By Mark Smith
Would you put a player who used PEDs into the Hall of Fame? It’s a simple question, but the answer isn’t so simple. Do you cross off anyone who ever used? Or do you only cross off the ones who used a lot? Do you cross off the guys who used them before they were against MLB’s rules? Or do you only cross off the ones who used after the testing was implemented? These are only a few questions, but I think you get the point. My purpose here isn’t too answer them yet (though I may make an attempt at the end). My purpose is to ask why we’ve arrived at having to answer them and what’s even the reason we’re upset.
I ask because I obviously don’t think the PEDs themselves are the real problem. Remember all the way back to 1998 and 1999. I specifically remember reports about Mark McGwire using andro, and I specifically remember no one doing anything about it. The reason is pretty simple. We want to see the best possible game, and we’re really not all that concerned about how that happens. Sure, we’d love it to be the result of practice, but we know that’s not all it takes. But PEDs aren’t “natural”. Well, what’s natural about weight lifting? What about protein shakes? What about nutrient supplements and vitamins? What about specialized diets? Heck, what’s even natural about training? None of those are particularly natural. Natural means “occurring in conformity with the ordinary course of nature”, and none of those things are “natural”. They’re all performance-enhancing, but we’re okay with that. But we have drawn a line, but why?
There are a few reasons. One and probably the most important is that a black man that we don’t like threatened the sport’s most hallowed record. The race part isn’t a conscious thing, but I’m not sure our society has come far enough to where there’s no subconscious issue present. In any matter, I think the key part is that we didn’t like Bonds, and because of that, he didn’t fit our image of the game’s hero. Roger Maris didn’t fit, either. Mickey Mantle, the good-looking all-around player, was supposed to break the single-season record, damn it. Not Maris. So he got death threats, insults, and various other problems in a similar manner to Bonds and his chase for Hank Aaron’s record. He didn’t fit with the idea of being the sport’s greatest home run hitter. Barry Bonds didn’t, either. When it was McGwire and the lovable Sammy Sosa, we weren’t all that concerned. If it had been the charismatic Ken Griffey, Jr., we still wouldn’t have cared because it fit with the way it’s “supposed” to work out. When it doesn’t work that way, we have to know why. Steroids and PEDs became our answer.
But as I said, that’s not the reason we’re upset. We’re perfectly fine with other performance enhancers, but there is something different about steroids and the PEDs that have been earmarked. This is the second reason - it feels wrong. It usually comes from a needle, and it was done in secrecy, regardless of whether or not it was illegal by MLB means. It doesn’t matter that medicine comes from needles, or that steroids are illegal and done in secrecy because they are harmful to your health. They still feel wrong, mostly because the nonsense of them turning people into superheroes that has gotten around about them (no matter how many steroids I shoot up, I still have to, you know, work out awfully hard to get those muscles; then again, it’s harder for current athletes to retain and build muscle without those protein things, but let’s just ignore that).
But again, neither of those things is the reason we’re really upset. While we don’t like Barry Bonds because he’s a villain, not all PED users have the image of a villain, and while steroids feel wrong, that’s more of a subjective emotion than an actual reason why we’re upset (mild tangent: I hate trying to separate “emotional” from “rational”. Emotions can be rational. If a close friend betrays me, is it not rational that I get pissed? There’s usually a reason for the emotions. If there wasn’t, the person would be insane or need serious medication. People can get upset for what we perceive to be no reason, but because it may not actually be there or may not be something we do not perceive does not mean their emotion is “irrational”). No the real reason we’re upset is because we believe the players intend to use these steroids and PEDs to cheat.
In our little worlds, there’s a right way to do things and a wrong way. Working out and training is fine because it requires hard work, sacrifice, and time, but steroids and PEDs give you advantage beyond the one you get by working out. Of course, protein shakes don’t do anything to help performance, and of course, every athlete has had the same access to the same awesome facilities as everyone else for their entire lives, had the same monetary advantages, etc. But let’s assume PEDs and steroids are cheating because that is the reason we are upset.
This is the reason we’re upset. If it wasn’t cheating, PEDs would just be drugs that help players play better, but for whatever reason (it really doesn’t matter), we’ve decided these are cheating. Except, is that why players use them? Do they purposefully use steroids to cheat? Are they that nefarious? See, here’s the really sketchy part in this whole discussion. In order to figure this out, we have to know what the player intended by using these drugs. Sure they “intended” to boost their performance but why? We assume that players used them to make more money, to win awards, and to bolster their stats for the Hall of Fame. But is that why all the people who used steroids and PEDs used them? What about if they used them to get healthier faster? Is that so bad? What if they did it hoping that their increased performance would help their team win a World Series? Is that so bad? What if the player did it to fulfill a life’s dream, knowing he would never be good enough to make the Hall of Fame? Is that so bad? Does that change the perception of what they did at all? We all have our own answers to those questions, but there were players that probably had those intentions when they used steroids and not the sleezy, selfish reason we assume they had. Because if they used for honorable, somewhat honorable, or even misguided reasons, then do they deserve to lose baseball’s greatest honor considering they didn’t do anything illegal?
Intention is a cloudy issue, though. No one can get inside a player’s head. But that’s exactly what we have to do for PED users, especially the ones before testing. The ones who used or are suspected of using before testing did not break any rules. They broke our moral or ethical ones (maybe), but if we want to punish them based on morals or ethics, we need to know why the players used, which brings us back to intentions. We’ll never be able to figure out why anyone used, and I won’t believe every athlete who says, “I just wanted to get back on the field faster” or “I just wanted to help the team”. But I can’t prove who did or didn’t actually have those feelings and either can anyone else. But that’s what each and every person who dares keep players out for PED use or suspected use is doing. They are reading minds. They’re keeping people out because they “cheated”, but they have no idea if that was their intention or not. Remember PED use was not “cheating” by MLB rules for McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, and others. They are being judged for their intentions to go above and beyond to cheat the game, even though it wasn’t illegal in the MLB for some reason.
So what do we do? If we can’t figure out their intention and that’s essentially why we’re upset, what do we do? Stop trying. For players who never tested positive, they did nothing illegal, and even if they admitted using before testing, they still did nothing illegal. If the MLB thought they had done something so detrimental to the integrity of the game, then Bud Selig could have banned them from the Hall and from baseball (there’s precedent), but as far as I know, Selig has not done this, even to Barry Bonds. As for players who have tested positive, Bud Selig and the MLB have decided that the punishment is 50 games the first time, 100 games the second time, and lifetime for the third time. Don’t you see? There’s already a plan in place to ban PED users. You just have to wait for them to fail three times. I suppose the BBWAA could argue that they could make up their own rules regarding it, but as far as I know, they haven’t in any sort of cohesive way.
Some writers, however, aim to legislate intentions anyway. They’re doing it without evidence. They’re doing it without an articulated rule in place that says they can or should. They’re doing it because they can. They’re doing it because it makes them feel like they’re doing something. They’re doing it because just saying no to all of them will make it go away. But most of all, they’re doing it because it’s an easy way to deal with a complicated problem. It takes no thought to just cross them off the list. It takes no differentiation. It’s hard. I know. But like Uncle Ben said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Deal with it or let someone else.