Thursday, January 11, 2007

I'm Not Talking About Steroids After This

It's an unfortunate reality that Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken got less publicity in the national sports media this week than their tainted contemporary, Mark McGwire. The former two's inductions into the Hall of Fame, though, are really just a preview of the next 15 years of what is already a nauseating, tired debate about performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports.

I'm going under the working assumption that McGwire, along with a colossal amount of his peers in professional baseball, did use steroids in the 80's and 90's. Anyone who thinks otherwise is naive. You're also naive if you think it still is not going on today - sports science will always be several steps ahead of the press, the government, and organizational bodies that have jurisdictive power in such matters. There is no test in existance that can detect the presence of human growth hormone (HGH), so who's to say that it's not being used by athletes? Bodybuilders have been singing its praises for years. And don't think because YOU haven't heard of the hot new works-too-well illegal enhancer, Pro Baller A hasn't. It's part of his line of work - he has.

Just as kids will find new ways to get high, drug dealers will find new methods of cooking and slinging product, and so on, people will always be seeking a competitive edge. It's the product of a competitive world - addiction, money, winning, whatever - is more important to many people than the perception people have of them.

Don't get me wrong - I'm a sucker for the endearing tradition of baseball. I love it. Two summers ago, when I took my kid brother to the Negro League HOF/museum in Kansas City, it was one of the best days of my life. I savor the stuff. But honestly, if I'm a retired pro jock, living off interest and playing golf everyday, whether or not a bunch of stodgy sportswriters think I'm worthy to be in their club wouldn't be significant to me. These people sit on their high horses as moral police, judging whether it's righteous or not to use steroids in order to get an edge. Phrases like "they cheated the fans" never have resonance with me, because if you're a sports fan, and you're dull enough to put a dude who runs a 40 exceptionally fast, or can throw a baseball 95 MPH on an idolic pedestal, that'd be a YOU problem.

"Cheating the game" is another trite sportswriter's phrase found when no real substance is present. The truth is, guys like McGwire, Ken Caminiti, Jason Giambi, and the like, used at a time when their competition was using, as well. Granted, not everyone was using, but they had the option to since it was not against the rules of the game. To me, that's not "cheating the game." If that's the case, then anything that one player has access to that another doesn't would be cheating. Where does this slope take us? Timed film analysis before NFL games? Equivocal training facilities and staff for every NBA franchise? Imagine this exchange:

League official: "Hey, Coach Belichick, we at the office got word that you have developed several different schemes to slow down LT this weekend. In the interest of fairness, we're going to need you to share those with the other 31 franchises."

"Cheating the game" is the pitcher scuffing the baseball with an emory board, or an NBA player missing shots to cover a spread, or a quarterback intentionally getting picked off. By giving a disingenuous effort, or using something against the rules to gain leverage on the opposition is to cheat the game, or cheat the fans. I'm not trying to advocate or support steroid use, pre-or-post baseball legislation, I just believe that morally chastising people is ridiculous, and is done to an obscene extent in the media. Who are we to throw stones? Strategic or personnel decisions in sports can be ridiculed for their implications on franchises or programs - but to evaluate PEOPLE is a path I choose not to tread on.

All that being said, I wouldn't take steroids into account, ever, when judging whether or not to vote a player into Cooperstown. We don't know who did and didn't do it, and frankly, I don't care. The damage has been done already to the sport, and the black eye is one that will never subside.

The Hall of Fame is built to reflect the history of the game, and to accurately reflect that history, an era that was loaded with juicers should have its greatest enshrined, too. Let's not teach American baseball history the way that most schools in America teach American history - by picking and choosing it's finer moments, and shunning the negative ones. Denial and lies are always worse than accepting fault.

Now, for McGwire: the man was never an MVP. He won a gold glove, but the legitimacy of that award is growing more and more suspect each year - the thing is given out on almost reputation alone, and half the time isn't handed to the best defensive player. It sounds sexy to say "he won X gold gloves," but to me, the thing is like a Grammy given to a rap artist: the guy with the biggest name gets an award given out by a disconnected board of judges.

He also was a career .263 hitter, but makes up for that some with his .394 OBP. His homer totals are impressive, but 15 years from now, he may not be in the top 12 all time anymore. Thome, A-Rod, Manny and Griffey will all pass him within 5 years in all likelihood. His career was plagued by injuries, but he still managed to (obviously) hit a ton of home runs. He had minimal speed, and was basically a one-trick pony. It was a hell of a trick, though.

I didn't lose respect for him because of 'roids, I lost respect for him because he acted like a little bitch on Capitol Hill. Despite this, I would have elected him this year. For one, he would have to deal with the pressures of addressing a hostile crowd, something he cried trying to do in front of congress. And two, I wouldn't have to listen to this same debate next year, and for the next 10 years, as self-righteous writers bicker about the morality of steroids.

Football picks tomorrow.

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