Thursday, January 12, 2012

Shades of Gray, and Steroids


If it looks like everyone in the class is cheating on the exam and getting better grades -- and it especially looks as if the professor and the college know about this and either do not care or are perfectly fine with it -- why wouldn't you cheat?

But first, Rob Neyer.

I am an unabashed Rob Neyer fan.  I own his books, I read his columns and I would look forward to his interviews on sports talk radio.

Every year around Hall of Fame voting time, Rob Neyer writes columns like this, citing a writer belonging to the BBWAA, in this case Terence Moore of MLB.com, sharing openly that he would never vote for a player with any whiff of performance-enhancing drug use about him.

Rob's very last paragraph:

"For baseball writers like Terence Moore, life is wonderfully simple. Everything is on, or off. Yes, or no. Zero, or one. Black, or white. There is no room for nuance, no shades of gray. The word appears next to a man's name, and the thinking stops. How comforting that must be. How terribly comforting."

First, before we talk shades of gray, here are the black and white facts:

*  Steroids were illegally used by players from the 1980s through the 2000s.

*  They were highly effective.

This cannot be ignored.

The very best players in the game used PEDs:  Alex Rodriguez.  Manny Ramirez.  Rafael Palmeiro, of his 3,000 hits and 500 homers.

Eric Gagne used PEDs and became the game's greatest closer.  Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds used PEDs and became the game's greatest home run hitters.  Roger Clemens used PEDs and it revitalized his career to the point that he became the great pitcher he had been a decade earlier.

This is why I'm glad I'm not a Hall of Fame voter.

This was illegal use, and it made each of these players an unmatched great.  I cannot support that.

On the other hand, I have no doubt that their use of PEDs was implicitly encouraged by their team and Major League Baseball -- and maybe explicitly encouraged, too, who knows?  PED users earned enormous contracts and increased playing time at the expense of non-PED users.  If you saw that and you're a competing baseball player, why wouldn't you use?  My answer is:  Because you're ethical.  Or perhaps you don't want to do lasting damage to your body.

But -- come on!

The vast majority of baseball players do not care a lick about cheating or not.  They would use a corked bat if assured they could get away with it, they chew tobacco in the minors openly even though they it's illegal, and they figure out new ways to get a better (illegal) grip on the baseball on the mound and put wicked movement on it.

These are not the villains of the game.  This is your everyday player, from the utility infielder to the long reliever.

Everyone in baseball looks for an edge, and it's always been that way.  Baseball is not an ethical man's game.  Baseball is conniving and unscrupulous and underhanded, incorporating signs and sign-stealing... just don't get caught, or you'll get knocked down by a purpose pitch.

Rob cites a hypothetical example in which a veteran player used PEDs for a couple of days in the midst of a quick recovery, and that was it for the extent of his 18-year career.

It's a nice story, and maybe for a couple of players it's true.

Let's delve further:

What would a minor league teenager, who's never been away from home before, do when a respected guy on the team stops by and lets him know how he could get to the Majors quicker?

What does the veteran, at the tail end of his career, say when he's shown how PEDs can extend his time in the Majors a couple of more effective seasons?

This is what Rob Neyer means by shades of gray.  We don't know who used, we don't know why they specifically used, and we don't know how long they used.  Every case was different.  Brian Roberts isn't Andy Pettitte, who isn't Rafael Palmeiro, who isn't Alex Sanchez.

If every single player during the Steroid Era came out and told us exactly how much they used, we could actually get somewhere.  We could see which non-users performed best against users and we could see which users only started using after they already had gained Hall of Fame stats.

(This to me is the HoF argument for Bonds and Clemens; they belonged in Cooperstown well before they began injecting steroids.  Whatever you might think about their tainted seasons, their untainted seasons hold up extraordinarily well.)

But we're never going to get that information, and that makes the job for every Hall of Fame voter all the more difficult.  So what?  It should be a difficult job, filled with heavy thinking and analysis, to determine who receives baseball immortality.  That's a responsibility that needs to be taken seriously, and I demand that the BBWAA voters take it seriously.

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