Commentary Magazine

The Steroids Morality Play

On May 7, Los Angeles Dodgers slugger Manny Ramirez was suspended for 50 games for using a banned substance linked to illegal drugs. Long considered one of the greatest right-handed batters in baseball, Ramirez was the first major star to be caught since Major League Baseball’s more stringent policies were imposed earlier in the decade. This was yet another blow to a sport that was still reeling from revelations earlier in the year about Alex Rodriguez, the perennial All-Star third-baseman of the New York Yankees. When Rodriguez admitted that he had used so-called performance-enhancing drugs, following the revelation that he had failed a 2003 test, it was one more opportunity to bemoan baseball’s loss of innocence.

The opprobrium to which those who have been implicated in this scandal have been subjected is entirely deserved. However, there is a difference between a player’s intent to cheat and the success of his methods in pursuit of that goal. Baseball players who utilized artificial substances in an effort to improve their results on the field certainly intended to break the game’s rules and obtain an advantage beyond that which biology had granted them. But they almost certainly did not succeed to any great extent. These artificial substances have indeed become known as “performance-enhancing drugs,” or “PEDs,” but this is a misnomer. As applied to baseball, they seem at best to be VMPEDs, or “Very Mildly Performance-Enhancing Drugs,” and therein lies the complexity of interpreting baseball’s steroids era: the dishonesty of the players, their sin of omission, was almost certainly greater than the sin of taking the drugs themselves.

Before we consider the impact of Very Mildly Performance-Enhancing Drugs on the record book, as far as can be gleaned from the evidence, we should admit that baseball’s record book has always been, if not fiction, historical fiction. It is based on real events, but its authenticity is purely aspirational.

A good deal of baseball’s appeal is tied into its record book. As the baseball-statistics guru Bill James, whose work helped revolutionize the study of the sport’s numbers through the discipline known as “sabermetrics,” wrote in 1985,

Baseball statistics, quite unlike the statistics pertaining to anything else, can narrate stories of promise and frustration, of opportunities taken and opportunities missed, can tell of speed and grace, of wasted talent and determination overcoming misfortune .  .  . Baseball statistics, then, form a kind of primordial literature that is enacted in front of us each day. When supplemented by human details .  .  . this literature acquires a measure of the depth and texture of Dostoyevsky or Updike.

James was right that baseball statistics can paint pictures, but painted pictures, like the works of Dostoyevsky and Updike, are representations of reality, not the thing itself. Consider the single-season home run record set by Babe Ruth in 1927. Ruth hit 60 home runs in 150 games played out of a 154-game season. It was not until 1998 that anyone exceeded Ruth’s total in 150 games (Roger Maris, who hit 61 home runs in 1961, had hit 57 home runs through his 150th game in a 162-game season). Given that both players who passed Ruth that year, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, as well as the single-season home run record-holder Barry Bonds—who hit 73 in 2001—have had their achievements thrown open to doubt, Ruth and his record should be pure as pre-industrial-age snow. Ruth wasn’t aided in the creation of the mark by anything stronger than Prohibition-era, watered-down spirits and a diet so rich in fat and cholesterol that, were he playing today, the New York Yankees’ insurance company would require him to submit to a daily cardiac catheterization before allowing him to take the field.

And yet Ruth had help. It came not from anything he ingested, but the era in which he played. Take, for example, the game of May 10, 1927, played at St. Louis. The Browns were the second team in a two-team town, and in most seasons they didn’t bother fielding a squad of any quality. In Ruth’s American League, there were at least two such teams every season out of eight teams in all, which meant that every year, Ruth played 44 games, or nearly 30 percent of the schedule, against what were then called “humpty-dumpties.”

That day, the Browns’ pitcher was Milt Gaston, a 31-year-old journeyman who eventually lost 164 of the 261 games in which he received a decision in his 11 seasons. Because baseball largely had yet to discover the concept of the relief pitcher—completing games was then seen as a manhood issue—he rarely came out of games and finished 21 of his 30 starts that year.

Again, this was true of most pitchers: they stayed in the game whether they were pitching well or pitching badly and whether they were in pain or not, since injuries to hurlers that are now understood and treated appropriately were simply ignored in that era. In addition to being, in some cases, literally disarmed, the pitchers were also without weapons common to the modern hurler, such as the strikeout-inducing slider. Conditions also generally favored the hitter, since night baseball would not be played until the 1930s.

