Baseball “on the Juice”
To the Editor:
I would like to add two points to Abraham Socher’s illuminating and entertaining account of the damage that has been done to baseball by the use of performance-enhancing drugs [“No Game for Old Men,” March].
In my 2004 book The Meaning of Sports, I suggest that team sports have become one of the most popular forms of mass entertainment worldwide because unlike, say, stage dramas and films, they have the quality of authenticity. While Arnold Schwarzenegger did not actually perform the feats depicted onscreen in the Terminator movies, Barry Bonds really did hit 73 home runs in the 2001 baseball season. The achievements of sportsmen on the field are a respite from the hype and spin that abound in the modern world. But performance-enhancing drugs make those achievements less authentic.
Second, the appeal of baseball depends to a large extent on the records and statistics of individual players. To a degree greater than with any other sport, baseball is the work, and the responsibility, of the individuals on the team rather than of the team working in concert. Baseball has also changed less than other sports over the past century; the game played by Barry Bonds is essentially the same game that was played by Babe Ruth, and the feats of the two men can thus be fairly compared. But as far as we know, Ruth did not use steroids to hit his home runs; if Bonds did, the continuity is broken, and comparisons between the two become less meaningful.
Johns Hopkins University
To the Editor:
Abraham Socher writes: “[I]t is important to us that great athletes push the limits of human achievement. But it has to be human achievement.” Later in his essay, he observes that in baseball, “numbers—60, 61, .406—stand for iconic achievements and serve as landmarks in the history and tradition of the game. Can the tradition hold together if the numbers change with the speed of pharmaceutical advances?”
But has the tradition otherwise held together? When many of the classic records were set, the baseball life was vastly different from what it is today. Players were gifted athletes, not especially well paid, who spent much of their time traveling on rickety buses to road games and who often had to carry second jobs in the off-season. They knew nothing of the rich salaries, private gyms, personal trainers, nutritionists, and chefs that today’s ultra-professional, highly specialized players enjoy. They had no thick scouting reports of the opposition to read or video breakdowns to watch.
Such accoutrements are generally seen as unobjectionable, as facts of the modern game. Notwithstanding our natural discomfort with performance-enhancing drugs, they may become so ubiquitous that they, too, will be regarded as normal, and traditionalists will have to make their peace with them. After all, as Mr. Socher acknowledges, they do not fundamentally alter the game. No one but Barry Bonds could have done what he did with the aid of human-growth hormone (HGH). Nor does HGH transform an athlete’s body just like that. The human work of lifting weights day after day still has to be done; only the muscles’ recovery from workouts is made easier.
In short, steroids may come to be thought of as a legitimate aid—a kind of athletic version of the amphetamines that so many people use to help them succeed in our post-industrial society.
Abraham Socher writes:
I thank Michael Mandelbaum for his thoughtful note, and for pointing me to his book, which I had missed. We are, I think, in complete agreement. If, as now seems plain, Barry Bonds’s record 73 home runs were fueled by steroids, then his accomplishment is closer to the spectacle of entertainment than to the accomplishment of sport, and baseball itself is diminished.
Mr. Mandelbaum makes his second point with fine professorial understatement when he writes that “as far as we know, Ruth did not use steroids to hit his home runs; if Bonds did, . . . comparisons between the two become less meaningful,” and the tradition of the game is damaged. Anachronism aside, we should note that Ruth seems to have taken advantage of almost every substance and pleasure available to him—but never to athletic advantage. (The press euphemistically described his physical breakdown in 1925 as being a result of eating “too many hot dogs.”)
Augie Auerbach is right to remark that the use of steroids and human growth hormone in baseball is an unsurprising development given the professionalization of the game and wider societal and pharmacological trends. (Small disasters of morals are always historically explainable but rarely inevitable.) But he would have us “make our peace” too easily and too soon.
Life and professional athletics have changed in innumerable ways; in particular, trainers, nutritionists, and the like have changed the way athletes condition themselves. Granted. But does Mr. Auerbach really see no difference between the regimen that Roger Clemens claims to have followed over the last decade—carefully calibrated exercise, clean living, and plenty of Wheaties —and the repeated injection of steroids into his buttocks, as described by his trainer Brian McNamee? As I argued in my essay, the former way bears an internal relationship to the athletic virtues of strength, speed, and coordination. Performing-enhancing drugs are literally, even sickeningly, external.
The players themselves understand this. That is why they lie. Baseball fans were recently reminded of the natural arc of even the greatest players’ careers when Frank Thomas was let go by the Toronto Blue Jays. There was a time when Thomas was an even better hitter than Bonds, but injuries and age slowed him. For the last several years he has been a valuable player, but only intermittently the “Big Hurt” of the early- to mid-1990’s. The Oakland A’s picked him up nonetheless, and just the other day Thomas made news by running out his first triple in years. The video highlights of the 6-foot, 5-inch, 40-year-old Thomas chugging into third base show a great athlete struggling against the limits of age.
Incidentally, Thomas was the only Major League Baseball player who spoke with Senator George Mitchell and his team when they were preparing their report on steroids. I look forward to his acceptance speech at the Baseball Hall of Fame in a few years. My guess is that he will not agree with Mr. Auerbach.