Commentary Magazine

'Roid Rage

To the Editor:           

Steven Goldman is right that for most baseball players, steroids provide very little by way of performance enhancement [“The Steroids Morality Play,” July-August]. But for those elite few with the eye-hand coordination and bat speed and talent to play in the Major Leagues, it is clearly a significant advantage. Back in the 1980’s, Jose Canseco was said to be the first player to become great through steroids. After a storied rookie year, his teammate Mark McGwire dropped off in home-run production only to pick up again in proportion to the growth of his physique to cartoonish dimensions. At his most hulkish, he shattered Roger Maris’s single-season record with an astonishing 70 home runs.

As McGwire chased Maris’s record with Sammy Sosa (also widely thought to have been on the “juice), Barry Bonds seethed. The best natural hitter of his generation, he had never managed more than a distinguished 46 home runs in a single season. He, too, embarked on a self-improvement regimen, and developed muscles that would have been the envy Conan the Barbarian.

Before Bonds, there is no example of a premier slugger hitting more homers after the age of 35 than before—an achievement that includes his record-breaking 73-home-run season. Bonds’s five best years began at age 36—from exactly the time he was alleged to have begun taking steroids. As Arthur Conan Doyle noted, “a fish in milk is evidence.”

Mr. Goldman notes much of this this, but, curiously, pulls back from the inevitable conclusion. He stipulates that strength is significant when it comes to hitting a baseball. But, he adds, strength is not enough; you must be able to hit the ball correctly. Well, of course that’s true. But all professional baseball players have crossed the second barrier. When you have a pool of great athletes with year-round training schedules, first-rate equipment, and top-shelf coaching, you have demarcated the milieu in which steroids are most effective.

To justify his sanguinity about steroids and the modern player, Mr. Goldman refers to advantages that players of earlier eras enjoyed, like playing in a segregated league that kept out talented black athletes. In this context, he cites Babe Ruth, suggesting that he would not have been as great had baseball been integrated in his time. In fact, Ruth did compete against great Negro League ballplayers in off-season barnstorming exhibition games. Bragging rights were at stake, and there is no doubt that the black pitchers bore down on the legendary Babe. But he proved unstoppable. In nearly 60 documented at bats, his batting average hovered over .400, with a slugging percentage over 1.000. Judy Johnson, the black Hall of Famer who played in a number of these games, said: “We could never seem to get him out, no matter what he did.”

Floral Park, New York


Steven Goldman writes:

Phil Guarnieri rehearses the narrative about Barry Bonds whereby a kind of megalomania inspired him to pursue the chemical-lined path to glory of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Bonds did indeed have a highly unusual career path. But he is also a great outlier, and it is impossible to draw from his case a generalization about the effects of steroids on most ballplayers.

As time has passed and more players have been cited for usage, a group of over 150 minor-leaguers has isolated itself for examination. By and large, the picture they provide is unimpressive. These are, on the whole, fringe players looking to gain an edge on a major-league career and largely failing to do so.

Significantly, the list contains just as many pitchers as hitters: if Bonds and company were super-charged, so was their opposition (although the primary benefit to pitchers may be in endurance and recovery time rather than enhanced velocity on throws.) As Nate Silver writes in Baseball Between the Numbers, “There may be a few players for whom steroids represent a ‘tipping point,’ allowing a relatively minor gain in muscle strength, bat speed, or recovery time to translate into a dramatically improved performance,” but on the whole the effects of chemical enhancement are small. In short, taking Bonds and a few other players in isolation may implicate those players specifically, but does not validate sweeping inferences about the effects of performance-enhancing drugs on the game.

As for Mr. Guarnieri’s argument about Babe Ruth and the quality of the game in the Jim Crow era, I remain unimpressed. Sixty at-bats (about 12 games’ worth) in exhibitions conducted under unknown conditions represent no more than a point of trivia. In citing Ruth, who needs no defending, it was scarcely my intention to diminish his greatness but simply to note that the playing field in his era was not perfectly, ideally level. (The competition was often structurally second rate, and hurlers lacked weapons like the slider or backup in the form of the relief pitcher, to repeat three factors that likely worked to his advantage.) Ruth towered over the game, but unless we acknowledge the nature of that game, we fail to understand the precise dimensions of his achievement.
As with Bonds, even if Ruth’s small-sample success in exhibitions against Negro Leaguers was indicative of how he would have fared in an integrated league (the rosters in these games were not integrated, so neither team was truly meritocratic), that performance cannot be extrapolated to cover an entire league that was often not staunch enough to hire the best white talent, let alone enlightened enough to recruit the best players of all races.

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