On May 10, Gaston pitched this entire game, surrendering eight runs to the Yankees. Ruth came to bat with two runners on in the first. Gaston tossed a curveball at him. At first, wrote Pat Robinson of the New York Telegram, when Ruth made contact, it “seemed good only for a long fly. A strong wind carried the ball back until it lazily dropped on top of the high wall in front of the right field stands and bounced in among the natives.” Note the description of Ruth’s shot (the first of four home runs Gaston would surrender to the Babe that season) and recall that the Browns played in one of the smallest parks in history, one that was spectacularly favorable to the hitter.
All of these differences between the clean game and contemporary baseball pale beside the fact that on May 10, 1927, and for a long time after, there were no blacks on the field. Until 1947, baseball was no meritocracy. The color line saw to it that there was room on big league rosters for mediocre white players, a fact of which penny-pinching teams like the Browns took full advantage, populating their clubs with minimum-wage mediocrities.

Ruth’s achievements were prodigious by any measure, but he and baseball’s other greats founded baseball’s record book in a league watered down by racism. Jackie Robinson’s arrival only began a halting process of integration that did not culminate until the 1970s, the first time that teams felt secure enough to play their best lineups rather than violate various unspoken quotas that first said that a majority of blacks could not be on the field, and then that an all-black lineup was too offensive to the sensibilities of those in attendance. Given how long this situation persisted, the vast majority of baseball’s historic records were compiled under contrived conditions.

There is even a shadow of sorts hovering above the “clean” home run king Hank Aaron, who is widely considered to have been sullied by having to share the Baseball Encyclopedia with juiced athletes. Nonsense. Amphetamines were a part of baseball clubhouse culture going back at least 60 years prior to their official banning in 2005. Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner told the Palm Beach Post in 2006 that he was first offered a Benzedrine pill by a trainer during his rookie year of 1946. They were known to be commonplace by the 1970s, when Aaron broke Ruth’s career record for home runs. Did he use? Aaron isn’t saying (there is a reference to one-time use during the 1968 season in his autobiography), but the drugs were so much a part of the culture that it would be shocking if he never partook.

From umpire intimidation and on-field thuggery in the 1890s, to penetration by gamblers in the first two decades of the 20th century, to little green pills in the locker room after World War II, to players pitching on LSD and hitting on cocaine in the 1980s, baseball has never been wholly clean. To defend the holiness of its records is a conscious act of naiveté.

Almost absent from the high moral dudgeon with which public discussion of baseball’s steroids problem is conducted is an examination of what exactly can be gained from taking these drugs. Anabolic steroids allow a user to increase the amount of testosterone in his body, which, through intensive exercise, allows the building of increased muscle mass. They can also damage the body in numerous ways, including shrinking the testicles to the point that they withdraw inside. Insofar as the positive effects, the central issue is that they allow one to become bigger, stronger, and faster.

How this trio of benefits translates to hitting a baseball (or, in the case of disgraced pitcher Roger Clemens, throwing one) is difficult to ascertain. Baseball requires of its players far more athletic sophistication than that of track, cycling, or football. In baseball, “stronger” is not an end in itself; if it were, professional weightlifters would be dropping their barbells, picking up bats, and swatting 50 home runs a year. As the statistical analyst Eric Walker has written,

It is something from difficult to impossible to make even a decent estimate of what proportion of muscle added by steroid use is upper- versus lower-body, but we do know, very definitely, from copious comments in the scientific literature that steroid use very heavily favors upper-body musculature . . . Steroids have a markedly greater effect on upper-body strength than on lower-body strength. Batting is almost exclusively powered by lower-body strength. Beefcake doesn’t drive long balls.

“Faster” is a dubious possibility given even the meager benefits that runners receive, significant in their field but hardly likely to have an impact in baseball. In Game of Shadows, their exposé of Barry Bonds, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams write about a runner named Alvin Harrison, who used a stimulant to shave his time in the 400-meter event from 45.70 seconds to 44.78. The distance between bases is 1,200 feet shorter, so the minuscule effect would likely be entirely unnoticeable. Finally, even “bigger” may actually be a drawback, as overly muscular baseball players generally become thick, immobile, and inflexible, in the field, on the bases, and at the plate.

Strength does have a significant effect on hitting a baseball. This is basic physics: the harder one hits the ball, the farther it is likely to travel. That said, the baseball must also be struck correctly, one reason why, Will Carroll, author of The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball’s Drug Problems, points out, “There is no study that says that stronger equals further.” It is also important to remember that strength gains from steroids and other drugs are incremental. These drugs are neither Peter Parker’s radioactive spider nor Popeye’s can of spinach. “If you take steroids and lay around the house,” says Carroll, “you’re not going to develop muscles.” These drugs help the muscle-bound who wish to become even more muscle-bound. While it is possible that a certain percentage of a player’s home runs might have resulted from steroid use, it is unrealistic to pin all, or even a majority of their production, on chemically powered batting.

