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November 17, 2003

Breaking Balls

Cooler Heads

by Derek Zumsteg

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Steroids seem like a meatball for me to rant about one way or another. I'm chilling, though. For all of the hype about what a big deal this is, how tainted the game is, how Canseco and Caminiti were right...they weren't. Not even close. The predictions of baseball's critics have failed to come true: the number of positive tests includes some minor leaguers (who have long been tested for drugs), and it's not 50% or 75%--it's one-tenth that. It's a guy per team. Well, probably not--it's likely that like the drug-haven clubhouses of the past, there are going to be organizations who are much deeper in this, and others that will turn out almost entirely clean.

One player a team. As people talk about what a rampant scandal this is, how terribly damaged baseball is, remember that a 5% rate means about one player a team. If everyone could try and be reasonable about this, the debate would be a lot more productive (though of course the column inches wouldn't fill up as fast).

Speculation, of course, is that if the positive results were x, then the real numbers are x times y, producing result z that someone wants to highlight to show how bad the problem is. For instance, I believe that given the random sampling and small number of tests per athlete, for every positive result, there are 25 more players that use steroids at some point in a year but go uncaught. So let me do the math: Over 100% of baseball players are on the juice! Players who are retired...dead players! Dead players are using steroids!

There's a lot lost in the hype: because supplement restriction is pretty much unregulated (oh, don't give me that look--actual dosages vary hugely from the labels, you can make any claim as long as you don't claim you're treating a specific condition, it's insane), even heavy, year-round drug-testing sports organizations like the Olympics see a lot of accidental positives, where players try Energon9000 ("Megatron's choice") for post-work out recovery, having read the label carefully, and then a month later they're testing positive for traces of nandrolone or something crazy.

The real impact of this is that the results put everyone under suspicion of being one of the positives. The game isn't tarred as much as it was last year, when many believed that steroid abuse was so rampant that almost everyone was using them, but now we get a game of tag-and-follow.

Players who've been publicly named as likely candidates for taking steroids--Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa have taken a lot of abuse in particular--are now closely watched for signs that they've stopped doing the bulking up they allegedly did. And as fans we're treated to new innuendo like: "Did you notice that several players who'd added a lot of muscle in previous years were remarkably slimmer in this first year of drug testing?"

I've said this before, but if a writer has something they want to say, they should say it. Instead of this wink-and-nudge journalism, why not come out and say: "I think Bonds was juicing and now he stopped?"

Besides the obvious liability and responsibility issues, that is. If a writer can't back something like that up, or doesn't have the stones to print a name and start a serious debate, why should anyone care what they have to say on the subject? Rick Reilly's obsession with Sammy Sosa's grown tiresome and a little uncomfortable, but at least he's come out and said "I believe this is true" and let people jeer him.

All sports have steroid problems. I applaud baseball and the MLBPA for their restraint. Some have said that baseball's approach is toothless, but it's been intelligent and restrained. Instead of giving in to pressure and hysteria, they took a year to try and determine the scope of the problem, and now are settling in to work on finding out how to drive those numbers down.

The steroids producers are 10 years, maybe more, ahead of detection technology. The debate over THG proves this. People pointed to the NFL as an example of steroid testing that worked, backed by a strong disciplinary policy. But on Sunday CBS reported four Oakland Raiders tested positive for THG and face suspension. Given a sample of THG, it took the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency a year to figure out what it was. There's a quickly widening scandal surrounding it, but no one who's followed this story believes that THG was the only undetectable steroid analogue available to professional athletes, or that there aren't others out there now.

Knowing this, what can baseball do? The harshest possible policy would be frequent year-round testing for a much wider range of drugs, including stimulants. Even that means that to be effective, MLB will have to invest millions of dollars to bring their infrastructure to the level of (say) the Olympics, and compete in the hide-and-seek race with smart, well-funded people, in a battle where the advantage will always lie with the inventors. Instead, perhaps baseball's easy hand so far on punishment means they're looking to take a more balanced long-term approach that will press education and prevention early, down the prep levels, and try to minimize the need to pour money into trying to figure out what steroid precursor someone else might have dreamed up that week.

Ultimately, those who would offer simple solutions to such a complicated problem or seek to stoke fires for their own agendas are no more responsible with the future of the sport than those who look to these drugs as a way to gain an edge on their competitors.

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