A while back I received issue #8 of Andrew Hooper’s excellent fanzine FLAG, in which he opined about the issue of performance-enhancing drugs in sports, specifically in Baseball. Being something of a baseball fan I took interest in what Andy has to say on the topic: I don’t always agree with Andy, but his writing always captures my full attention, and inspires no small amount of admiration for his work.
What got me started down this path was thinking about local baseball player Ryan Braun, who spent a fair amount of time over the last few years dodging charges that he was using banned performance enhancing drugs to boost his physical capacity during the long, 162-game Major League Baseball season. That he used banned substances is no longer in question: the question still in my mind is, why do PEDs attract so much attention? At the very least the coverage brought to this issue is one-sided: at worst, it is dreadful hypocrisy. Braun has richly earned the contempt heaped upon him these days, not so much for breaking the rules but the underhanded way he (and his legal team) did their best to destroy the career of a man charged with analyzing Braun’s blood sample. It’s not that he did use banned substances, in my opinion, it’s that he lied about it and took others down with him instead of owning up to the mistake.
Cheating is part of baseball; it is an institutionalized cat and mouse game between opposing teams, who hope to get away with things when the umpires aren’t watching. How many players would argue a call that was decided in their favor? Not one. They shut up and take the gift for what it is, rather than fess up that they were out, or missed the tag. That’s cheating, but we ignore that miraculously, perhaps because it is passive acceptance of the umpire’s authority. To actively seek out an edge on one’s own is forbidden, in all likelihood not for any danger to the player — there are far too many cases of management allowing players to continue to play under hazardous conditions for that argument to hold any water — but rather because Baseball has no control over that kind of activity, and baseball is nothing if not a giant merry-go-round full of control freaks.
Case in point: Gaylord Perry, a Hall of Fame pitcher for a variety of professional baseball teams has been acknowledged – by everyone but the man himself — as a practitioner of an illegal pitch called the spitball. Spit has been replaced for a number of decades by any number of slippery substances — creams, gels, and lotions — all available over-the-counter from any drugstore in the United States, and many viscous enough to be smeared somewhere in the body and stay there for several hours. In essence, the substance on the ball causes differing levels of air resistance on different sides, causing the ball to act in an atypical and unpredictable manner. It may also slip out of the pitcher’s hands a little when thrown, removing much of the natural spin a thrown ball tends to have, again causing erratic motion. It gives the pitcher a slight edge over a batter. Mr. Perry has been given a pass on his activity, mostly because nothing was ever proven. However, the acknowledgement with a wink and a nod of his flaunting the regulations of the sport are in sharp contrast with the zero-tolerance policies of performance-enhancing drugs. Gaylord Perry is in the Baseball Hall of Fame, largely because of his longevity in the sport.
Another example: in 1996, young fan Jeffrey Maier reached over the outfield fence in Yankee Stadium in New York and caught a ball in play. The ball was ruled a home run despite the fact that it was clearly a textbook case of fan interference, which would have nullified the play. Video replay leaves no room for doubt as to what happened. The call on the field was left to stand, and the Yankees won the game. Mr. Maier was heralded as a hero in New York, and was feted by the Yankees, celebrating his efforts on their behalf.
How can anyone look at cheating in the same light after such blatantly two-faced responses?
Further, baseball suffered from crippling strikes in 1981, 1985, and 1990, the last of which resulted in the owners locking out striking players and hiring replacements to field new teams, flying in the face of their own legal contracts, not to mention jousting with several aspects of employment law. Fans had deserted the sport in droves after that, crying how the purity of the game had been sullied. That ridiculous hyperbole aside, love of baseball was rekindled in many formerly passionate fans in 1998 when two sluggers held a wild race for the home-run hitting championship that year. Baseball has done its level best to forget about Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa since then, despite the fact that they may well have saved the institution of baseball from a slow, lingering death, or at least years of mediocrity and irrelevance.
The clincher of this home run contest, in which mark McGwire shattered the previous record of 61 home runs in a season by hitting 70, and Sosa, close on his heels, had 66, is that both were allegedly using performance-enhancing drugs — steriods of some sort — during the season. A case can be made that the baseball authorities knew — or at least had a strong suspicion — about the drug use of these two players in particular, but did nothing because the turnstiles were spinning like a roulette wheel. McGwire’s previous high total for Home runs was 58 in 1997; Sosa had never hit more than 40 in a season before. We may never know for certain how much Baseball officials knew, and when, but the fact remains that the performances of these two players, and the mammoth home runs they hit, put paying butts in the seats of any ballpark they visited.
Here’s how I see it: professional athletes are paid millions of dollars to win. Not to compete — to WIN. There’s a big difference there, and a hell of a lot of pressure. With millions of dollars in salary on the line, I’m pretty sure I would be using PEDs if I were in the position of a Ryan Braun or a Sammy Sosa. Those who argue for the purity of the game – especially sportswriters — need to get a grip on their fantasies. Baseball — as with all professional sports — is first and foremost a business. Players are paid the kind of money they are because the owners will pay it, and frankly, those high-priced ballplayers so many fans complain about are the reason we go to games — to watch them play a child’s game with poetry and abandon, allowing us to abandon our own concerns for a time. Rather than banning such substances, we should be spending time making sure they are safe and as free as possible from side effects.
Hooper sums it up particularly well in FLAG #8:
“… The day is on the horizon when players will take sanctioned hormones and supplements specified by owners and their own union in collective bargaining. The campaign against steroid use is having a very measurable effect on the game – batting averages and home run rates are both going down. For now, everyone is willing to characterize the issue in moral terms, when it is really a purely medical and scientific issue – how can humans develop and perform their best, with only the most benign effects on their immediate and long-term health? How can they play contact sports without becoming crippled vegetables later in life? No finger-wagging from bilious old sportswriters should be allowed to slow that search.”
To find more of Andrew Hooper’s writing, check out website efanzines.com for more fanzinescovering a dizzying array of subjects. I highly recommend Chunga, which Hooper co-edits. There’s lots of other good stuff there by fantastic writers, so be sure to spend some time poking around.