Like Barry Bonds, Baseball Widow hasn't retired; she's just not playing.
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Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Baseball Widow on PEDs (A Work in Progress)
Thought I would consolidate and re-post some of my previous ruminations on PEDs, since Baseball Widow was pondering the issue as far back as March. I still think pretty much the same things I've said before--which is to say that I just don't know where I fall on this, but I do think that most people are approaching the issue from the wrong direction.

Baseball Widow isn't arguing that there isn't a problem (pardon the awkward phrasing), but I am saying the exact nature of the problem needs to be defined clearly before solutions are implemented.

Is the problem illegal activity in baseball? Surely not. Rafael Furcal was allowed to play immediately after being arrested for his second DUI, and many other players have had legal woes that haven't interrupted their jobs.

Is the problem a concern for player health? Absolutely not. These athletes can destroy their bodies through extreme dieting, overuse of cortisone, alcohol, and tobacco. If we were really concerned about their health, we'd focus on these issues, as (statistically speaking, at least)they're much more likely to cause dramatic and permanent health effects.

Is the problem illegal drug usage? That doesn't make much sense, really, since no one is advocating that the system be purged of those players who might occasionally use ecstasy at a party. Besides, as Baseball Widow points out below, drug policy in the U.S. is one of the most egregiously ill-defined concepts. "Illegal" vs. "legal" is not the same as "good" or "bad" or even "life-threatening" vs. "non-life threatening." To say that only illegal drug use is a problem because it's illegal is really just a form of begging the question, and this argument is complicated enough without engaging in false dichotomies or circularr reasoning.

If we don't take time to define the problem, then we can't find a solution that will work. Certainly any solution to any problem that involves stripping anyone of any civil liberty is not a solution at all. Still, the honor system has clearly failed, so what next? Again, Baseball Widow doesn't have answers; she has questions--questions that deserve to be addressed before a knee-jerk Band-Aid solution is slapped down.

So, here's what I said in the past. Some of my ideas have evolved, so these aren't necessarily my current views, but they're still views worth re-examining.

Performance Enhancing Drugs. . . I could sure use 'em for this post.

It's difficult to write with conviction about the subject of performance enhancing drugs because Baseball Widow is ultimately ambivalent about them. It probably does do some good, however, to lay out the reasons for my ambivalence. . .

As I see it, there are basically three ways to examine the consequences of Performance Enhancing Drugs ("PEDs") in baseball.

1. If Barry Bonds is the only person using PEDs, then it cheapens his accomplishments because his domination of the field stems, quite simply, from cheating. If that's true, then I'm sure history will appropriately asterisk his records and move on. This would hold true for any small number of individuals using PEDs in the game.

2. If everyone is happily using some sort of PED, then it's hard to feel indignant about any one person using them. We may fret over their health or over the ethics of introducing such a variable into the game, but if everyone does it, then it can't be cheating. At least, it doesn't threaten the competitive balance among players.

3. If most people are using PEDs and the people who don't are negatively affected, then baseball has a problem. A player who won't use PEDs when everyone else is will probably lose his job. . . either because his actual performance will suffer or because a club won't keep a player who isn't willing to do absolutely anything for the roster spot.

The obvious response to number three is trifold: no one's entitled to be a Major League Baseball player, no one's being physically forced to take PEDs, and no one cares if a player would rather quit than take drugs. Truthfully, I think that's a fair argument. I also think, however, that in a culture full of pressure to take the drugs, it's hard to tell which actions are voluntary and which ones aren't. Also, scenario three paints a picture where most people are cheating and the others are getting penalized for playing by the rules. That just doesn't seem right. That just flies in the face of promoting competitive balance among players.

I can't overstate the importance of competitive balance in baseball. It is the (Nerd Alert) sine qua non of pro sports. Certainly, performance enhancing drugs have the potential to destroy competitive balance, but can't you say that about anything? In fact, you can think of the Yankees payroll as the ultimate steroid: it's an artificial advantage. Every team has the same number of roster spots, and every team gets 27 outs. But Steinbrenner's thick wallet creates a capability that simply doesn't exist for other teams in the normal course of business.

So, Baseball Widow's official position is that she has none. I think PEDs are probably bad for the game, but I'm not sure exactly how bad they are. I'm also unsure as to the best method to regulate their use. Basically, I'm ambivalent, but I think I already told you that. But, Baseball Widow is rarely content to lack a definitive opinion on anything, so I'm sure we'll come back to this.

PEDs Part II

Baseball Widow said we'd come back to this topic.

Two strands of thought seem to be floating around out there: one questioning the true effects of Performance Enhancing Drugs, the other identifying additional circumstances and factors that could be considered performance-enhancing.

Baseball Widow will speak only briefly to the former. Baseball Widow hopes that everyone understands the now oft-stated assertion that steroids, hgh, and the like aren't magic pills. The drugs alone won't do much but send your hormones into overdrive. (Take it from Baseball Widow, who had a nasty lung infection last winter and was as pumped full of various steroids as, well, as Barry Bonds would be if he weren't innocent until proven guilty.) Of course any effectiveness must be accompanied by an exercise and diet regimen. And, of course PEDs wouldn't work the same for everyone.

I don't think that speculating as to their effects is really useful for this discussion. I think PEDs probably are effective, or they wouldn't be used. Even if they're not, there's a whole school of thought out there that says because a placebo effect can be incredibly powerful, the thing that induces the effect can and should be considered a drug (which raises a tangential but nonetheless interesting question about the desirability--and feasibility--of regulating placebos).

