This is in response to a comment on my entry "Good Things" from April 30, 2006, which read:
Hey, I was wondering if you’d touch on what you thought about Mac and steroids. Do you believe he was a user? Do you think he cheated? Why or why not? If yes, how does that affect this post and your feelings to cheer for the team with integrity? Just curious.
There’s been a substantial delay, I know, I know… It’s just that there’s so much to consider and so much to be said about this controversial subject and I just haven’t had the time (or the energy, for that matter) to tackle it full-heartedly. But, today (Sunday) I’m on the back end of an all nighter (trying to get my sleeping pattern back from working nights and into normal days) so I think I just might be blurry enough to get my head around the issue. haha.
As I mentioned before, I have a whole truck load of opinion on steroid use so this may become dissertation-like. Continue at your own risk. (Hey, Schmack… You thought the other one was long? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. haha)
Hmmm, where to start? I guess I should put it out there that, personally, I’m against steroid use. I equate it to suicide: It’s a selfish choice and the easy way out; maybe even a sign of weakness. I suppose it’s a fairyland that I live in, but I honestly prefer my sports heroes to be akin to athletic gods.
In my opinion, a professional athlete is someone who can do things that mere mortals can’t. God has given us all talents and abilities and qualities to make us special and unique and it is our job to discover what those heightened tools are and to make the most of them. Some of us are given a knack for numbers. Some of us have unparalleled wit. Some of us are born with the ability to master languages. And so we become mathematicians like Albert Einstein, wordsmiths like Dorothy Parker and linguists for the U.N. The same is for the sports superstar. God gave those people speed, agility, strength, acute hand-eye coordination that far exceed the average person. Sure, we can all jump… but can we leap the length of the key and dunk a basketball into a hoop that is 10 feet off the ground? I can’t. But Michael Jordan could. And that’s why he was a sports hero and I never will be.
Although, I suppose if I put a trampoline at the foul line, reduced the size of the basketball so I could palm it and widened the hoop to a width that more resembled a hula hoop, I might be able to do something. But doing all that wouldn’t make me a basketball player it would make me a circus clown. And that’s how I feel about steroids. They allow someone with average skills to compete at levels that weren’t meant for them. Only a select few are given the ability to throw a baseball at 90+mph with accuracy. That was the gift God gave them. And those are the ones who deserve to don the uniforms of our favorite teams and grace the walls of the Hall Of Fame. To use alternate means (ie. plagiarizing someone else’s work, hiring Will Hunting to solve impossible equations) is to become an impostor in your field. And that’s how I look at steroids in sports. It allows someone who might not actually have the athletic prowess to compete, to infiltrate an elite field that he/she may not have rightfully earned the company of.
Which leads me to… This is also why I understand the practice of using steroids. 1) There is something to be said for heart and desire. And in sports I think these attributes weigh even more heavily.
When I was in college (at the University Of Missouri, by the way) we had a heart and soul running back by the name of Brock Olivo. By all accounts he was never destined to play professional football. He was small (maybe six foot) with average, if not below average, speed. And he knew this. But he was born to play. He was strong. Gutsy. Driven. He had the will and he found a way. He loved the game so much and understood his "handicaps" so acutely that he dedicated everything he did to getting the most out of what God had given him and to making him the best football player he could be. He kept a very restricted and regimented diet. He ran to and from classes. He wouldn’t date as to not be distracted from his ultimate goal. He didn’t drink too much, never did any drugs, and seldom stayed out too late. He never missed a practice and then practiced some more on his own time. There was even a hill "named" after him because of all the drills he ran up and down it. (You might say he was the David Eckstein of Mizzou and we loved him for it.) After graduation he was drafted to the Detroit Lions but, for the most part, never made it past their practice squad (except for an occasional appearance on special teams) and was eventually cut a couple years later. I haven’t spoken to Brock since we left Mizzou but I imagine the day his football career ended was a very black day indeed. He loved playing football so much that I can’t imagine his life without it. I can honestly say– with a straight face despite all the melodrama– that football made him whole.
And now I can tell you that if there was something out there that could have made him a few inches taller and a second faster, even if it was for only a few years, I would have encouraged Brock to use it. He deserved his moments in the sun. He had done all he could with the gifts God had given him and stretched them to their max. He was dedicated. He was focused. He did all the right things. He didn’t p*ss away his talents or take his abilities for granted. Both his heart and his mind were in the right places. They just weren’t enough. And it wasn’t his fault and there was nothing he could do about it. Somehow there was a cosmic injustice in the deck of life and it was unjustly dealt to Brock. God had given him everything he needed to be a world-class football player… everything except the world-class tools. If a weekly injection could have garnered him those tools, I think I may have been able to justify it.
And this is a situation that a lot of players find themselves in, I imagine. They have the heart and the dedication but just fall short– by no real fault of their own– in some aspect of the game. For example, a player may have exceptional fielding skills but a weak bat, or a pitcher who can throw into the 90s must then worry about wrecking his arm. Steroids, my friend, can aid in both those dilemmas. (They are, after all, a medicinal and healing substance.)
