Friday, May 8, 2009

Manny being 'Roided

So, I was reluctant to write this post because (1) we’ve already had a post on this site concerning Manny being Roided, (2) as our DirtbagFan mentioned in that post, we generally try to limit our focus to directly Rays- or AL East-related material, and (3) I’ve already twice devoted space in my entries to my secondary team, the New York Mets, so I’m cognizant of over-indulging my penchant for digression. I just can’t leave this subject alone, unfortunately, so my apologies to those who don’t want to see more about this. Feel free to skip it if you’re so inclined.

Probably like most baseball fans, I got to talking with friends of mine about this thing over the past day or so, and I was set off this morning listening to ESPN’s “Baseball Today” podcast, in which the hosts said, with palpable discomfort, “there’s something different” about Manny’s positive test, that "this one hurts," since there’d not been much talk of him as a “dirty” player. They went on to list several players who, they hope and believe, are clean, including Pujols, Pedroia, and Griffey Jr. I’d add to that C.C., Shields, Kaz, Longoria—a whole host of excellent players Rays and otherwise.

But here’s what I think Manny being Busted means: there is every reason to suspect that each and every elite athlete in every sport over the past couple decades has used or is using some kind of performance enhancing drug (PED). I don’t mean to impugn or accuse any of the players listed above, but think about it. Doping is rampant in cycling and track-and-field sports, and has been for a long time. American football players are clearly doping, and, even when caught, pay very little in the way of consequence. I remember in high school knowing for a fact that most of my school’s best athletes were using some kind of PEDs, even if they weren’t injecting anabolic steroids, just as I remember, prior to all this hullabaloo, thinking and talking about the fact that there was no freaking way Mark McGuire went from athletic guy to GI Joe without some help, that it was simply impossible to put on that kind of muscle over the short baseball off-season. I also remember thinking that the homerun race was exciting anyway.

It’s often argued that there ought to be an exception for baseball, that it ought to be held to a different standard than other sports. Since its history is longer, and its numbers bigger, its records are more sacred. There is something to this, of course. I agree that there’s something special about baseball. But I’d still argue that there have been so many changes over the years, among them the advent of the farm systems, free agency, new ballparks, changing training regimens, nutrition, vitamins, arthroscopic surgery, rehab, arguably baseball construction, and salaries high enough to free professional ballplayers from the necessity of taking off-season jobs. Oh, and let’s not forget integration. Many of the oldest and most sacred records were set by white players in a segregated league. As such, we can’t reasonably say that the old numbers were put up by the best players in the country against the best available competition, can we? (Plus, there’s something at least a little bit frustrating about the hallowed MLB records, given the fact that the data for the Negro Leagues were not nearly as meticulously kept and so afford few opportunities for comparison across the segregated leagues; thus, for example we'll never really know whether Josh Gibson could've given Babe Ruth a run for his money). So the advent of PEDs, and the whole so-called steroids era, is just one among many changes in the baseball world, mirrored by similar changes in the broader world of professional sports. And, anyway, if pitchers—like Clemens and Pettit—were using as well as hitters, then maybe the whole thing balances out.

Futhermore, the use of PEDs is not limited to sports. Witness, for example, a recent article in the New Yorker about the widespread use and abuse of prescription drugs like Adderall and Ritalin amongst college students at the nation’s top universities. This is probably old news news to anybody who’s attended college anytime over the past decade or two. Lots—maybe not most, but lots—of high-performing students use these focus-enhancing substances in order to work hard and play hard. I, myself, limited my substance regimen to whiskey and coffee (enough of the former to loosen the tongue; enough of the latter to speed up the brain), but I certainly had a number of friends who did not. Is there something insidious about this? Sure, of course there is. There’s a ripple effect, as non-using students feel pressure to compete with their pharmacologically enhanced peers. And, furthermore, if the best and brightest students are using, then the rest of us must feel even more pressure. Along these same lines, most of us are not surprised that the overwhelming majority of ballplayers busted for steroids have been marginal big-leaguers and 4-A players. After all, if Bonds, A-Rod, Sosa, McGuire, Clemens, Manny, etc—already amongst the most gifted athletes of their generations—were using, how could those with less natural ability ever hope to compete otherwise?

So this is the point about PEDs. They’re here, they work, get used to it. The cat, as they say, is out of the bag. As long these drugs are out there, and as long as they have a tangible impact on, well, performance, it’s unlikely that we will ever, EVER, E-V-E-R, be able to prevent their use. We can only test and punish, thereby damaging careers, maintaining controversies, and so on. There’s no reason to believe that the sports War on Steroids will work any better than does the analogous War on Drugs. This is not to say that these wars ought not be fought—that’s a political quagmire into which I’d rather not wade on this site. I just don’t think they can be won.

Baseball is a competitive game, and we live in a competitive world. Particularly when there is big money on the line, we ought not be surprised at people’s willingness to do whatever it takes to find an edge, even if doing so means breaking rules, toeing or crossing lines of legality and morality. We don’t have to like it, but I’m afraid we have to get used to it. Fighting it means tilting at windmills or holding gauze in front of freight trains. As long as there are PEDs, as long as we have more athletes than positions on professional teams, as long as PEDs make the difference between a minor league and major league salary, a 2.5 and a 3.5 GPA, being good or being great, you can bet your life that they’re going to be used. There’s something sad about it, I fully agree and freely admit. But there’s also something inevitable about it, and I think we, and baseball, would benefit from having some perspective and dialing back our outrage. There’s no sense in having your heart broken over something you’ve known all along.

- Dustin “Steam-Powered Penny-Farthing” Fridkin


DirtbagFan said...

Beautifully stated. Although, I'd bet my house Griffey never even considered it.

Dustin Fridkin said...

Thanks, man. I'm inclined to agree about Griffey, and I of course hope that none of our heroic Rays are dirty. But it's impossible to know, right? I also think it's important to think about steroids in context, as just one of the myriad things that have changed about the game and about life in general. Further, I think all the outraged folks need to simmer down some. This stuff is and has been so ubiquitous. After all, I used to hear ads for HGH on the radio--as a "natural" way to correct various hormonal deficiencies, increase muscle mass, and whatnot--and I'm pretty sure you can still buy creatine at any GMC.