throughout its history; its association with the country’s pastoral roots; as a common ground to help assimilate immigrants; as a prism for race relations, such as when blacks were finally allowed into the majors in the 1940s. More than any other American sport, it has been a subject for novelists and poets.

So when we find today that there is a cloud of suspicion hanging over the game, it’s a big deal. And that cloud is steroids and other so-called performance-enhancing drugs.

Baseball’s first calls this year to ‘play ball!’ follow an off-season dominated by scandal over steroids. Last December, an independent commission led by former Senator George Mitchell (the man who brokered the Northern Ireland ceasefire deal) found ‘widespread illegal use of anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing substances by players’ (1). The Mitchell Report, as it became known, named about 90 players, including all-star pitcher Roger Clemens. President George W Bush (former owner of the Texas Rangers) endorsed the report, saying that ‘steroids have sullied the game’ (2).

The Mitchell Report set off a witch-hunt against Clemens, who has vigorously denied the charges. Separately, Barry Bonds, the all-time home run king, was indicted on charges of lying to a grand jury about steroid use in November 2007. Bonds, too, has denied the allegations.

What’s extraordinary is how deeply involved the government is – in fact, you could argue that the state has been driving this process. Back in 2005, Congress took the unusual step of investigating drugs in baseball, a privately-owned league. The House Oversight Committee brought the commissioner, Bud Selig, and the head of the players’ association, Donald Fehr, to Washington to scold them for not doing more to stop the use of steroids. Government charges against a San Francisco company for supplying athletes with steroids and revelations about links with players such as Bonds led Major League Baseball to establish the Mitchell Commission. The publication of its findings – the Mitchell Report – saw Selig and Fehr hauled before the Oversight Committee again in January of this year, and then, in a circus-like atmosphere, had Clemens and his former trainer and accuser testify in February.

Amid all of the swirling allegations and hyped-up charges of cheating and bringing shame to the national pastime, it is easy to lose sight of the basic arguments about drug use in sports. In fact, politicians, owners, the media and many fans have been working under a number of flawed assumptions.

One myth is that steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs are uniquely problematic. Competitive players are always looking for ways to improve, including intakes of food and drugs. Most of these methods – which include supplements, protein shakes, pain-relievers – are generally accepted. People express revulsion at steroids, but it’s hard to draw a line between them and other supplements. Moreover, how do you reject drugs but accept other body modifications that arguably improve performance, such as Lasik eye surgery and Tommy John (arm reconstruction) surgery?

And it’s not like drugs have only just arrived in clubhouses. Players since at least the 1940s have used amphetamines or ‘greenies’ as they have been referred to in baseball. With more stringent monitoring of drugs today, consumption of Starbucks and Red Bull has reportedly increased dramatically.

Another myth is that steroids and other drugs provide an unfair advantage. Just because athletes will always seek out an edge, it doesn’t mean that what they take will actually give them an edge. Indeed, as it is often the most competitive players, with the most demanding training regimes, that use drugs, it is hard to separate the benefits of training from any supposed gain from the supplements.

The New York Times analysed the 89 players who allegedly used or purchased drugs according to the Mitchell Report. For every Gary Matthews Jr, whose statistics improved, there was a Jay Gibbons, whose went down (3). People like to point to the increase in home runs in the game, especially Bonds’ output, which improved as his career went on. But the distance the ball is hit is primarily due to bat speed and eye-hand coordination, neither of which steroids improve. In fact, excessive muscle is more likely to make swings of the bat less fluid (this was most clearly demonstrated by Jose Canseco, the self-admitted steroids user and author of tell-all books, who bulked up and saw his production decline) (4). The overall rise in the number of home runs can arguably be explained by other factors, such as the smaller dimensions of newer ballparks. And Bonds is not alone in a late-career surge: Hank Aaron, the player he surpassed in home run totals, also improved later in his career (5).

These arguments over whether steroids truly make a difference could have been relegated to an internal matter for professional baseball and a topic of debate among sports geeks in bars or over talk-radio phone-ins. Instead, the owners, Mitchell and especially Congress have transformed it into a subject of national angst and hand-wringing. Indeed, the politicians, with their sanctimonious moral grandstanding, have blown this issue up into a bigger problem than it really is.

For a start, the extent of steroid and other drug usage in baseball has been exaggerated. Mitchell refers to ‘widespread’ use, but he cannot ascertain anything close to an actual number. We do know, however, that over the past two seasons there were only five positive tests for steroids out of 6,252 tests in Major League Baseball (6). Mitchell claims that there must be more drug use than can be determined via testing, because there is no test for human growth hormone (HGH). But, like with the precautionary principle in science, we are led to believe that the lack of evidence warrants fear of an epidemic. (And the benefits of HGH are even more questionable than those of steroids.) In fact, the entire Mitchell report simply recycles old allegations (7).

