Monday, June 15, 2009

The Steroid Era

The New York Times has reported today that Sammy Sosa, #6 on the all time home run list, tested positive for a performance enhancing substance in 2003, the latest in a string of top baseball stars implicated in the sport's steroids scandal of the past decade.

The Times said Sosa is one of 104 players who tested positive in baseball's anonymous 2003 survey, which has been the subject of a protracted court fight. The paper did not identify the drug. It cited lawyers with knowledge of the 2003 drug-testing results and reported they spoke on condition of anonymity because they did not want to publicly discuss material under court seal.

So what does this mean? Nothing I tell you, nothing at all. People are going to cry and bitch and moan about how we were lied to and how he cheated - whoever he happens to be. Today, its Sosa. Yesterday, it was Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez. Tomorrow, it might be Albert Pujols or Johan Santana.

However, Im here to tell you something different. Nobody lied. Nobody cheated. Except you, to yourself.

Baseball made the conscious decision sometime in the early 1980s to look the other way in regard to performance enhancing drugs. The league, the owners, the players union, and especially the fans - we are all responsible. We chose to NOT regulate the sport, we made the decision to NOT test the players like they do in the NFL - until it was too late. And now, we cry like babies, and its so fucking pathetic it makes me want to puke. Baseball players didnt lie to us - we lied to ourselves.

First, some history lessons.

For as long as anyone could remember, going back before the 1960s, there were two coffee machines in the New York Yankees players clubhouse. One for the players, and one for the coaches. The coaches coffee was totally normal. The players coffee, however was juiced with amphetamines (aka speed). Relied on by many a gold glove winning fielder, this speed laced coffee was never questioned by anyone - reporters, owners, nobody cared. It was just part of the game. Fielders needed their juiced coffee to speed their reflexes and stay alert, and the teams provided it without question or comment. Legend has it that the great Yankee clipper, Joe Dimaggio, used to drink half a cup of the stuff (along with a cigarrette) in between every single innning of every game he played.

Gaylord Perry, the great Hall of Fame pitcher, relied heavily on a mixture of sandpaper, vaseline and pine tar in his back pocket or on the corner of his glove to get a little something extra on his pitches, especially later on in his career. It wasnt exactly a secret either. One time, when an umpire noticed Perry obviously doctoring up the ball late in the game, he approached and asked Perry if he was applying foreign substance. Perry, in his classic North Carolina drawl, replied "No Sir, this pine tar is made in the United States of America." He titled his biography, Me and the Spitter. To say Perry was shameless about his cheating would be an understatement of gross proportions. Elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991, Perry was selected for Major League Baseball's Team of The Century, and was rated by baseball historian and stats guru Bill James as one of the 10 best right handed pitchers of all time, and one of the 50 greatest players of all time at any position.

Whats great about baseball (and there are many, many aspects of its greatness that I could discuss at length) - is its immensely long history. People have been playing baseball professionally in the USA since the late 1800s. Its 2009 now. Thats a lot of time, and a hell of a lot of baseball games. If there is one aspect of the game thats markedly different from other sports (ahem NBA, Im looking at you), its that we know that baseball isnt fixed. The results of the game are legitimate. This isnt Jai Alai, this isnt horse racing, this isnt boxing, tennis, or even the NBA, where we have to wonder whether what we are seeing is real - whether the outcome is prefixed or the result of a legitimate competition. Why? Baseball went through its growing pains a century ago, in a little incident called the Blacksox Scandal of 1919. Baseball got through a cheating scandal - real cheating - a long, long time ago.

People demonizing Sosa and Bonds and Arod need to get a little sense of history. This is a sport which almost collapsed in on itself - only to be saved by an obscure left handed pitcher wearing the number 3. The Blacksox scandal was as real as cheating gets, i.e., players taking bribes for purposefully making errors and playing poorly. The 1919 World Series was fixed! Can you imagine what that did to the game?! Without Ruth, the fans might have never come back. What the players of The Steroid Era are accussed of doing - pumping up with some "extra strength wheaties" - is a joke by comparison, an absolute joke. The integrity of our sport was never imperlied by players taking steroids. They took the steroids with the intention of becoming better players - and - wait for it - because there were no rules against taking them. Dont ask, dont tell was the motto of baseball's Steroid Era. Everybody knew, but nobody was saying anything, and everybody was just looking the other was because hey! McGuire was hitting 70 freaking home runs! And Sosa was right behind him! Baseball was back from its prolonged deadzone in the 1980s/early 90s, fans were coming back to the park and TV ratings were going up. Owners were making money again finally, the players started getting huge contracts, and nobody wanted to spoil the party. Not me, not you, not anyone. Thats why we are all to blame, not just him.

