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Steroids in Baseball: Make Baseball Fun Again

Each year baseball holds a ceremony in Cooperstown, NY to honor its latest inductees into the hall of fame. Inevitably, many of baseball's best players are left out of this celebration. Debates about who is worthy of the distinction of being called a Hall of Famer have traditionally revolved around a statistical and holistic analysis of a player’s career. Recently, however, a new criterion has emerged in the minds of the hall of fame voters. Steroids. Decades have passed since baseball’s most notorious scandal arose and now players whose career coincided with the so-called “steroid era” are eligible for induction into the Hall of Fame. The Baseball Writers Association, who ultimately decides the fate of hall of fame candidates, appears to have taken into account a player's perceived involvement in the steroids scandal when casting their votes. No player whose name has been strongly associated with the scandal has been inducted to date. The effect of these new applied criteria for the hall of fame has resulted in an annual dredging up of the seemingly never-ending debate about steroids. Combined with the fact that Major League players are still being regularly suspended for the use of performance-enhancing drugs, the sport of baseball is still reeling from the effects of a decades-old scandal. In order to heal and progress the image of the sport as a whole, it is time for the powers that be within Major League Baseball to cease the persecution and condemnation of performance-enhancing drugs, along with those who use or have used them. The best way to do so is to permit their use.

Growing up, I was raised to love and respect the game of baseball by my father. Many of my most cherished childhood memories revolve around the sport in one way or another. As I grew older my love for the game grew stronger. I would watch shows on ESPN like Sportscenter and Baseball Tonight to see daily highlights of every baseball game. It was through these media outlets that I was first introduced to many of my childhood heroes. Along with my brothers and father, I would try to imitate these seemingly larger than life figures. We would play baseball in the front yard of our home and take turns pretending to be Alex Rodriguez or Roger Clemens. My left-handed brother would always get to be Barry Bonds. At some point in our childhood these same media outlets that held up these figures for us to idolize, started condemning them and labeling them as cheaters.

In 2002, a longtime sportswriter Rick Reilly interviewed Sammy Sosa at his locker in Wrigley Field. Reilly challenged Sosa to take a drug test, claiming that he shouldn’t worry if he had nothing to hide. His demeanor towards Sosa in this exchange could best be described as smug and machiavellian. This type of antagonistic attitude towards the players of the steroid era, perpetuated by the media, has influenced their perception ever since. The images of heroic figures like Sosa performing athletic feats on posters in the childhood bedrooms of an entire generation have been replaced with paparazzi styled images of these very same players in suits testifying before congress. It is this villainization that casts a cloud over the game, not the use of steroids as Reilly suggests to Sosa. The image of my and my generation’s heroes can never be pure so long as this condemnation persists. Every generation believes that their era of players are in some way superior, whether it be due to rule changes, cultural significance, etc. Generational debates amongst baseball fans are generally light-hearted, with mutual love and respect for the game at their core. The unprecedented attacks against those who played in the steroid era do not share this core. It is with malicious intent that the generation before seeks to maintain its monopoly on the folklore of the game. The rift among fans that they have created only hurts the sport.

Though this media influenced attitude has been ingrained into the minds of baseball fans, over time the argument against the use of steroids has become far more nuanced. The most comprehensive investigation into steroid use in baseball, the infamous Mitchell Report, outlines several of these nuances. Despite making up only a handful of pages of the nearly four hundred page report, often using evidence derived from biased and incomplete medical studies, the adverse health effects of steroids are touted by those who support the continued ban of their use as sufficient reason to do so. Even the worst hypochondriac could not do a better job of portraying steroids as the boogeyman than the Mitchell Report does. The truth is, most players’ personal experiences with performance-enhancing drugs are positive. Jose Canseco, the default ‘Godfather’ of steroids in baseball, chronicles in great detail the experiences he had with steroids in his now infamous book Juiced. He goes as far as to say that the average person could benefit from an informed, supervised regimen of performance-enhancing drugs. The caveats of safe steroid use being informed and supervised necessitate a shift in the focus of the health aspect of the steroid issue. The focus should no longer lie with steroids themselves, but rather the abuse of them. It is in this way that steroids are like so many other things in life. Fast food, alcohol, candy, etc., are all substances that are not inherently evil but can lead to adverse health effects if abused. Those that would have steroids stay banned refuse to acknowledge any nuance to the issue and are resistant to this shift. The sports media and other powers within Major League Baseball would much rather continue to uphold their unjust prohibition of steroids so as to not upset their status quo.