Some have referred to the performance-enhancing substances as being the most serious problem in baseball since the 1919 Chicago ‘Black Sox’ scandal, when the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series (finals). Hardly: throwing a game is anti-competitive, while most steroids users are arguably seeking a way to win. But, as comparisons with the Black Sox indicate, there is a history of baseball players pushing rules to the limits. Gaylord Perry, for example, was a pitcher notorious for throwing ‘spitballs’ (what cricketers call ‘ball tampering’) in the 1960s and 1970s, but at the time this cheating was more or less shrugged off as just part of the game. What becomes clear is that it’s not so much players’ actions that have changed but the reactions to them.

Another way the politicians blow the issue out of proportion is by playing up the health risks. Ken Caminiti, a baseball player who admitted using steroids and who died at 39 in 2004, is constantly trotted out (including in the Mitchell Report) even though his death was not steroid-related. As one sceptical medical expert puts it: ‘More people died playing baseball than died of steroid use.’ (8) The fact is that there are no long-term studies of the impact of steroid use. And a clear sign that the health issue moved from concern to panic is the much-discussed symptom ‘roid rage’. Like its cousin ‘road rage’, this is just the medicalisation of what is considered to be undesirable behavior.

From the perspective of personal liberty, perhaps one of the worst aspects of the response to the scandal is how the owners, Mitchell and the politicians are calling for a harsher crackdown on suspected drug use. Mitchell states that all parties share in the blame for the ‘steroids era’, but his report clearly targets the players. He says the game should not discipline players, but instead ‘move on’, but his naming of names has set them up for witch-hunts. The commissioner Selig has not ruled out punishing the named players, with no discussion of appeals as yet – a potentially shocking lack of due process. Mitchell’s calls to toughen enforcement, and Selig’s vows to follow through, hold out the prospect of regular police raids in locker rooms.

Hovering over all of this is Congress, with its Big-Brotherish sounding Oversight Committee, and its threat to intervene even more. As the senior Republican member of the Committee, Tom Davis, put it, if baseball does not reform itself, ‘Congress will do it for you’ (9).

But the politicians’ cries of moral indignation, rather than providing insights into the state of the game, have revealed their own bankruptcy. It’s not just that Congress faces record unfavourable ratings in opinion polls; it’s worse than that. The political class has lost moral authority and purpose. In an attempt to try to reclaim it, they have latched on to baseball, swooping in as the would-be saviors of the integrity of the game treasured by the nation.

In the past, politicians might have used sports like baseball for examples of morally uplifting behaviour. Today, however, while sports stars are still held up before the public, they do so now as anti-heroes. Rather than celebrate achievement, America’s elected officials parade players and owners before them as examples of what not to follow. They also insist on a ritual that has become commonplace in many spheres: the requirement to repent, followed by the obligatory therapy treatment.

Given the want of purpose in politics and society, more is demanded of sports, which has traditionally been seen as separate from the political realm. In the name of ‘restoring integrity’ to the game, the authorities are undermining it. It’s as if Congress wants to bring baseball down to its low levels.

As it happens, the game is alright. The past four seasons have seen record attendance at baseball games, and, despite the steroids scandal, there was a record turnout for the pre-season spring training games (10). And I’m sure kids, like my son, will continue to discover the intrinsic joys of playing the game.

But we should be concerned about having to defend the players who risk retribution for alleged drug-taking. It’s time the witch-hunts stopped. And rather than demand ritual apologies from players, it would be better if our sorry excuses for politicians stopped interfering in the game altogether, and got on with their own business.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York.

Previously on spiked

Tim Black asked if world champion Christina Ohuruogu was a hero or a villain and wondered why Dwain Chambers is a sporting leper. Matthias Heitmann argued that Tour de France competitors should be allowed to take drugs. Or read more at spiked issue Sport.

(1) Report to the Commissioner of Baseball of an Independent Investigation into the Illegal Use of Steroids and Other Performance Enhancing Substances by Players in Major League Baseball: Summary and Recommendations, December 2007

(2) President Bush says he hopes baseball will put steroid era in past, nbc4, 14 December 2007.

(3) Baseball’s Devil May Not Be in the Details, The New York Times, 10 February 2008

(4) José Canseco is the author of Juiced published by Regan books, 2006; and Vindicated published by Simon Spotlight Entertainment 2008

(5) A Voice of Skepticism on the Impact of Steroids, The New York Times, 27 January 2008

(6) Friendlier Tone, but Plenty of Tough Talk, The New York Times, 16 January 2008

(7) Mitchell Report Revealed Little Original Work, The New York Times, 18 December 2007

(8) Debate addresses whether sports should allow performance-enhancing drugs, SignOnSanDiego, 18 January 2008

(9) The Mitchell Report: The Illegal Use of Steroids in Major League Baseball, Republicans press release, 15 January 2008

(10) About 80 million people attended Major League Baseball games in 2007, about four times more than the next highest American sport (basketball) and about six times the English Premier League. See here.

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