This takes us to the second reason I can understand a player wanting to tap into the fount of performance-enhancing drugs. If your peers– and ultimately your competitors– are using them, then you’re at a disadvantage if you aren’t. You may have been the NCAA champion sprinter, but when you show up to the professional circuit to discover the guy you outran in college is now running circles around you… you better get with the program or your career may be over before it begins.
Now, you might expect that this would lead to a whole tirade on the ills of steroid use, but that’s not where I’m going with this at all. (Remember when I said that, personally, I’m against steroid use? Well, I am. But I also view it in the same light as extreme body piercing. It’s not right for me, but who am I to tell you what to do with your body?) And as an entity, I tend to look at steroids as just the next step in the advancements of sports technology. When swimmers started shaving their bodies and wearing swimming caps to make them more stream-lined in the hopes of shaving off a second or two from their times, was that cheating? No. When in-line skating was developed as a means to allow summer training for cross country skiers, was that out-of-season practice considered cheating? No. When weight lifting came into vogue as a strength building technique, was that considered cheating? No. There was a lot of hubbub when catchers began wearing protective equipment while playing their position and in the beginning it was considered cheating. But, clearer heads prevailed and now "the tools of ignorance" are all but mandatory. Athletes regulate their diets, their sleeping habits, and take vitamin supplements to enhance the way they play their sports. They wear braces, splints, miles of tape and gauze, take cortisone injections and muscle relaxers so that they can continue to play even when injured. So why the big stink over steroids?
Well, I’ll tell you why. Ultimately, anabolic steroids and other extreme growth hormones can be deadly. And that’s not an appropriate risk to ask of anyone, unless all are willing to do it– such as in race car driving and bull riding, where the inherent risk of death is somehow part of the thrill of the sport. All players should have an equal opportunity choice as to what training methods and equipment he prefers, and none of those options should ever include health risks. A tennis player may opt for a wooden racket, but it shouldn’t be because using a graphite one might kill him a few years from now.
But as far as baseball is concerned, all of these analyses were irrelevant until 2002, when steroids were officially banned from the sport. To my knowledge (which, admittedly, may be very limited), there was no official stance on their use up until that point. And it wasn’t until last year that real consequences were attached to the infraction of that "ban." Which is why I’m infuriated by the energy spent on whether or not Jose Canseco used them during his career. Who cares? No one said he couldn’t. It may have been like gays in the military: Don’t ask, Don’t tell, but there were no rules against it while he was playing. The same goes for Mark McGwire and anyone else who played prior to 2002. WHO CARES?!?!?! Officially, it was irrelevant. You can’t put an asterisk by every name who played with a new development in the sport. A longer season, a smaller right field at a certain stadium, a more shallow foul territory at another venue, night games, double headers, better accommodations therefore better rest the night before a game, flying versus train ride, air casts, Tommy Johns surgery, etc, etc, the list could go on forever. It’s silly.
(I could insert how much I resented the congressional hearings on the matter here, but I’d rather not get into it. Suffice it to say that 1) the government has no place dictating private enterprise, 2) Are you trying to tell me that when some savvy kid learns a secret code that allows him to skip levels on Diablo II, the government is going to hold congressional hearings to determine whether or not his high score is valid? and 3) McGwire very well may have been the only honest man at those tables.)
As far as the health concerns of steroid use and the message it sends to kids: You can’t tell me that there’s a single kid out there who discovers the effects of human growth hormones and doesn’t know that using them is risky, if not illegal. During those ridiculous hearings last year there was a family present who admonished the players for contributing to the delinquency of their son, who ultimately killed himself, supposedly due to the emotional and psychological side effects of steroid use. I’m not disputing what effects the drugs might have had on their teenage son, but I will argue full-heartedly that whether or not Rafael Palmeiro uses performance enhancers is not the same as a doctor giving a kid a prescription and telling him that the drugs are safe… which is basically what that family, and many others who are looking for someone to blame, are trying to convince us. And here’s how I know that every user of anabolic steroids knows the risks involved: 1) Olympians are disqualified or banned from their sports for using them (and this issue comes around every two years, so there are no users out there who aren’t aware of it), 2) the drugs can only be acquired via prescription, otherwise you have to go to Mexico to get them (which is how the kids of the congressional hearing got theirs) and 3) NONE of the kids who use and/or experiment with steroids tell their parents, families or coaches that they are using… and if that doesn’t tell you that they know it’s wrong, then I don’t know what does.
Of course, few people– particularly the "victims"– want to admit to these things and so, as a society, we are forced to fumble through and eventually be bound by legislature that takes the responsibility out of the hands of the errant and puts it on the shoulders of the next best thing (ie. the source, the provider, the developer, the maker, the seller, the celebrated, the role model, the influence, the athlete he’s never met but who supposedly also uses… anyone but the user himself). Now, I could go on a tangent about how I believe that laws are there to protect you from me and me from you but not me from myself, but that’s a whole other can of worms. (Directly related to this subject matter, yes, but I’d like to keep politics out of this particular discussion.)