As to the latter thought strand, Baseball Widow is intrigued by the idea that almost anything can be considered performance-enhancing. I made the point that the Yankees payroll is an artificial/innate/organic advantage. Others have said that because Babe Ruth played in the segregated era, his records were enhanced by the fact that he didn't compete with Negro league players. Although I'm not willing to equate PEDs in absolute terms with sociological conditions, I do think that Performance Enhancers (PEs)--drugs or not--are interesting fodder for thought. Therefore, Baseball Widow would like to shift the discussion toward the very idea of Performance Enhancement.

I submit to you that none of us would even watch Major League Baseball if PEs weren't involved. Don't believe me? What separates professional baseball from backyard baseball? The level of play--the enhanced performance.

Ladies and gentlemen, we want PEs. We demand them of the athletes. We've set up a system whereby men who can throw balls really fast and hit them really hard are elevated in society. We make them millionaires, we pay through the nose to see them do their special tricks, we ask them to write their name on paper so that we can prove they touched something we touched.

It's not just baseball. Think of your average celebrity. You think Britney Spears keeps her bod gorgeous by working out a lot? Sure she does. But she's also taking PEDs--in the form of a diet pill. Guess what Beyonce Knowles gave herself for her birthday? Waffles. Yes, waffles. . .because she can't sit down at brunch on Sunday and snarf them the way you and I do. Self-denial is her PE.

It's inadequate to blame the culture of fame that encourages extreme behaviors. It's not being famous that makes athletes and celebrities go to extremes--it's that they wouldn't be superstar athletes or celebrities without the extremes. They're not just idolized; they're idealized. We expect celebrity athletes to embody the super-human athleticism that we have dreamed up in our heads to envy.

I don't mean to offer an excuse for PEDs; I believe in personal responsibility for one's actions. I do think, however, that the very nature of the professional game offers an explanation for their use. I'm not saying it's good or bad; I'm just saying that if we're going to let the steroids debate simmer, we'd better be prepared when it boils up to expose other things that force us to be less naive about the game we love.

PEDs, part IV (I think)

In the past, Baseball Widow has been quick to point out that the Performance Enhancing Drug ("PED") moniker is inadequate, especially to the extent that "performance enhancing" relates to competitive balance. I don't want to re-tread water under the bridge, but I've pointed out that the Yankees' payroll is an artificial advantage that smaller-market teams can never rival. We've talked about performance enhancing. Now let's talk about drugs.

Two recent events have caused Baseball Widow to think about drugs. No, neither of them involved law school finals.

1. Baseball Hubby's paternal grandmother recently had a terrible respiratory infection with some dangerous complications. She spent over a month in the hospital. At one point she was injected with steroids to keep her lungs open. The woman has incredible pluck--when visitors walked in, she asked, "Wonder if they'll finally let me in the big game?" She was, of course, referring to baseball. (Baseball Hubby's grandmother is a huge baseball fan, but that's another post.)

2. Baseball Widow recently spent an evening on a police ride-along. No, she wasn't arrested. Baseball Widow rode in the patrol car with a police officer for a ten hour shift, going on every call. The most eye-opening part of the experience was touring the slums and seeing how drugs permeate the community. Baseball Widow isn't saying anything new when she says that crack has devastating effects.

This is perhaps the most simplistic idea I've ever posted, but sometimes simple ideas need spelling out: drugs are neither inherently good nor inherently bad--they're just drugs. Sometimes drugs are essential to save lives. Sometimes drugs are instrumental in ruining lives. And, although people don't really like to think about it, sometimes drugs are just for the kick. We see all three instances in baseball.

Just for the kick: Maybe they work, maybe they don't. Sometimes they're legal, sometimes they're not. Creatine, Ephedra, Hgh, Steroids, Slim-Fast, Viagra, whatever.

Ruining lives: Steve Howe, Darryl Strawberry, Otis Nixon, Dwight Gooden.

Saving lives: Detroit Tigers pitcher Jason Johnson, wearing an insulin pump during games to keep his life-threatening diabetes in check.

It is inadequate to draw the illegal/legal distinction. First, there is a fundamental difference between Jose Canseco trying to hit a few more homers and Greasy Eddie the neighborhood crack dealer ripping off car stereos to support his habit. Second, the illegal/legal distinction is simply an arbitrary standard set by government officials who are susceptible to lobbying influence. Pop quiz: which is more dangerous, marijuana or tobacco? Well, if you grow it and roll it, you're gonna live a longer, healthier life smoking dope than buying Lucky Strikes. What's the difference between crack and powder cocaine? Chemically, pretty much nothing, but if you get busted for crack, you're gonna do at least twice the time as if you peddled cocaine. Look, I'm not making the case that anyone should be doing any of these, but I am saying that an intelligent conversation about drug policy--both nationally and in baseball--requires making finer distinctions than illegal/legal.

So, what is the standard that baseball should use? "Artificial Advantage" is about as slippery as "Performance Enhancing." What if I told you that some baseball players were abusing a prescription-only steroid injection in order to deaden themselves to pain so that they can play longer and harder? Outraged? Why should you be? It's just cortisone. Sure, excessive use can kill white blood cells, cause cataracts, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, and cause tendons to explode, but, hey, if everybody uses it, it can't be a big deal, right?

Is it possible that the uproar over illegal steroids is just because they haven't gained widespread use or acceptance yet? And if this is the case, haven't we really worked ourselves back around to the issue of competitive balance?

Baseball Widow doesn't have an answer or a conclusion. This is a topic in progress. . .

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