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June 12, 2006

Prospectus Today

Witch Hunt

by Joe Sheehan

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I don't particularly want to write today's column. Unlike seemingly every other sportswriter in America, I don't enjoy the steroids-in-baseball story. I'd rather focus on the game on the field, the plays and players that drew me to the game and to this space. However, I also don't feel comfortable standing silent while the story is reduced to a simple, easily-digested storyline. This is a complex, difficult issue, with much more gray between the black and the white than is being acknowledged in the mainstream. As a writer who, like all of the breed, is cursed with a healthy ego, it does me little good to write pieces that will bring me scorn from many readers and set me far, far apart from the center of the discussion.

I've struggled to craft the many points I want to make about this matter into an article that flows; another reason I don't enjoy writing about it. There are many, many parts of this that are just wrong, but they're not wrong in any way that's connected. So I'll ask your indulgence as I use the bullet-point format to make a series of points about the current controversies, ones that I believe have to be catalogued if we're to get a complete picture of their scope. This side--the "Hey, wait a minute" side--has to at least find its way into the discussion.

  • No one cares about Jason Grimsley. Grimsley is just another guy, like Juan Rincon or Matt Lawton or Ryan Franklin. The public and the media doesn't really care what he did to get along. The fact that he's been nabbed with human growth hormone (HGH) is a new twist, of course, but that's just a detail. No one cares that Jason Grimsley might have given himself an edge on Kevin Jarvis or Rick Huisman or Chad Paronto in job battles over the years.

    What people care about is Grimsley's apparent willingness to give up names to federal investigators. What has people excited is the presence of documents that are apparently larded with Grimsley's speculations on which of his many teammates over the years used drugs. We've seen the redacted documents, and the parlor-room speculation as to which names have been covered is one of the more embarrassing moments in the ongoing investigations.

    The rush past the guilty party to guess at the names of more famous guilty parties confirms what I've argued since the beginning: this is about stars. The truth, what we've learned from two-plus years of steroid suspensions, is that the people using performance-enhancing drugs aren't doing so to break cherished records, and they're certainly not, in toto, responsible for any league-wide offensive trends. That's not sexy, but it's truth. So when a Jason Grimsley is caught, well, that's not going to sell papers, but the spaces between the tops of letters…man, that could be a Hall of Famer!

    This story isn't about baseball or cheating or drugs. It's about the media's and the public's lust for blood.

  • Speaking of blood…the connection between an MLB player and HGH has renewed a call for blood testing of MLB players, even though no test for HGH currently exists. I have no idea what percentage of players use HGH, and I don't think anyone can hang a number on that. What I do know is that the MLBPA has taken unprecedented steps to address the perception of a problem--the perception of a problem--by twice re-opening the Collective Bargaining Agreement on this issue, and for their acquiesence, they're being told that what they've done is not enough.

    Here's the sequence: a link is created, in the media, between rampant steroid usage among players and higher offensive levels. A testing program is agreed to, and reveals that "rampant steroid usage" is, over a period if years, limited to 5-7% of players (2003 survey testing), 93 players (2004 testing) and 12 players (2005). Moreover, few stars turn up positive, with pitchers representing a significant portion of the tests. Over that period, offensive levels do not move in any predictable way.

    The response to all of this is to decide that no-cause, prove-your-innocence urine testing, invasive as it is, isn't enough. Everyone's still cheating, they're just using better stuff, so now we have to take players' blood, and even store that blood until a reliable test is available.

    What this sequence tells us is that evidence isn't going to move the story. If the conclusion reached after a small and decreasing number of largely unknown players turn out to be steroid users is that we just need better methods of catching the cheaters, what exactly can the players do? I think the insistence on blood testing, and the assumption of widespread cheating behind it, tells us more about those who would advance that argument than about the PED problem in baseball.

  • It's hard to separate this issue from larger trends in American society. Whether baseball players should have to sacrifice individual privacy rights in the interest of some perceived greater good is a microcosm of the battle between individual rights and the national interest that plays out on a daily basis in the halls of government.

    Currently, I think the mood around baseball mirrors the mood around the nation. Without turning this into a political column, I think it's fair to say that the general public is less concerned with the rights of individuals than they are with the overall welfare of the many, and is more willing than at any time in our nation's history to trade the former off to protect the latter. The baseball issue is much the same, where the notion of privacy rights has been dismissed as an irrelevancy when contrasted with the desire to eradicate PEDs.

    Is there a point at which this would change? Random urine testing doesn't appear to have sated those who would find needles around every corner, but it also didn't bring out much of a response from privacy advocates. Would a push for blood testing, and for long-term storage of samples, finally cause a stir, or have we simply decided that baseball players have no rights at all to their bodily fluids?

  • Trust is a major issue here. Someday very soon, a list is going to be released, and that list will likely have more famous names on it than any we've seen to date. That list is the list of players who tested positive in 2003. You may recall that those tests were to have been anonymous, but a tracking method was apparently put in place by MLB, and a list of players who tested positive exists.

    Once that list comes out--and it's only a matter of time now that the federal prosecutors chasing violators seem to have been loosed from all sense of decency in their pursuit--the already-tenuous peace between the MLBPA and the game's management is going to be broken. Not only will there be a media circus that dwarfs what we've seen to date, because there will be players the average fan has heard of involved rather than Alex Sanchez, but the damage will spill over into the next CBA negotiations. We've already seen MLB's management lie about their finances, the future of the game, violating antitrust laws (collusion) and, now, the anonymity of drug testing. How would you like to sit across the table from that and work out the division of billions?

