Don’t Like the Drugs But the Drugs Like Me: Baseball’s Steroid-Free Field of Dreams

“Rat-finkism!” Don King’s gleefully mangled commentary on the latest blow to baseball’s image was a notable aside during his recent appearance on Jim Rome’s nationally syndicated sports talk radio show. Beyond King’s ongoing destruction of the English language, what’s most telling about the comment is that his opinion was offered at all. The notoriously single minded promoter was on Rome’s show to hype an upcoming boxing match between Ronald “Winky” Wright and Felix “Tito” Trinidad. Yet even King’s maniacal salesmanship was detoured by the furor surrounding the presence of steroids in professional baseball, a reflection of just how widespread this latest controversy has become.

Specifically, King was referring to former all-star Jose Canseco’s book Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big. In this recently released expos√©, Canseco details how he used performance-enhancing steroids throughout his career. On its own, the admission would be enough to cause a ruckus. (Mike Greenwell — the runner up to Canseco’s 1988 American League MVP award — has since come forward to demand that Canseco’s title be handed over.) But Canseco does not stop at his own misdeeds. In the book, he implicates managers, players, and presidents alike, painting a picture of the sport as a drug crazed free-for-all.

The result has fanned the flames of a debate that has been dogging baseball for years. In order to fully appreciate the fervor of this discussion, it’s necessary to recall the player’s strike of 1994-95. In the wake of the stoppage, baseball’s popularity sunk to an unprecedented low. Both owners and players were seen as greedy, selfish millionaires squabbling over still more millions. When the games finally did resume, they were held in half empty stadiums and to paltry television ratings. It seemed that the sport would never again live up to its “national pastime” moniker.

Enter Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. In 1998, the two were credited for reviving interest in baseball with their respective shattering of Roger Maris’ 1961 single season home run record of 61. McGwire finished with 70 home runs, Sosa with 66, and fans and the media came running back to stare, mouths agape, as these two beefy sluggers launched pitch after pitch into the bleachers.

But even amid this celebrated renaissance, there was controversy. That same year, a reporter noticed a bottle of the supplement androstenedione in McGwire’s locker. Though technically legal at the time, the line separating “andro” from a bona fide steroid was murky at best. Debate raged, but little official action ensued (apart from vague promises from league commissioner Bud Selig’s office to “investigate” and “reform”). McGwire and Sosa, muscle-bound as ever, returned the next year to hit 65 and 63 home runs, respectively.

Thanks in large part to these back-to-back home run races, baseball’s popularity was restored, if not surpassed. But the price for this return has been a growing cloud of suspicion hanging over the sport. Since 1998, MVPs and slugging stars like Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, and Barry Bonds (who surpassed McGwire’s record with 73 home runs in 2001), have variously been confronted by allegations of steroid use. Canseco, with his own allegations, is merely following in a well-established tradition of doping accusations.

Such accusations are so far-reaching, in fact, that the US Congress recently decided to step in. They passed The Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 2004, which provides, in part, for education funding aimed at eliminating the use of steroids in younger athletes. In the hearings leading up to the passage, Senator John McCain asserted that “The integrity of the sport and the American people demand a certain level of adherence and standards that are frankly not being met at this time.” Most recently, even President Bush himself has been drawn into the discussion, forced to deny allegations in Canseco’s book that Bush, once the managing partner of the Texas Rangers, knew about players using steroids on his watch. Lost amid this overwhelming deluge of confession, accusation, testimony, and denial, however, is what, precisely, McCain refers to by “standards.” What is it about steroid use that so deeply dismays “the American people”?

Clearly, it’s not concern for the health of the athletes. Injury is an accepted consequence of all sports, including baseball. Professional baseball players are competent adults who are capable of processing the risk of ingesting steroids. So when opponents decry the medical hazards of these body-transforming supplements, they can only be rephrasing the ever-popular, anxious question, “What about the children?” Surely, something must be done to protect our impressionable youth from following in the footsteps of these hulking mutants!

In truth, though, steroids are no different from any other illegal drug. “Family values” advocates that oppose steroids specifically are really just repeating the same argument against the public presence of any sort of “bad” influence — from Harry Potter books to binge drinking. But there’s nothing inherent in steroid use that makes it any more insidious than the rest of the vice that exists in the world. What this argument does, instead, is seek to absolve parents from any responsibilities in educating a child and to transfer blame to movies, cable TV, hip hop, pro athletes, or all of the above, for the world’s ills.

Misplaced health concerns and blame-happy parents aside, the presence of steroids in baseball seem to occasion the most vehement protests from those who seek to maintain the “purity” of the game. Baseball, it seems, more than any other sport, draws credibility from its relationship to the past. From documentary maker Ken Burns’ cinematic homage to HBO’s When It Was A Game series, the sport’s cultural currency is maintained in large part by the sepia toned pictures of yesteryear, when everything was so much simpler and all our lives were so much better. Any change to this construction, it seems, occasions a virulent backlash against those who would seek to “corrupt” the sport.

In reality, however, the purity of baseball — the purity of any sport — is a fiction. The game of baseball does not exist in a vacuum or a time capsule, immune to the rapidly changing society and technologies around it. There was a time, for example, when no ballplayers lifted weights. Then Willie Mays found great success with his weight regimen and the practice caught on. There was a time when baseball was played, predominantly, by Americans. Now the game has draws from a multi-national talent pool, upping the skill level of the players and the rigors of competition. There was a time when players made a comparative pittance in salaries rather than the hundreds of millions that some players command today. Now one good season can earn a contract that provides for a player and his extended family for life. As the technology, competition, and rewards have all increased, it can hardly come as a surprise that the players’ strategies have reacted to these changing conditions.

The outcry against steroids in baseball, then, is the result of a myopic regard for a fictitious past, coupled with a knee-jerk morality encapsulated in the “Just Say No” years of the Reagan White House. Such outrage is not only wrongheaded, it is also fundamentally incompatible with the popularity of athletic spectacle. It’s no coincidence that the two players (McGwire and Sosa) responsible for reviving interest in baseball have both been accused of doping. Whether it’s a towering home run or a 95 mile per hour fastball, a large part of baseball’s success is as a showcase for the popular consumption of extraordinary physicality. Like it or not, steroids increase the frequency and intensity of these displays.

The drugs, of course, will never be made legal, which will keep both the fans and the media happy. It will also keep the players in a bind, caught between the demand for performance and the restrictions placed upon their preparation. Finally, and most unfortunately, it will keep the myth of the “pure” athlete and the “pure” sport alive, a lie that will continue to be told to preserve an imaginary field of dreams.