Why I Don’t Care About Steroids in Baseball
As usual, it was my fault. I see that now.
While talking with a friend at a recent fiesta, the topic rolled around to steroids in baseball. He knew about my status as a world famous baseball blogger, and wanted my take.
With the imprecision engendered by parties, the following careful and nuanced statement emerged from my mouth: “I can sum up my feelings on the issue in six words,” I told my pal. “Don’t care, don’t care, don’t care.”
He looked at me as if I’d just announced my new career as a circus freak. When I tried to explain myself, his look changed: now he looked as if I was trying to explain how Newton had it all wrong about gravity.
I’m definitely on the opposite side of the dominant narrative here. As the year ends, commentators are lining up again for one more shot at the pinata. From ESPN’s Dan Patrick on down, it seems like everybody is leaping to anoint steroids as the most significant story of 2005. Though I might be on an island here, I dissent, and what follows is what I might have told my friend in a different state of mind.
Certainly not on the island with me: Colorado Springs Gazette columnist Milo Bryant, who uses our own Matt Lawton as the poster child for this chemical era.
Just read what newly signed Seattle Mariners outfielder 34-year-old Matt Lawton had to say after he was caught using steroids.
“The only embarrassment for me was having to tell my family how everything went down,” Lawton told USA Today. “It taught me a lesson, and I’m very fortunate for the opportunity the Mariners have given me.”
No embarrassment for cheating the sport? No embarrassment for cheating his teammates and opponents?
I can hear the apology now, “Ah mom, I took some steroids, you know, some veterinary stuff they give to big animals. I have to sit out 10 games now. I’m sorry. But, hey, what do you think about your mansion?”
Don’t everybody jump on the high horse at once; you’ll break the poor animal’s back. Besides, Lawton already depleted the critter’s supply of medicinals, and you know how seriously PETA takes these things.
Overheated rhetoric aside, people that think I should care about this issue more than I do make arguments similar to Bryant’s. These men cheated other players, and the game itself!
Of the three claims people commonly make, though, only one seems to have any merit. We’ll get to that one in a second. First, let’s tackle an old favorite: these ‘roid-raging monsters are corrupting the kids!
Lawton showed little if any concern about what steroids did to the game or young players watching the game.
Regular readers will recognize an argumentum ad misericordiam when they see one, and virtually anyone should be able to see the essence of this emotional appeal: won’t someone please think of the children, and their soon-to-be-misshapen heads?
This sentiment brought forth the most ludicrous development since “Scooter” the yapping baseball: public service announcements exhorting parents to talk to their kids about steroids. Which is kind of like stockbrokers being forced to produce a series of ads urging parents: “Talk to your kids about insider trading.”
Sure, insider trading is pernicious, vile and illegal. But exactly what subset of the population has to worry about this happening?
To me, this is broader than just baseball. Sociologist Stanley Cohen coined the term “moral panic” to describe what happens when relatively small phenomena are blown out of proportion and trumpeted as a threat to society’s fabric. Remember when horror comic books and heavy metal music were going to induce the youth of America to commit mass suicide? That’s a moral panic.
Want another example? How about the damage caused by professional athletes using steroids being compared to two of the worst natural disasters in the nation’s history. From Bryant:
Maybe worse than steroids is what Katrina and Rita did to the Gulf Coast sports family.
Maybe worse? That’s mighty generous, and just soggy with perspective.
In the moral panic over steroids, we lose sight of what are, to me, simple facts. As troubling as steroids in baseball might be, the problem pales in comparison to most human issues. The ink it gets overwhelms other topics of much greater consequence.
Honestly, I’ll go a step further. The steroid story has tainted baseball more than it should have, too. Let’s look at the three most common arguments people make when telling me I should care more than I do.
Historically-minded types engage in record-book histrionics. I should be appalled, they tell me, because the integrity of the holy statistical legacy that has been passed on over the past hundred years.
But this appeal to a bygone era where records were pure is nostalgia for an age that never existed. Remember, this sport was segregated for much of its history, meaning that players pre-Jackie Robinson weren’t competing against the best of the best. Some of today’s sluggers were pharmaceutically enhanced. Babe Ruth didn’t have to face black pitchers.
Which affected the game more? I have my suspicions, but for the purposes of this discussion, they don’t matter: comparisons across eras are always going to be fraught with peril, even if no pill bottle had ever been opened in a clubhouse.
Then there is the “steroids impact public health” argument, to which I say: please. If the health effects from steroids were really the overriding concern here, Congress would have investigated pro wrestling. And as far as drugs that hurt the country go, steroids don’t even register on the map.
Over the last nine months, I’ve heard more of the aforemented “talk to your kids about steroids” ads than anti-methamphetamine PSAs. Which do you think ruins more lives?
The only argument with any merit is that modern steroid users have an unfair advantage over their contemporaries, clean players competing alongside them today. This is a legitimate concern, just like other forms of cheating — though I don’t recall a moral panic over the use of the spitball. Still, fairness is at stake; it’s an issue of baseball looking after the health of its’ own.
So there’s my admission: the title of this post overstates the case for effect. Of course I care about steroids in baseball.
I care about the scandal hurting the national pastime’s image, I care about the cheaters getting an edge on the all-natural players, and I care about the health of the dopers and those that emulate them.
Let’s broaden our eyes to the grand scheme, though.
Comic books didn’t make me kill myself, Matt Lawton didn’t sell me horse steroids, and the kids are still all right. This too shall pass, just like 2005 has.
[Comments are off on this one because I’m leaving town for a few days and didn’t want to leave the other guys with a moderation nightmare on New Year’s Eve. If you want to vent your spleen, e-mail us or me specifically. Joyeux New Year, everyone.]