The health issues are often not enough to persuade the general public to support the ban on steroids. The laissez-faire nature of the American public often leads to a response along the lines of “So what? I’m not going to take steroids.” and rightly so. American culture has ingrained a sense of rugged individualism into its citizens. Playing on this patriotism, the opponents of permitting steroids in baseball attempt to make the integrity of the game synonymous with the integrity of America as a whole. What this equivocation fails to take into account is that though the game of baseball has reflected American society in certain ways throughout history, they are in fact two separate entities, each with their own unique culture. Unlike American society where public opinion and a written rule of law serve as the foundation for its institutions, the game of baseball is governed by an infamous set of unwritten rules. These rules are concerned with topics ranging from superstitions, general etiquette, and most importantly sportsmanship. Only those that are or have been closely involved with the game in some manner are privy to these rules. Those not privy to this set of rules falsely label the use of steroids as cheating, unaware that in the baseball community cheating has an entirely different connotation. The fact of the matter is that baseball and cheating are inextricably linked. Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post does an excellent job of chronicling the history of stealing signs in baseball here. Countless other tales of gamesmanship like hiding extra baseballs in the outfield grass or knuckleball pitchers using a nail file to doctor the baseball are recounted with a cheeky reverence by fans of the game’s history. This tradition of celebrating the gamesmanship of baseball is why the sudden villainization of steroid users is so baffling. It is especially so given that many players, the ones who typically police the unwritten rules of the game, do not share the same vindictive views of steroid users that the media does. Brandon McCarthy, a former Dodgers pitcher, wrote an article for The Athletic advocating for admitting players with links to steroids to the Hall of Fame. When the Baseball Writers Association fails to vote in an alleged steroid user, they are attempting to establish their own monopoly over the ethical standards of baseball. This power struggle between the players with their unwritten rules and the media’s attempts to establish their own rules only hurts the image of the sport.

During steroids' rise to prominence, Major League Baseball seemed to condone their use. The lack of testing and their official communications regarding the issue that Jose Canseco describes in Juiced support this. Unsurprisingly, during this era baseball flourished. The game’s star players were more marketable and television ratings soared. Kids and adults alike were starting to find baseball fun again. The game wasn’t the same small ball routine that their grandparents listened to on the radio. It was big-time entertainment. Rappers were putting out songs about baseball players. Players’ faces were plastered on gossip magazines in checkout aisles across the country. It was the Roaring 20’s, Woodstock, 80’s Wall Street, and Hollywood all rolled into one. All this popularity only made the fallout that followed even worse. Fans felt lied to for having participated in this cultural phenomenon that the media propagated as some egregious conspiracy to defraud them. Gone was the cheeky reverence for gamesmanship, along with any historical context for the use of steroids. Major League Baseball’s implicit approval of steroids, however, was conveniently missing from this narrative. The American public had already been told who the villains were, so why should they muddy the waters with the truth?

In the aftermath of the steroid scandal, baseball’s popularity entered into a freefall. Baseball-Reference, one of the foremost authorities when it comes to chronicling the history of the game, tracks the annual attendance to Major League ballparks every year. In the 13 years since the release of the Mitchell Report, total attendance at all Major League ballparks is down by nearly 14 percent. That translates to roughly 11 million fewer tickets sold each year. It is the only long term decline in ticket sales in baseball’s history. To put that into historical perspective, ticket sales from 1930-1940 only fell by 3 percent. Baseball was able to weather the greatest economic depression in American history better than the steroid scandal. More recently, however, baseball’s popularity has begun to rise. Annual park attendance has stabilized. Television ratings are up. Home run numbers, the statistic most associated with the popularity of the steroid era, have gone up dramatically as well. These effects can most accurately be attributed to a change in the composition of the baseball that allows for more home runs. Done at the behest of commissioner Rob Manfred, such a drastic change represents an implicit concession that the effects of steroid use are a net positive for the game of baseball. Despite this acknowledgment, Major League Baseball continues to argue that the negatives of steroid use outweigh the positives all while disregarding their own role in creating those negative effects. Congressional hearings, constant suspensions, and other events that lead to the demonization of steroids and their users are all a direct result of Major League Baseball’s decision to rid the game of steroids. If they chose instead to permit their use, they could have achieved the positive effects for the game that they so desired while mitigating many of the negatives.

One of the few arguments with any sort of merit against allowing steroids in baseball comes from Jacob Beck’s article in The Atlantic. Beck, to his credit, acknowledges several of the common flaws in arguments that call for the prohibition of steroids. However, according to Beck, permitting the use of steroids is ultimately wrong as it would create a de facto arms race over who could most effectively use them. He purports that this would be a harmful shift to the competitive focus of the sport. Where his argument lacks is in its ignorance of the fluidity of the game. The competitive focus of baseball has shifted countless times throughout its history. The value that the game places on certain athletic traits, such as a pitcher’s velocity, a hitter’s power, etc., have waxed and waned for decades. In today’s era of advanced analytics and sabermetrics, these traits are changing more rapidly than ever. To say that steroids would replace this process of competitive evolution displays a lack of understanding of the competitive essence of the game.

If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so. This attitude prescribed by Thomas Jefferson has been instilled into the psyche of many of America’s institutions, yet has failed to penetrate the governing bodies of Major League Baseball. They refuse to assume the burden of proof for outlawing steroids and choose instead to continue the persecution of steroid users, despite their unjust cause to do so. Much the same as the legacies and reputations of those who visited speakeasies and continued to drink during America’s Prohibition-era were restored upon its repeal, so too can the exoneration of baseball’s greatest heroes be achieved through the repeal of baseball’s prohibition of steroids.


About the author

Clayton Johnson

Bartender and Student at the University of Texas at Arlington

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