It is difficult to explain away Barry Bonds’s 2001 season, in which he broke the single-season record. Despite failing to hit more than 49 home runs in any other season, and no more than 46 in any season that predated his alleged steroid use, Bonds smashed 73 home runs. Even more incredibly, he reached this height at the age of 36, a point at which most ballplayers are thinking more about taking up golf than achieving career bests. Bonds’s 2001 is the first refuge of the morally indignant who want to claim that baseball is a game of cheaters.

Yet changes that took place outside Bonds’s body were also significant. As Jay Jaffe has written:

The rising tide of home runs . . . is best explained by more fundamental changes in the industry. . . newer (but not all necessarily smaller) ballparks, expansion, the changing strike zone, and interleague play. On the one hand there are the well-publicized changes in bat composition; maple bats, as used by Bonds and others, are slightly more dense than the typical ash bats, but also more durable, allowing for thinner barrels and lighter, faster-swinging clubs which maintain the size of the bat’s sweet spot. On the other hand, there are the more under-the-radar changes in balls, such as Rawlings’ decision . . . switching from hand-wound balls to machine-wound ones during the 1990s, and introducing a synthetic rubber ring in the ball’s core, one not covered by MLB specifications. . . . Juiced balls, not juiced sluggers, likely represent the primary reason for those rising home run rates.

In other words, a good deal of Bonds’s production and that of other juicing outliers can be put into context and largely made to disappear with adjustments for league and park effects, not to mention harder-to-track fluctuations of the ball itself—for the last of which there is much indirect evidence, such as the offensive explosions of 1930, 1987, and 1994. Considering the statistical evidence of steroid use, Nate Silver (now better known as a political handicapper) concludes,

The average performance improvement from steroid use is detectable but small. . . .  Although the effects may be much larger in isolated instances, they are negligible in most cases and may be negative in others.  . . . 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 dramatically improved performance. . . . Anything beyond these points is speculation.

That steroids do not create home-run hitters is demonstrated by the list of hitters who have been caught. While players like Rodriguez, Ramirez, and McGwire have received the bulk of the attention, the more typical player who failed a steroids test or has been accused of juicing is outfielder Alex Sanchez, who hit six home runs in 1,527 major league at-bats, or Neifi Perez, who hit 64 home runs in 5,127 major league at-bats, or Phil Hiatt, who hit 13 home runs in 422 major league at-bats.

Testing also caught a large number of pitchers, almost all of whom were below-average players. This attests to both the marginal effects of the drugs and the kind of player who takes them. Most steroid users are not young Hall-of-Famers on the rise, but players looking for what the drugs clearly cannot provide, the kind of boost in production that would allow a borderline major leaguer to stay in the majors and thus tap into the millions of dollars that can be earned by even a mediocre performer.

It is possible that Bonds enjoyed unusually dramatic benefits from his usage, just as certain medications will affect various individuals differently in terms of side effects or even their intended effect. Will Carroll points out that baseball contains proof of this in the chemical indulgences of the brothers Giambi and the Canseco twins. In each case, the brothers pursued more or less parallel enhancements, but received nothing like identical benefits. Jason Giambi and Jose Canseco became major stars. Their brothers were also-rans. Still, there is no evidence to support ascribing Bonds’s 2001 accomplishments exclusively, or even largely, to steroid usage.

Despite the furor over steroids, a very small number of ballplayers between the majors and the minor leagues has been caught cheating. The 2003 test on which Rodriguez was hooked resulted in a positive rate between 5 percent and 7 percent. There were no penalties associated with these tests, the results of which were intended to be anonymous. In 2004, the percentage of positive tests dropped to 0.01 percent. The number was 0.01 percent again in 2005. A total of five positive tests of major leaguers were reported in 2006 and 2007 combined. There are flaws in the testing regimen, including persistent rumors that some players have been tipped to upcoming surprise visits, but it takes a leap of cynicism to read wholesale corruption into the results, and by extension, to the results and records of baseball as a whole.

What that leaves us with, then, is moral outrage at the perfidy of Rodriguez, Bonds, Ramirez, and their colleagues, their intention to gain an unfair advantage, and their concomitant dissembling. These players broke the rules of their sport and the law of the land, and for that they deserve whatever obloquy they get. However, the idea that baseball has been grossly distorted, either in their individual persons or on a broader scale, is completely without foundation.

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