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December 6, 2004

6-4-3

Redecorating Your Glass House

by Gary Huckabay

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Over the last few days, the shrapnel from the BALCO explosion has started to find some flesh. In a staggeringly stupid move, someone--I'm presuming from the federal government--leaked grand jury testimony about specific MLB players and the drugs they received from people like Greg Anderson, Victor Conte, Charlie Callas, or anyone else working out of a strip mall or light industrial office in Burlingame, Calif.

Anyone with access to a keyboard, microphone or telephone has weighed in on this. Local and national talk show hosts are more than happy to point out any number of things that may or may not be true, may or may not be relevant, but sure as hell serve to put the speaker in a position of perceived moral superiority, whether or not said position was earned.

There's enough decrepitude and childishness on this issue to go around, but let's start at the beginning, before the rules, before the ridiculous cries of "Who will save the children?"--a laughable cry from media outlets who sell half their ad inventory to beer companies looking to attract new, young customers under the age of majority. At the beginning is one simple question: Do steroids, human growth hormone and other "performance enhancing" drugs really enhance baseball performance? I assume that they do, but if asked for evidence, I couldn't supply any. There is significant evidence that anabolic steroids, used in a particular fashion, cause a number of deleterious physiological effects, but I've not seen any hard evidence that any of the drugs in question really do improve baseball performance. And if they do, do they help more than the amphetamines that ballplayers have been using for more than 30 years? I'm not a physiology guy, but I'm guessing a little meth would help a hitter more than the marginal muscle mass gain of say, Dianabol.

But let's assume there is a gain in performance due to "the cream," "the clear," HGH, THG, or other various and sundry chemicals. Do you really think this is something new, and falls disproportionately on the shoulders of Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds?

The idea that performance-enhancing drugs are something new in baseball is mammothly Pollyanna. Americans on the whole tend to mythologize the past. The '50s weren't like "Leave it to Beaver," as much as a sizable chunk of the citizenry would like to believe that they were. Similarly, baseball has had players looking for a chemical edge as long as there have been games to win or lose or, more to the point, money to be made. West Coast Turnarounds, greenies, and all sorts of other chemicals have been used by ballplayers since before I was born. This isn't anything particularly novel.

I'm not going to defend anyone who's chosen to take performance enhancing drugs to excel on the field. The drugs may or may not have specifically been against MLB's rules, but I don't think anyone can make a case based on ignorance; if you're trying to hide an activity, you've probably got a good idea that people wouldn't approve if they knew you were doing it. But I don't think this is a cut-and-dried issue of a few athletes using illicit substances. Instead, I believe the bigger concern here is one of hypocrisy, the symbolic trumping the substantive, and misplaced moralism.

The headlines are about Bonds and Giambi, but I'm struck by two other things that strike me as much more important and headline-worthy:

  • A member of federal law enforcement appears to have broken federal law by leaking grand jury testimony. And to what end? To create a PR event, and magically summon athletes' attorneys to ESPNews? On the scale of despicable crimes, I find that considerably worse than an athlete taking drugs, and hence risking their own health, to perhaps hit a little better.

  • We have federal agents hanging out in Burlingame trying to track down people like Bill Romanowski and other athletes for acquiring or using drugs that really only represent a threat to themselves? Are you f***ing kidding me? Did we catch Osama Bin Laden over the weekend? Have these agents already finished working with the chemical and energy industries to harden soft terrorist targets like refineries and chemical plants? My tax dollars are being spent to go after people like Victor Conte, rather than building new schools or paying down the debt? Again, I'm forced to ask, are you f%^&ing kidding me?

This whole phenomenon has become a Rorschach test for everyone concerned. If you didn't like someone before, you'll use this as further evidence to support your position as logical and righteous. If you're a selective enforcer of morals, like most of us, you can scream from the rooftops that athletes are setting a bad example for our kids by using these drugs, which of course have been available and prevalent in high school at least since I graduated back in '83, before the press covered anyone in MLB using them. If you're one of the sepia-toned fans, you can cling to your illusions that today's players aren't as talented/tough/dedicated as players were in the past.

There's a lot of ugliness in our collective hearts and minds that gets reinforced and hardened by this, and the boys at ESPN have continued to move away from actual sport and towards melodrama in their coverage of it. Reality check: This is a story about a few athletes who may or may not have used drugs to improve their performance, at the risk of their own health. The drugs may or may not have been effective, but what's certain is that your tax dollars have been chasing a guy who gave a ballplayer a cream that may have resulted in a few extra hits, instead of enforcing other federal laws that actually make a positive difference in our lives.

Maybe the agents on this case could have been taking courses in Arabic, or learning about forensic accounting and how to detect white-collar crime, or putting together a program to increase security at ports. Instead, they've given us an Ionesco-esque set of press conferences and news stories as the lead-in to "3," next weekend on ESPN.

Gary Huckabay is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Gary's other articles. You can contact Gary by clicking here

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