Finally, I would like to make the point that had steroids been readily available in the 1920s-1970s, many players would have certainly taken them. The only thing that makes The Steroid Era uniquely modern is that fact that steroids are a product of modern medicine becoming fully commercialized.

So when you hear someone bemoan a player accused of juicing - be it a talking head on TV or a friend or some guy at the bar - ask him if he went to a baseball game in the 1990s or watched one on TV. If he did, just tell him, "its your fault." As much as the players, the owners, the unions and the coaches are guilty, the fans carry the greatest blame. We the fans were the ultimate enablers, because we paid for it all, in blissfully willful ignorance, and now we are reaping what we sowed.


Chronic said...

Other thoughts:

1. Click on the "fixed" link in the article to read a bit about Arnold Rothstein, the man who masterminded the 1919 Wolrd Series fix. How he died is the stuff of legend in NYC cardrooms.

2. Tim Kurkjian of ESPN has a whole lot more of my respect after reading he still voting for Sosa, McGuire, Bonds, Clemens for the Hall of Fame.

3. Howard Bryant of ESPN is a toolbox

md galaxy said...

Nice read. I never would've given it a second thought before reading this and I had no idea about the 2002 Lakers/Kings game. Crazy.

Chronic said...

There even were wispers about Michael Jordan back in the early 1990s. Here was a player who was so good, the outcome of the game virtually depended on his performance. The speculation was that while he would mostly bet on himself and his team to win, there were times when he bet against himself and would put up a poor performance just to cover losses from betting on other sports and other NBA teams.

His retirement in 1993 was a total shock to everyone, and many speculated that rather than ban the greatest player in the league for life, the NBA secretly suspended him for 2 years. He returned to the Bulls in mid 1995 and the team started the 95-96 season with a 41-3 record.

Although basketball is a different game than baseball - where a single player can totally dominate - I think its still possible for baseball to be fixed by either the starting pitcher or the manager.

Really, we cant have this discussion without talking about Pete Rose, right? That was modern baseball. Although, what Rose did, betting on his team when to win when he had a good pitcher starting and his best players in the lineup, never affected the outcome of the game.

Is betting on yourself to win cheating? I dont think so.

What happened in the Davydenko match, with the Blacksox, and the NBA ref betting scandal, to me is far more egregious and dangerous to the integrity of the sport.

Chronic said...

Could a baseball umpire fix a game?

Probably. In fact, the more I think about it, it must have occurred sometime in the history of the game.

The home plate umpire has a lot of say over the game. If he gives a good pitcher an extra large strike zone, and the opposing pitcher a tight strike zone, it probably makes the team with the good pitcher at least a 2-1 favorite.

Questec, the digital pitch tracking and umpire rating system, helps keep the umps in line, but its not used in every park.

Until computers call the balls and strikes, I guess we cant elminate that little bit of doubt. But even computers can be hacked, right? It all becomes a rabbit hole, and there is no escape.

Perhaps its better not to think about these things at all and just watch the WWF.

MD said...

lol... WWF. Nice.

His Noodly Appendage said...

I agree in an era when everyone was doing it, it makes little sense to pick on the superstars that get caught. The release of this information is also a huge violation of these peoples privacy rights and completely unacceptable.

Lately I've been wondering about the stars that never did touch the stuff and how many of them there really are. I can't think of very many who would surprise me. I guess I would be shocked if it came out that Ichiro or Jeter was juicing, but my list is getting pretty short.

As for fixing games, its so easy for a home plate ump tjavascript:void(0)o do I would be shocked if it hasn't happened over the long history of the game.

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