Bonds, and how little we know

Or, “The Fallacy of the Government and Media Posturing in the Post-Steroids Era“. Yeah, I like that better, has a nice ring to it.

Week One of the Greatest Perjury Trial Since Clinton has come to a close, and I’m not here to dispense any sort of legal acumen or predict what will happen in The United States of America v. Barry Lamar Bonds, but I can tell you that no matter the outcome, no additional light will have been shed on the culture of performance-enhancing drugs funneling through the MLB in the late 1990s/early 2000s.  There are so many moving parts, and different targets, to this story, so I apologize in advance for jumping around a bit and seeming unfocused, but I want to get a handful of points out there.

Let’s start off with the trial itself.  Do I think Barry Bonds took performance enhancers? Yes.  Do I think he took them knowingly? Probably.  No one is out there campaigning for more steroids in baseball, or going to get any sort of political opposition to trying to eliminate these drugs.  Thus, Bonds makes an easy, sitting-duck target that District Attorneys and Congressmen can champion against in a way that will funnel more goodwill towards furthering their own careers.  There is no reason, ABSOLUTELY NONE, that the government should be tying up its time, court systems, and taxpayer money with PED-related matters.  It’s not the domain of Major League Baseball to enforce the laws of the US, and if Congress wanted to get involved in policing the MLB, they should have done so before the league put a drug-testing policy and punishment system in place.  To step after MLB began cleaning itself up for the future, and to try to parse through the past based on conjecture and the testimony of unsavory characters — Jose Canseco, Brian McNamee, Kirk Radomski, etc. — is frivolous and transparent at best, irresponsible at worst.

The entire steroid era leaves an indelible blemish on the face of Major League baseball, but it’s not the first such blemish, and it won’t be the last.  Until the time where hard evidence, or even reasonable testimonies and hearsay, comes out against a player, it is supremely unfair to pinpoint and vilify suspected users.  Jeff Bagwell, one of the five best first-basemen of all time, was not elected to the Hall of Fame this past year, largely because of completely unfounded steroid speculation.  Every single Hall of Fame voter was covering the game before PED testing was implemented, and this seems to be a form of self-flagellation, overcompensating for the fact that they either looked the other way or didn’t dig deeply enough when all of this was going on.  Suspicion and misplaced emotion leads these Hall voters to cast an unfathomably wide net, ensuring that many who are innocent will be taken down alongside the guilty, under the guise of the previously-overlooked character and integrity clause in the ballot guidelines.  It is intellectually dishonest, and goes against the American ideal of due process, to publicly excoriate Bagwell merely for being a large man, hitting home runs in a generation in which his union head, Don Fehr, fought against steroid testing.  There is no more evidence linking Bagwell to performance-enhancing drugs than there is for Derek Jeter, or Greg Maddux, or Bagwell’s average-sized comrade-in-arms, Craig Biggio.

Furthermore, scientists and researchers still are unsure of the tangible effects that performance-enhancing drugs have on human physiology, and what impact or benefit that may provide to a baseball player’s statistics.  Baseball has been played in something close to its current form for 130 years, and has been out of the deadball age for almost 90. Treating each team’s season each year as an individual statistical entity, there are bound to be several numerical outliers, seasons either way beyond or below a player’s established production line.  These are caused by many factors — expansion to dilute the talent pool, ballpark dimensions, health, and most importantly, a whole heap of random chance.  Long before Brady Anderson and Luis Gonzalez had their 50-HR seasons, Roger Maris’ 1961 saw him set an MLB record with 61 homers.  That same year, Orioles first baseman Jim Gentile knocked 46 out of the park — he had only one other season above 28 in his career. In ’67, shortstop Rico Petrocelli of the Red Sox hit 40 bombs, after registering only 12 the year before.  Baseball, ever trying to normalize the balance of power between hitter and pitcher, lowered the mound the very next season, only to see pitchers dominate the landscape.  Davey Johnson, as a 30-year-old second baseman, hit 43 in 1973, 25 more than he hit in any other season of his career.  If he was transplanted into 2003, writers would immediately throw him under the umbrella of “drug users” and discount any involvement of adjustments at the plate or pure luck.