  • When the argument for elaborate testing comes around to the record book, I'm not moved. There's a notion that people like me, guys who get deep into the stats, should somehow be offended by what the poster children for steroid usage--whether they've tested positive or not--have done to the game's stats.

    I think it's a weak argument. Statistics are a record of what happened, and they're neither moral nor immoral. They're just numbers. What those numbers mean is a matter for history to decide, and it will be years before we know just what to think of 70 and 73 and whatever Bonds' final career home-run total ends up being. All baseball statistics, all records, are a function of player ability and the context in which they played.

    If anything, I think the stat guys have the best grip on the situation. We know that offensive levels go up and down, even for decades at a time. We know that player performance is hard to predict, and that players see massive spikes in certain categories at times. Bonds' 73 homers in 2001--a feat that spurred much of what has come since--was a fluke the same way that Dave Johnson's 43 or Brady Anderson's 50 were.

    It's the stat guys who have the ability to look at everyone, not just the superstars who have been indicted by the media, to try and determine the true impact of PEDs. The Baseball Between the Numbers chapter remains the best performance analysis on the subject, and it's one I strongly recommend to anyone who wants to see what a careful analysis looks like.

  • Related to the "sanctity of the record book" shlock is the idea that players today are bad people for doing things that their predecessors never would have done. This is an utterly ridiculous point, crafted from the same stuff that credits pre-1974 players with being loyal in an environment that gave them no opportunity to be otherwise. We have no idea if Tris Speaker or Joe Gordon or Yogi Berra would have used steroids had they been available, and we damn sure don't know if their less-famous colleagues would have done so.

    What we do know is that baseball has a long and celebrated history of cheating, from John McGraw through Whitey Ford. What we do know is that for many years, players used amphetamines like I use the [Delete] key. What we do know is that some of the game's best players have been highly competitive to the point of pathological.

    There's no doubt in my mind that some percentage of players would have used PEDs in the 1920s, 1940s or 1960s had they been available, just as some percentage of players would have voluntarily switched teams if the rules had permitted them to do so. Pretending they wouldn't have done so is silly, and garnering quotes from old men in support of the idea is worthless.

  • I've about had it with the grandstanding of politicians on this issue. There's minimal public interest involved here, certainly as compared to scores of other matters that don't result in having your name mentioned repeatedly on the never-ending "Sportscenter."

    But that's the attraction. PED use in baseball is a high-profile issue with absolutely no political downside. Threatening to infringe on the rights of a small group of well-paid professionals who have no ability to endanger your seat, and getting to do so on camera? If you throw in an envelope filled with Benjamins, you pretty much have the House of Representatives equivalent of hitting for the cycle. Politicians aren't involved because their constituencies want them spending time on this; they're involved because it's really, really easy and it makes them look like they're standing up to bad people.

    Congress' involvement is worse than worthless. It's actively prevented the development of a dialogue on the issue, instead reducing a complicated matter to just another point on which to grandstand about "protecting the children." I could care less that John McCain is making noises again or that some anonymous junior committee member is threatening to bring everyone back for more hearings. Congress has no credibility here. They're just being bullies, and everyone would be better off if they spent their time on things that actually impact the citizenry. Or did I miss their solution to the demographic shifts that are going to wreak havoc with our economy over the next 50 years?

  • Then again, it's not like having a former Congressman involved is any better. George Mitchell is out chasing leads, one of which led to Bonds' ex-girlfriend Kimberly Bell, a significant source for the Game of Shadows book that seems to be guiding Mitchell's Simpsonesque search.

    Now, my question is this: is Mitchell going to sit down with every woman that a ballplayer slept with and then dumped since 1995 or so, or is he only going to talk to the ones who sourced a book? Because if it's just the latter, I think we're comfortably back to the idea that the Mitchell Commission is less about seeking the truth and more about a witch hunt.

    Mitchell really should think about chasing down every ex-mistress out there, because there are few sources more reliable than a scorned lover.

On its face, the goal of making sure MLB players do not use performance-enhancing drugs is a good one. No one likes the idea that a willingness to violate federal drug laws and risk long-term health problems would be a competitive advantage in the race for jobs, success, fame and money. A fairly negotiated policy that balances privacy, education, deterrence and punishment could be a win for everyone involved.

That's not where we are right now, though. Where we are is in the middle of a maelstrom of accusations, mistrust, grandstanding and denial. Whatever actual problem exists has taken a backseat to the perception that a dozen years of baseball can be labeled "The Steroid Era," a neat phrase that ignores almost everything we know about how the game was played in those years. Issues that should be debated across hours and days, in hushed tones and with plenty of time for reflection are instead hammered out in seconds and minutes, with time taken only for station breaks and bottom-of-the-hour score updates.

But the evidence that we have--the positive test results over the past four years--indicate that the problem of PEDs in baseball has been blown well out of proportion. Moreover, the level of outrage in the media's coverage of the issue has been out of step with the trends in attendance, ratings and general interest in baseball. The game didn't suffer over the past dozen years; it grew by virtually every measure, and continues to grow today.

More than anything else, we need actual evidence to contribute to these discussions. The test results are real evidence. The player pool testing positive is evidence. Patterns of performance before and after positive tests are evidence. Research done by qualified scientists, physiologists and performance analysts is evidence.

The more actual evidence we demand of people in these discussions, the better the conversations become. Then, and only then, will we be able to reach trustworthy conclusions and move out of the Witch Hunt Era and back to baseball.

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

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