The Call of Squawkers


When I was young, cheating was discouraged.  That didn’t stop people from doing it anyway, but if they got caught they were punished severely.  Today, the whole topic is approached with a “meh, everyone does it… move on” attitude.  Earlier this month, the sportswriters voted on this year’s list of potential inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame and decided no one was deserving, in large part because many of the featured players on the ballot were either caught or suspected of using steroids.  The outcry in response was particularly vocal with many claiming that the museum was now a joke and that the process needed to be completely revolutionized. 


Being voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame is an honor.  I realize I am in the minority on this but I believe that in order to deserve an honor, one must behave honorably.  And when I say things like “behaving honorably”, I’m restricting it to behavior on the field.   Some would respond by saying it is not a Hall of Morality, but I would respond that neither is it the Hall of Statistics either.  To me, cheating isn’t behaving honorably and using steroids is cheating, both by the letter of the law and its spirit.  I get that there are some guys in the Hall who were noted for their cheating, and I understand the reasoning for their enshrinement.  I just would never have voted for them.


People suggest that cheating is part of the game, that everyone does it.  I would ask those people to show me the proof that everyone does it.  There have been accusations that everyone used to take amphetamines and that steroids are not any different.  Again, show me the proof that everyone took amphetamines.  If the “steroid era” is nothing more than a witch hunt, as many of their diatribes proclaim, then the “amphetamine era” is far moreso because at least in the steroid era we have quite a few positive tests. 


Taking it one step further, when MLB and the Player’s Union were negotiating whether there would be steroid testing, they administered an anonymous sample test.  If there were more than 5% positives, the Union would agree to allow random testing of the player population.  Somewhere around 7% tested positive, but a number of those “positives” were from players refusing to take the test in order to force MLB to initiate a testing program.  So for all those who say that most players were using, the only scientific evidence available suggests that while all players had the opportunity and the motivation to cheat, better than 90% chose not to.


Looking at it another way, there are roughly 5250 professional baseball players in the US and Canada participating in the Major League Baseball System at any one time. Every year, another 1200 or so are added through the June draft and international signings. So that means there have been roughly 17,000 professional baseball players subjected to routine testing since testing began in 2003. Of those 17,000, only about 700 have tested positive for any forbidden substances and many of those were for drugs of abuse like marijuana. So to suggest that most players are using PEDs when the available data suggests a number far less – in this case less than 4% - is ignorant and/or mendacious propaganda.


Additionally, the equating of “greenies” with steroids is ridiculous.  That’s like saying kiting a check is no different than defrauding a billion from an investment house.  The truth is that all law is based on the degrees of transgression.  Even baseball realizes this because punishments for being guilty of amphetamine use are decidedly less severe.  And then there’s the matter of impact.  Amphetamines stay in your system about 24 hours whereas a steroid like Winstrol, which is what Rafael Palmeiro and Michael Morse were busted for, can stay in your system up to two years.  An athlete can maintain 80% of the benefit gained from steroid use up to a year after he discontinues its use.  Moreover, there is a physical gain from merely taking them; one doesn’t need a particular exercise regimen to gain a benefit.  A specialized regimen simply multiplies the benefit.  There’s really no comparison.  There’s a minimum bat speed necessary to drive a ball 400 feet.  That’s physics.  Any additive that can help a player achieve or surpass that threshold will greatly affect his production.  Amphetamines simply don’t have that capability; steroids do.  Amphetamines can help you repeat that bat speed, but they can’t help you increase it over what you are naturally able to do.  Studies have been fairly conclusive that while there are physical and mental benefits to amphetamine use, there is no evidence of an aerobic or anaerobic increase in power.


It has been suggested that even though PEDs were declared illegal in baseball in 1991, that players who used before testing was implemented in 2003 were not actually breaking the rules because testing had not yet been collectively bargained.  Forgive me but that’s like saying it’s not illegal to drive through a school zone at 100 mph as long as a policeman is not there with a radar gun to catch you.  The law is the law and while the enforcement may have been naïve before testing, it doesn’t change the fact that a rule was in place.  Just because self-policing was the policy, that doesn’t mean that breaking the law was any less illegal.  Testing would not have even been necessary had the players and their union policed the practice themselves, much like they have historically policed poor play on the field with kangaroo courts.   Testing in the minor leagues had begun in 2001 so it’s not like people were not aware that there was an earnest effort to curb the practice of using PEDs.  The whole proposition that the players from this period should be held blameless is beyond absurd.


And then there’s the concept that it wasn’t cheating because there was no rule specifically against it… the Code of Ur-Nammu was written about 2100 BC.  It contains one of the first known prohibitions against murder in human history.  Does this mean that anyone who committed murder previously wasn’t guilty of anything because there was no written law governing it?  Let’s take it back to the Code of Urukagina, which was thought to have been created around 2400 BC, the oldest known attempt at a legal code.  Was there any behavior that was considered “wrong” before then?  Before the FBI was formed in 1908, criminals often fled the states in which they committed crimes - including larceny and murder - knowing that they could not be prosecuted.  Is it possible that a behavior can be wrong even when there is no law expressly forbidding or governing it? 


I’ll posit two hypotheticals that aren’t covered by the rules:


1) Suppose a player poisons the other team before each game.  He's obviously helping his team win if the other team is incapacitated, and there's nothing in the baseball rules that specifically states what he’s doing is forbidden.  And even if a rule is eventually implemented to curb the practice, that doesn't change the fact that the behavior was probably not in the best interest of the game.  Was that player cheating? 


2) Medical technology is advancing at an incredible speed.  As an example, just last year Chinese scientists figured out how to synthesize neurons from cells found in urine.  That gives new meaning and a new spelling to the term “pea brain”.  Nanobots are another rapidly developing technology.  In 20 years we could have tiny little robots injected into our bloodstream that can do anything from cure cancer to mend broken bones.  Another potential application is to turn a person’s eyes into targeting computers and their muscles into bionic appendages capable of superhuman effort.  As slowly as baseball is to adopt change, how many home runs will be hit before baseball agrees to regulate the practice?  Will it take our first 100-home run season?  Theoretically, a player with that kind of enhancement could hit a home run in every plate appearance.  Players at the top of the order on good teams get roughly 700 plate appearances in a season.  Even the best players currently make at least 300 outs but by hitting a home run with every opportunity, a player that never makes an out could end up affording himself an additional 50 plate appearances just by giving his teammates several hundred more opportunities.  We could be looking at a 750-home run season, nearly matching what Hank Aaron did over a 20+ year career in one season.   Clearly such a player will have produced impressive stats and he’s doing nothing illegal but clearly his accomplishments would be largely due to factors outside his natural ability.  So is that guy worthy of Hall of Fame induction?  Does working outside the rules have to reach that degree before we address the issue?  For the many who feel the BBWAA and Hall of Fame have become a joke for trying to punish those who exploited the rules, there doesn’t appear to be a limit.