But let’s suppose for a moment, that in some "Fahrenheit 451"-like America of the not so distant future, the government does take it upon itself to "cleanse" the sport of all its ill-influences and enhancements for the sake of humanity. Then I would propose that the government, then, would also be responsible for the well-being of its people in light of ALL our entertainment and fame-rendering sources: sports, music, acting, modeling, politics, etc.
In which case, any celebrated person who eats unwisely or goes on a crash diet in order to lose weight or who has an eating disorder as a direct result of wanting to be thinner as part of their public image should be banned from whatever forum it is that makes them famous. Every famous person with any addiction of any kind, including smoking, should be banned from whatever public stage it is that gives them celebrity. Any person seen as a role model who is found to have enhanced their body in anyway so as to add to their celebrity status– including tattoos, piercings, plastic surgery, reconstructive surgery, artificial tanning, hair weaves, implants, tummy tucks, permanent hair removal, cosmetic dental work, etc– should be banned from their source of fame. Any public persona who does not achieve their status on their own merit (ie. no ghost writers, no speech writers, no body/photo/stunt doubles, no airbrushing, no vocal track manipulation, no lip-syncing or phantom instrumentation (even in movies), etc– should be kept from performing in that particular forum. Any celebrity who employs any kind of performance enhancer, such as coaches, trainers, training equipment, pain killers (including OTC medication), protective wear, microphones, reading glasses, ear monitors, amplifiers, music mixing or producing equipment, choreographers, preventive therapy, sports psychology, etc. should be banned from whatever forum it is that gave them clout.
After all, if we are a society h*ll-bent on protecting its people from themselves, then we must rid all facets of anything and everything that might lead a potential victim into harm’s way. This may seem a bit on the melodramatic side, but I think you get my point. And, as over the top as it sounds, we aren’t too far away from such a world.
However, I am a bit of a Dudley Doo Right and am an advocate of obeying the law and following the rules. And, in my opinion, a person can decide to fore-go the law and break the rules, but when that person gets caught, he can’t cry injustice. Drive 80mph in a 65mph zone all you like, but when you get pulled over and slapped with a heavy fine don’t get mad or argue with the officer. You know the speed limit. As they say, if you’re willing to do the crime, be willing to do the time. And so, despite whether we like it or not, as I mentioned before, there is now a ban on steroids in the realm of baseball. Fine. And now that there are rules, those rules must be followed. Any baseball player caught using anabolic steroids and/or human growth hormones must suffer whatever consequences come with being caught. A suspension. A pay decrease. Being banned. In my mind, there are no questions. There is no debate. The rules say no, so now the answer is no.
But I also think there has to be a statute of limitations… in reverse, I guess. In the same way the police can’t pull you over today and then arrest you for drinking alcohol when you were in high school, we can’t accuse a player for his supposed use of steroids in the past. If he wasn’t caught at the time of the crime, then he can’t be held accountable without viable proof. And in the forum of baseball, it can’t even be contested in cases that may or may not have occurred prior to 2002, because there was no ruling before then.
As for the public, I don’t think it has any right to know what an athlete’s practices were (where steroids are concerned, I mean) prior to 2002. What a person did with his/her own body is strictly his/her own business. Get over it. Get on with it. And so what, anyway? What does it really matter? Lives weren’t lost because a guy stole more bases than some player a decade earlier. The stock market didn’t crash because a pitcher healed faster than he would have without the aid of steroids. If you’re looking for real tragedies and injustices in baseball, you need look no further than Joe Jackson, Josh Gibson, Comisky The Tyrant, and how John Rocker could be ostracized (how the heck do you spell that word?) from our sport and yet Ty Cobb was so revered.
And if you’re still wondering, after all that, how I can remain a Cardinals fan when the organization harbored Mark McGwire and loved him as a player, let me say this: Above and beyond the fact that Mark never tested positively for steroids– in addition to the fact that his career ended before the ban was put into place in 2002– fans, including myself, do not choose to love their teams by the personal choices of its players. Chipper Jones cheated on his wife and impregnated another woman, yet he remains a beloved player of Braves fans the country over. Darryl Strawberry is a convicted cocaine addict but that doesn’t stop New Yorkers from loving the Mets and the Yankees. Sammy Sosa used a corked bat during a game but there are still throngs of people cheering on their Cubbies. Pete Rose admitted to betting on baseball games but there are fans this country over who not only root for the Reds but who continue to petition his induction into the Hall Of Fame. True fans love their teams despite their short-comings (if that’s how you want to perceive these points). And I love my Cardinals no matter who plays for them. As an entity, I believe in them whole-heartedly, as do all Redbirds fans.