Baseball: Juiced Up

Amy asked me today if I thought performance enhancing drugs were used widely in major league baseball. I have to think that they are. Ballplayers just don’t get the size that they are by eating well and training hard. So many of these guys have well-publicized offseasons of luxury and travel that you know they can’t be hitting the gym six hours a day. [Think back to the offseason after the ’98 season and to what all Sammy Sosa did after jacking his 66 dingers. You think he was hitting the gym and eating his Wheaties? Yeah, me too.]

Amy also asked me what I thought of this. I think it’s wrong, and here’s why: most of the drugs that these guys are using are illegal to possess outside their intended use. Steroids have legitimate medical use; human growth hormone [hGH] was originally developed to help promote growth in children who weren’t growing properly.

These guys are perverting good medicine for their own gain–and for our entertainment. It was sure fun watching Sosa and Mark McGwire match each other, homer-for-homer, in 1998, wasn’t it? I know that I enjoyed it–and frankly, the only way I could enjoy it was to ignore that they had to be doping. Yeah, there was all the talk about androstenedione being found in McGwire’s locker by some beat writer–and we all yawned, kinda like how most of us yawned about the whole Monica Lewinsky thing.
For years, we heard all sorts of reasons why baseballs started flying out of ballparks like Big Macs out of a new, overseas McDonald’s:

— The ball is juiced.

— The bats are made of harder woods.

— Expansion has diluted pitching.

— The ball really is juiced.

— Baseball is now played in bandbox ballparks.

— The hitters are ahead of the pitchers in the weight training game.

Of all these possibilities, only the second one and the last two are true, and I’m not sure if maple bats really have that much of an effect. The Illy did a big article in the offseason about maple bats made by a Canadian woodworker out of his home, how Barry Bonds used them in ’01 to hit 73 dingers, and how a run was on for maple bats.

No one wanted to talk about reality.

No one wanted to talk about the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

If you grew up, as I did, watching baseball quite religiously, you know that players today are generally bigger and bulkier than they are in years past. Guys who have the frame of a Luis Gonzalez used to be the norm: tall, slender guys that know how to hit a round ball with a round bat better than most folks. Shoot, Sosa was one of those kids when he first hit The Show when he was 19–skinny as a rail, he looked like he’d crap his pants if someone busted him inside. Today? He’s a mountain of a man.

Yeah, you’ve got Coors Field [in the mile high air of Denver] and Enron, er, Astros, er, Minute Maid Field in Houston and any other of a number of ballparks that push the minimum distances that Major League Baseball has set aside for field dimensions. [Coors is actually a vast ballpark, which is one reason that extra-base hits there are about as easy to score as cheap beer at a frat party.] And yeah, that’s got a lot to do with the offensive explosion … but even so, when you remove the park factors, it’s obvious that scoring is way, way up.

I think expansion was actually a ruse to “dilute the pitching” to hide the power surge, in some ways. Sure, someone thought baseball would work in Tampa/St. Petersburg; having been two weeks ago, I have to wonder what the hell they were thinking, other than, “We have an owner who will pay us nine figures to join our little club. Let’s give him a franchise and beat up on his team for a decade!”

But expansion really isn’t diluting pitching much; during the expansion era [1969-present], baseball’s sought out many previously-untapped talent markets [the Caribbean, Japan, etc.]. All the while, the population of the U.S. has been growing, and while players aren’t going to baseball like they used to, there’s still a strong love for the game amongst kids.

No, the real reason that baseball’s had an offensive renaissance is because enough baseball players learned how to use steroids and hGH in ways that would give them greater strength. The hitters started first, as they always will with anything physical; pitchers prefer to scuff balls with sandpaper, tacks, what have you and otherwise try to intimidate and out-think batters.

Sure, videotape [and now digital recording to CD and DVD] has helped both sides in improving their pre-game preparation. While hitters–most notably, Tony Gwynn–did take up video first, the pitchers have now caught up with them, and in many ways have surpassed them, since starters have four off days in which to prepare for their next start. Curt Schilling carries around two laptops: one to play around on [he’s a huge EverQuest fiend] and the other to study his pitching. I think he has every start of his since 1996 catalogued on CD/DVD, all cross-referenced to hitter, game situation, pitch thrown, day, night, and the color of his underwear at the time.

