I woke up this morning to the news that Jason Giambi‘s grand jury testimony had been leaked to the San Francisco Chronicle, and that in there, he’d admitted to taking steroids and human growth hormone.

I’m still fumbling a bit for a reaction. Mostly, what I feel is sad. Sad that one of the game’s best players resorted to illegal and dangerous activities to enhance his career. Sad that Giambi’s health problems in 2004 may be connected to that decision. Sad that Giambi lied repeatedly about it after providing his testimony. Sad that baseball is going to be dragged even deeper through this muck. Sad, actually, that we live in a world where grand jury testimony can end up on the front page.

Assuming for the moment that all of this is true, I would have to think that Giambi’s experience would be a greater deterrent to steroid usage than any testing program ever could be. This is a player who was a tremendous offensive force for years, who won an MVP award without doing anything illegal. Once he dabbled in performance enhancers, not only did his performance erode, then collapse, but he suffered debilitating and potentially life-threatening illnesses that may well be connected to that usage. (Will Carroll has more on this.)

Fines, suspensions, embarrassment…all of those things pale in comparison to the image of a weakened Giambi flailing away in September, being left off the playoff roster, and nervously answering questions about his body’s betrayal.

Lost in this is that Giambi’s brother, Jeremy, also admitted to using steroids. For all the media’s desperate desire to see Barry Bonds implicated, isn’t the real story here that using steroids may be unrelated to top-tier performance on the baseball field? Or at least that the net effect of baseball players using steroids is unclear?

What this story does do is make clear that the BALCO case, while largely a witch hunt, has stumbled across some nasty baseball secrets. I admit that I’d stayed away from this issue in part because I was frustrated by the lack of hard evidence. Giambi’s testimony, however ill-gotten its exposure, changes that equation. A great player has admitted guilt, and the question now turns to wondering who else will, and what that means for baseball.

I struggle with that last issue. Part of me believes that this whole thing is a simple matter of where we draw lines. Heaven knows that the laws governing which substances are legal and illegal in this country are rife with contradictions and even hypocrisy. It is possible that what we consider illegal or immoral today could, in time, be seen as a medical advance. I also believe that individuals are ultimately responsible for what they do to and with their bodies, and should be allowed to gauge risks and benefits themselves.

On the other hand, those lines do exist, and in place, they act as a deterrent to those who would prefer to remain on the right side of them. If steroids are illegal, then the illegality will cause many players to avoid them, health effects aside. A willingness to break the law shouldn’t be a competitive advantage.

A willingness to risk health isn’t as clear an issue; don’t we praise players who run into walls, who play hurt, who undergo risky experimental surgeries to mask pain and add stability so that they can take the field in a big game? The differences between a football player downing painkillers to get through Sunday, a pitcher taking a cortisone shot to get through September, and a slugger using THG to be more productive, aren’t nearly as clear as they might seem.

I come back to the relationship between steroids and performance, which in baseball appears to be unproven, and in fact, only seems weakened by Giambi’s admission. I’m unwilling to allow speculation on the size of a player’s head or the shape of his physique or the direction of his statistics to substitute for actual information. We don’t have enough of that information to say that taking steroids makes you a better baseball player, and until we do, all conclusions are suspect.

For now, I hope for three things: that Jason Giambi finds his way back to health, regardless of whether he becomes a productive hitter again; that we move past rumors and innuendo and find out, in a manner that protects the rights of everyone involved, what the impact of steroids in baseball has been; and that the issue is treated with care by the media, rather than as a chance to embarrass and inflame.

I’d be shocked if I get two out of three.

I know I promised hot stove league stuff today…we’ll get to it tomorrow.

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