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April 1, 2003

Breaking Balls

Making the Game Better

by Derek Zumsteg

The first round of drug testing in baseball has come and gone without much incident. It's obvious that in a couple of years baseball's going to have the same kind of ineffective drug testing that every other major sport seems to endure, and by its existence steer players into those drugs that can escape detection. We'll have all of the performance-enhancement rumors, and nothing will really be solved.

Look at bicycling, which for as long as I can remember has had stringent drug testing, which still can't catch, say, EPO. The end result has been that bicycling has had to set limits on physiology: You're not allowed to have a hemocrit level above 50, so everyone dopes to get up to a hemocrit level as close to 50 without going over as possible. Which, we're supposed to believe, is some kind of wacky coincidence.

Performance-enhancing drugs shouldn't be illegal, or even tested for. They should be mandatory. Baseball needs to get bigger and better, like football, and the only way we can do this on a level playing field is to have every player taking these drugs in a safe and supervised environment. If that has to be Mexico or some other country with more enlightened drug control policies, then so be it. Every player should be on the same kind of off-season workout plan that adds 15-20 pounds of muscle and that weird 50-yard stare.

Who wants to see bad players? Take these guys who waste a position or two on every team, the unremarkable regular. Pump these guys up, let's see them tack at least 10 home runs on top of their slap-hitting snooze-fest. That'll liven up the game. But it's not going to be one-sided: With pitchers taking the same kind of growth hormones and endurance-enhancing supplements, we'll have kids throwing 110 mph on the last pitch of their 150-pitch complete games. And if a pitcher's arm falls off, who cares? There are thousands of others willing to take his place for minimum wage, and with this new program, they'll all be just as good. When replacement hitters drill more towering home runs and replacement pitchers throw 10, 15 miles an hour faster, that's a game that fans want to see--power on power.

Despite their tooth-and-nail fight against drug testing, you can guess who's going to fight against this kind of fan-friendly program to increase baseball's appeal: the union. They'll come up with a new song-and-dance about how harmful these drugs are, pulling out studies they ignored for years when their concern was "privacy." It's going to be a shameful about-face that will force a long-standing issue: The players should dissolve the union. First and foremost, it's more money in their pockets if they negotiate independently. But more importantly, unions don't have a place in today's go-go modern global economy anyway. Sure, maybe there was a place in the game for a union once, but how does the MLBPA enhance today's game? All they contribute is labor actions that stop the game. And if we're going to build the game, the one thing everyone will want to avoid is a strike. Players are reasonable individually, and if one or two players hold out, the season can still go on!

Plus, players understand that if they're all supplemented, then they're all equal--an important reason many consented to the current drug policies, which will never achieve their stated aims. When everyone's improving their play by being on performance-enhancing supplements in a carefully supervised and monitored environment, not only will they get better, but in fact they'll be safer.

Done under qualified medical supervision, not only will the drugs themselves be pure and the dosages correct, but by knowing each player's drug schedule, medical care can be closely monitored to limit the risk that a player would experience negative side effects. Right now, training is a nightmare for teams: Do you force everyone to super-hydrate because some guys are on creatine? Look out for clotting issues because someone might be using EPO? If everyone's on it, you super-hydrate everyone, and can even get them anti-clotting drugs. It'll not only be safe and effective when everyone does it, but everyone can experience the benefits.

Baseball is in the business of entertaining fans. This solution is a win for everyone: The game attracts more fans, revenue increases, and everyone makes more money.

And while we're on that topic, as long as baseball is indulging the whim of the fans, let's talk about Pete Rose's reinstatement.

The biggest problem Rose has faced in the public view is that he hasn't been repentant. He hasn't apologized for what he did to the game, or sought help for his self-destructive behavior. I think baseball has a responsibility to care for all its players, though, and it has failed to reach out and help Rose. Bart Giamatti kicked Rose to the ground, and no one has ever offered him a hand to get back up. It's long overdue. Baseball should offer to take Rose off the permanent ineligible list if he can get help, and if he can work to repay his debt to baseball.

The greatest challenge baseball faces is that it is, at best, the nation's second-favorite sport. Football has trounced it, by being smarter for longer, as baseball sat by and did nothing. Baseball can look to football for lessons on how it can regain its position as the true national pastime.

A great unspoken factor in football's popularity over the years has been that it's easy and fun for people to bet on. Football has open injury information, with categories like "questionable" and "probable" for the bettor's convenience. They even wink at it in broadcasts when a game comes down to beating the line in an otherwise long-since-decided matchup. Therefore, I propose that Rose should lead a Blue Ribbon Panel for the Commissioner on how to make baseball more gambling-friendly.

Baseball today is not gambling-friendly. Seattle at +105? What the heck? And the fraudulent DL transactions and bad injury information? It's all part of why pro baseball is a distant fourth in the world of sports books. Mandatory supplement programs should help scoring, to the point where it makes sense to take the Yankees over the Devil Rays, and give up a couple of runs on the spread. Rose will no doubt implement many other gambler-friendly changes to spice things up for the casual viewer.

And let's be honest: Who in the world is better suited (bettor suited! Ha!) to advise baseball on how it can court this lucrative market of sports nuts while shielding its integrity than Pete Rose? He's seen first-hand the damage gambling can do to a man's career, and lived through it. He knows baseball, but he also has a deep knowledge of the world of sports betting and has good connections in the world of casinos that baseball will need to cultivate. He is uniquely qualified to manage the precarious balance between cozying up to sports betting interests while protecting the game. He could suggest what checks and precautions would have kept him from betting on his team while he managed them, for instance. Managing this kind of forward-thinking panel could result in real changes that can help baseball regain its position as the premier sport in America, even the world.

Baseball cannot continue to stagnate. Forward-thinking plans like mandatory league-wide off-season training with the best supplements, and turning the shame of Pete Rose into a positive outcome for both Rose and the league are the kinds of ideas that can ensure baseball's health for decades to come.

Related Content:  Baseball,  The Who,  Baseball America

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