Look at Barry Bonds. Sure, he’s gained weight and muscle mass over the years, starting as a speed/power threat and eventually developing himself into one of the most feared power hitters of his time. Is Barry on steroids? He says he’s not, and he probably isn’t–he’s probably on hGH or something even better. This is a man who is very professional about his work, and probably wouldn’t use substandard methods like steroids, which are easily traceable.

This isn’t to say that juicing up is going to make you into an awesome hitter. Bonds had the explosion that he did last year because he not only had the body to do what he did but the knowledge of the game he needed to excel. Bonds knows the strike zone, and more importantly, he knows his hitting zone. He will let pitches go by him that are strikes but not ones that he can drive–unless, of course, he has two strikes on him. It’s all about maximizing his effectiveness and waiting for his pitch.

Sure, you can argue that all these guys are doing is trying to maximize their bank accounts and entertain us. Sure, you can argue that it’s their bodies. But does that mean that we should condone willful breaking of the law? What message does that send to our kids?

If you read that paragraph and laughed at me for being a näif, let me recast it in terms that should hit home for you:

Sure, you can argue that all the guys that ran WorldCom were doing was trying to maximize their balance sheet and keep their stock price high. Sure, you can argue that it’s their risk. But does that mean that we should condone willful breaking of the law? What message does that send to our future businessmen?

You’ve got to stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything. That’s why I applaud Rick Helling for saying, “Let’s test.” In my mind, baseball players should be like Caesar’s wife: above suspicion.

Oh, sure, there are privacy issues here–random drug testing is invasive. So? What ballplayer can say that he really has a private life anyway? If you want privacy, you don’t play big league ball, and you go to work for Arthur Andersen and make your millions the new-fangled way. It’s as simple as that.

I heard a sports talk show host bleat the other day on his silly show that it’s hard to track down drug users, and we should just give ballplayers free reign to take whatever they want to take. Riddle me this, pal–it’s hard work tracking down murderers, serial killers, rapists, child molesters, and kidnappers, but do you see the American law enforcement community throwing up their hands and saying, “Screw it! We can’t get them all, so let’s let God sort ’em out”?

As we should know from the gun control wars, it’s easier to enact new laws than it is to enforce existing ones. All that does is make a mockery of the legislative process, in my mind. It’s the same here with drug use, performance-enhancing or recreational. You either fight it with all the resources you can muster, or you throw up your hands. I find it funny that we pursue the recreational drug users and laud the performance-enhancing drug users: the former generally are doing less damage to themselves, and the latter get a free ride.

Other pro sports make at least a pro-forma attempt to nail drug users. Are they successful? I look at NFL players and have to wonder. Of course, all those guys do is train, and they only play 16 times a year. Baseball players take the field ten times as often, and NBA’ers and NHL’ers do so five times as often. A pro footballer has more free time to spend honing his body, so maybe those guys aren’t juicing up.

Big bodies don’t seem to matter too much in the NBA–it’s more about your game and your height. Hockey is about skills that you gain on the ice, although I guess ‘roids and other drugs that enhance recovery time would be beneficial in some ways. The big thing in the NFL and NHL has to be painkillers–and this is where we cue Brett Favre…

In baseball, everyone should be held to the same standards. In my mind, I think you have to enforce the laws that are on the books [or in this case, aren’t but should be]. It’s illegal to take steroids and hGH and any other amount of stuff that ballplayers are ingesting, shooting up, and inhaling. If it’s illegal, prohibit it. If it’s over-the-counter but can be abused, monitor it. You will have some guys that are forthright and don’t wish to sacrifice their long-term health for short-term gain.

This is the essence of baseball: yes, today is important, but so is tomorrow. It’s a long season. Let us have the playing field be level for everyone, and may the best men win.