Why I Don’t Care About Steroids (And You Shouldn’t Either)

Roger Clemens was acquitted of all charges in his perjury trial, which will prompt scores of national sportswriters and scolds to freak out and ask “WHAT DOES IT MEAN?” with much grandstanding and wringing of hands about “the integrity of the game” or something. Check out this amazing tweet from the Boston Globe, sharing the “news” that one of their writers is uncertain about whether or not he’ll vote for Clemens, along with a video of him expressing said uncertainty:

Things are very uncertain and up in the air in Boston, if you can’t tell.

Quick question – who cares?

I don’t. Honestly. Here is every major argument I’ve heard for why we are supposed to brand the Steroid Era and everyone associated with it with a giant scarlet “S” and build a replica of the bunker from “Downfall” at Cooperstown for the purposes of holding the artifacts that period of baseball produced:

“They were cheaters!” YES THEY WERE. Which is why all spitballers and sign-stealers have been excommunicated from baseball. Oh, wait. I know, that seems a little trite, but where is the line that separates “gamesmanship” from “cheating”? Since we can’t quantify that using X amount of steroids will guarantee you to throw a ball Y mph faster or hit a ball Z feet farther, we’re left largely saying that players that juiced were able to recover from injuries quicker and bulk up faster. That they used foreign substances to do it still seems less dishonest than doctoring a baseball with mud immediately before you pitch it or holding onto a guy’s belt when he attempts to tag at third. Honestly, if you want to watch a sport where everyone falls all over themselves to follow the rules, there’s golf on pretty much every weekend. You can giddily watch someone DQ themselves because they screwed up their scorecard.

“The records they set are meaningless!” No they’re not. Stop it. It is still a hell of a thing to strike out a major league hitter, or to hit a home run off a major league pitcher. And to assume that baseball’s record book is now somehow sullied suggests that it was once somehow pure, which is totally ridiculous. Not only has baseball gone through formal rules changes that would impact individual player performance in pursuit of a record (changing the height of the mound, changing the number of games, adding a DH, adding rounds of playoffs, using new baseballs for every game, etc.), but when you consider that, in 1927 for instance there were 16 teams in a whopping 10 cities, with non-white players exiled to a separate league and players completely owned by their teams and unable to seek buyers for their talents…..it’s hard to point back to that and say “See!? Back then, we knew who was really the best!”

“They manipulated fans back to caring after the strike!” You know what? If Bud Selig was fully in the know about everything and made the ultimate decision that he would trade a bunch of guys committing a victimless crime for getting fans back, then that’s arguably the savviest move he’s made as Commissioner. Even better than the wild card. I say this as someone who angrily tossed what was an AWESOME collection of baseball cards in the garbage when the World Series was cancelled in 1994. 1998 was fantastic, and it’s really not even a little bit tarnished for me (In fact, it’s even better, because now I can look back on McGwire with the proper spite a Cardinal deserves and not with the gentle giant/ambassador of the game stuff). 61 home runs was just the finish line. The drama was the chase – and both guys were juiced up, so what’s the difference? Yeah, I’m saying that as someone who swilled down a cocktail of equal parts “home run chase” and “Cubs in contention” (with a Gary Gaetti garnish), so it’s hard to properly compartmentalize what was strictly home run-related and what wasn’t in terms of how much I enjoyed that seson, but who cares?

Also, look around at baseball today. This isn’t the 1920s, when baseball desperately needed Babe Ruth to get people interested in the game by lumberjacking his way through the American League. There are so many ways to appreciate the game and quantify it beyond the traditional records that for so long were held up as the pillars that kept the game connected to its past – will we really be looking back to rue the day when something like the single season home run record meant 5 percent less to us?

“They were bad role models!” Yes. Athletes mostly are. Especially baseball players. That’s less a comment on baseball drawing uniquely bad people and more a fact of it having been in the national consciousness for over 100 years. There have been lots of baseball players, and many of them have been unconscionable racists, alcoholics, degenerate gamblers, unapologetic jerks, wife-beaters and worse. Dave Zirin hits this nail on the head:

We’re asking these guys to be as good as possible at the sport we pay to watch them play. If their biggest transgression is cutting corners in pursuit of that goal, and putting only themselves at risk, shouldn’t that go to the back of the outrage line? You know, behind people who may actually have committed crimes against others (one example of many)? Or behind the Saints, who made a concerted effort to exacerbate the injuries of opposing players? Why do we allow our pants to bunch so mightily when baseball is involved? Probably because of this final point….

“[Something something] NATIONAL PASTIME!” I’ve wondered if we’d have been spared a chunk of all of this if fate had not provided the nation’s most obnoxious fans (in New York and Boston) with such compelling players and teams when so many of said fans were coming of age. As it is, we’re stuck with Billy Crystal getting all weepy about the Mick and legions of Massholes waxing poetic about Teddy Ballgame and how they all finally had something to talk about with their dads. They helped cement this whimsical idea that baseball is, oh, I dunno….the one constant through all the years as America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers:

This is not to knock those guys, who were obviously all-time greats. It’s certainly not knocking Terrence Mann (I mean, for God’s sake, people). But I don’t think any of those Red Sox fans who watched Williams play in one (1) career World Series were somehow not fully enjoying their 2003 title because they made the playoffs as a wild card, a drastic change from the postseasons of yore. If we’re picking nits, the addition of wild card teams does more to shake the foundations of our comparative baseball memory than a handful of guys taking quasi-legal supplements. But nobody says that. And nobody should. Because claiming baseball’s strength is that it is somehow pristine and unchanged from a simpler time isn’t just factually wrong, it sells baseball short. Baseball can be, and is, great without having to defend its history like it’s the only thing it has, and that’s kind of what happens when we claim to be irreparably violated about records that are 40 and 50 years old.

Remember when Jerry Seinfeld made that observation that we’re cheering for laundry? That was supposed to be a low moment for fandom, but I celebrate it. You are damn right we are cheering for shirts. What’s wrong with that? It’s fun! That’s what we’re trying to have here, isn’t it? And the shirts we cheer for can go out and make themselves better in ways they could certainly not have back when The Splendid Splinter was busy extending a middle finger to sportswriters, another change that impacted baseball more significantly than steroid use. I mean, thank GOD players can move around the way they can now – could you imagine watching the 2012 Cubs without that thought in the back of your mind? That’s something my counterpart in 1912 would not have been able to say to himself as the Cubs missed the postseason despite finishing 32 games over .500.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not some full-throated defense of steroid use (although I would argue that if informed adults know the risks and want to do that, whatever). It’s about the misplaced outrage directed at players by people claiming they “stole” something from us that we never really had to begin with.


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