Back to Bonds — he had already established himself as a Hall of Fame caliber player, and was a consistent 40 home run hitter before he reportedly began using performance enhancers.  In 1993, already his 3rd MVP year, he began the San Francisco portion of his career hitting .336, with an on-base percentage of .458 to go with his 46 home runs.  He even kept some semblance of his youthful speed deep into his 30s, going 13/16 in steals at age 36, in his 2001 season.  With all that in mind, do Bonds’ numbers really seem so absurdly out of the realm of possibility?  That it had to be steroids and steroids alone contributing to his record-setting 73 home runs?  Assuming that he took what he has been accused of taking (and remember, there are huge differences between anabolic steroids, HGH and masking agents — the nuance of this has been lost among the thousands of accusatory articles written about the “Steroids Era”), did the stuff just not work as well from 2002-2004, when he hit 46, 45, and 45 home runs?

Scores of ballplayers either ingested or injected performance-enhancing drugs between the mid-1980s and 2003, and the overwhelming majority did not see their numbers inflate or their star shine any brighter because of it.  For every Bonds or Eric Gagne, who excelled during the period in which they likely used, there are countless Chad Allens, Phil Hiatts, and Alex Cabreras.  When Marvin Benard, Armando Rios, and Jason Grimsley are among the more successful MLB players named in George Mitchell’s report, that casts serious doubts about the functional benefit of PEDs on the ability to play baseball well.

Most of the popular opposition to steroids falls into two camps.  Camp One argues that performance-enhancing drugs do significantly enhance performance (again, never actually proven), and that by doing so, any records being broken are tainted and do a disservice to the pure, clean heroes of yesteryear.  To a point, that is true.  When Babe Ruth played, he didn’t have a union chief shielding him from steroid testing — he just had a commissioner who wouldn’t allow anyone of color to play the game.  Are Ruth’s records tainted because he didn’t have to hit against a young Satchel Paige, or have his bombs to center field chased down by Oscar Charleston?  No less an authority than the greatest third-baseman of all time, Mike Schmidt, went on HBO in 2005 and told Bob Costas all about clubhouse amphetamine use in the 1970s for that extra energy boost.  He also admitted to Costas that had he played in an era where the PED culture was so prevalent, he probably would have taken steroids as well.  Negro League star Buck O’Neill has gone on record saying the same thing.  Baseball has a history as alternately beautiful and tarnished as America itself, and it’s entirely disingenuous to hold any generation up as the bastion of integrity over any other, merely because the vices were different.

Argument Two denouncing MLB drug use is more noble, albeit no less absurd and full of flawed Utopian idealism.  This fallacy hangs its hat on the pedestal of the athlete as a role model, a beacon of virtue for the younger generation to look up to and canonize.  Major League Baseball takes to the podium trumpeting its relationship to children as a national pastime.  The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, with special funding from MLB, puts out public service announcements directed at teens about the dangers of steroid use — replete with “shrinking testicles” imagery.  What they don’t tell you is that anabolic steroid use is directly responsible for three deaths a year, according to the Center for Disease Control.  Three.  Now compare that with the average of over 15,000 deaths a year due to alcohol-related auto accidents since 2006, when the MLB’s drug-testing system was implemented.  Over the past couple of years, baseball has had its fair share of DUI incidents as well, which have been proven to be a much bigger danger than PEDs.  The league’s response: sweep it under the rug.

While I have never taken steroids, or advocate their use, the priorities of the punitive wing in the Commissioner’s office seem a little off-kilter.  A first positive PED test is penalized by an automatic 50-game suspension, with a second positive docking the player 100 games, and a third resulting in a lifetime ban.  Since the stat of the 2006 season, Yusaku Iriki, Grimsley, Guillermo Mota, Juan Salas, Dan Serafini, Eliezer Alfonzo, JC Romero, Manny Ramirez, and Edinson Volquez have all been suspended off major league rosters for 50 games without pay, all for first PED violations.  Just since the turn of the calendar to 2011, current MLB players Austin Kearns, Coco Crisp, Adam Kennedy, and, most notably, Miguel Cabrera have been arrested for driving under the influence.  Total games they’ve been suspended for — zero.  In previous years, pitchers Dontrelle Willis and Gustavo Chacin received no punishment for their DUI arrests, and neither did future Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa.  During spring training in 2007, La Russa was found asleep at the wheel of his SUV with the engine running, stopped at a green light, and a BAC over the legal limit.  The next day, he received a pre-game standing ovation from Cardinals fans, along with public statements of support from the team and players.  Less than a month after Opening Day that season, one of La Russa’s players, pitcher Josh Hancock, was killed in an automobile accident while driving with a BAC almost double the Missouri limit. Around half of the league’s teams have taken steps to curtail this behavior, exponentially more destructive than performance-enhancing drugs, by banning alcohol in both the home and visitors’ clubhouses in their ballparks — the Oakland Athletics started this trend after pitcher Esteban Loaiza was arrested for driving drunk, and many other clubs joined in following Hancock’s death.  Major League Baseball itself, however, has been conspicuously quiet on the matter, choosing not to alienate their billion-dollar partnership with beer sponsors, and instead thoroughly focus its attack on steroids.

In spite of its long-time legality, past PED use is now being denounced by the league, and pressure is being applied to former players to coax public regret and remorse from users.

Bud Selig, Congress, and the curmudgeonly sportswriters who cover the game want to see contrition, and demand at least a perfunctory, pseudo-apology/admission from Bonds, along the lines of those offered by Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi and Andy Pettitte.  If he believes he did something wrong, and does feel sorry, then by all means, Bonds should apologize.  But if he thinks that he’s being unfairly singled out, and has nothing to apologize for, then there is no reason at all for him to cater to their needs.  Why?  Because a handful of old white guys who control his Hall of Fame destiny want to tell him that they know how his game was impacted, that he’s a bad person for what he did, and pretend that they would be more honorable in his position?

The federal government is trying to nail Barry Bonds for perjury, to save face with some sort of semi-positive outcome following six wasteful years of investigation into a “problem” it had no business involving itself in.  In all this time, opinions have been crystallized, lines in the sand have been drawn, but no real information has come out about exactly who was taking exactly what, and exactly how it helped them.  Until that happens (understandably a long shot), we will continue to go through this charade of faux indignation, and a cloud cast over every big, powerful player of this generation.  Oh, well.  At least the Roger Clemens perjury trial starts in July…

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4 Responses to Bonds, and how little we know

  1. brynn says:

    This was never a topic that interested me too much but I think you made it interesting and bring up some good points. Nice job g

  2. Fantusta says:

    I don’t even think the writers think this is some form of self-punishment. They probably still maintain that they did nothing wrong and that they’re doing this “for the good of the game”.

    You ever read Bill James’s take on PEDs? Short version, he’s mostly sure they (or at least some safer version of them) will be legal in 30 years anyway, so why the fuss?

    • bengm225 says:

      I definitely agree that the writers think they are meant to be the gatekeepers of baseball’s history, and believe they are doing the right thing for the game. Most of these guys also have an over-romanticized view of the players of their childhood — in the ’50s and ’60s, entertainment options were incredibly limited compared to today, so they had little choice but to dive head-on into baseball fandom. In addition, the tone and scope of the media was a positive one, whereas now it has turned increasingly negative. The irony of that fact (being that they ARE the media who produce these attacks on players, and contribute to the defamation of these would-be heroes) is totally lost on most of them.

      And while I haven’t read James’ view on PEDs, I remember that right after the Selena Roberts/A-Rod story broke, Keith Law talked about how, at least in terms of adding to a baseball player’s game, steroids are essentially a placebo. He compared it to taking echinacea, or being hoodwinked by a Ponzi scheme — just because you think it works, doesn’t mean it does.

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