By Steve Beitler
Editor’s note – This article originally appeared on AstrosConnection.com on June 18, 2002.
The Ken Caminiti steroid flap has become yesterday’s news faster than the Astros bullpen can blow a lead, which tells us more about drugs and baseball than most of the pundits did when the story first broke.
“This could change baseball forever,” intoned Chris Rose of “The Best Damn Sports Show Period.”
“Let’s give full marks to Caminiti for his truthfulness,” wrote Mark Purdy of the San Jose (CA) Mercury News. “Then let’s do something else. Arrest him. I’m not joking. This might convince major leaguers of just how seriously some of them have strayed into dangerous territory.”
Who honestly believes that we could scare big leaguers straight after decades of handing out amphetamines like mints at a restaurant and dozens of cocaine arrests?
In America, real candor about drugs is less common than a Jose Lima game without several home runs. Lurking behind the latest huffing and puffing about performance-enhancing drugs in baseball, and the proposed remedies, are two ideas that seem perfectly reasonable but that are as detached from reality as Timothy Leary in his prime.
The first idea is that gifted, rich athletes have to be incredibly stupid to “risk everything” with steroids or other performance-enhancers. The second is that drug testing will put a real dent in steroid use and will help “level the playing field.”
If you believe either or both of these ideas, please join my fantasy baseball league immediately so we can make many trades.
The reality is that there are huge incentives for major leaguers to do whatever it takes to gain an edge. Just as in track, where you demolish your opponent if you win a race by half a second, in baseball the difference between winning and losing is often Manute Bol-thin. One pitch, or one play that you make or don’t make, frequently tells the tale. How many times has a season come down to a single game or an inning?
Then think about what’s at stake: the huge money, the fame, the whole enchilada of celebrity in America. If that’s not a powerful draw, why is “Survivor” a hit?
In addition to these incentives, baseball players and the rest of us have grown up in a culture that in fact urges people to take all kinds of drugs. Want proof? Watch television for an hour. You’ll see ads that say, “Can’t sleep? Take this. Want to grow that hair back? We’ve got a chemical that can do that! Are you socially anxious? Ask your doctor to give you this.”
As sociologist Jay Coakley writes in a book entitled Sport and Society, “Do employers tell executives not to use hormone therapies to keep them fit for work? Do wives tell their husbands not to take Viagra? The majority of adults in most wealthy, high-tech societies use tranquilizers, pain controllers, mood controllers, antidepressants, decongestants, diet pills, caffeine … Why should athletes have to [abstain] when others competing for valued rewards do not?”
OK, so we’re a nation of unstoppable drug-takers. The solution? “Let’s test everybody. Let’s get at the truth,” said Expos’ skipper Frank Robinson to the Chicago Tribune. “We’ve got to test. I feel very strongly about that,” bellowed Commissioner Bud Selig.
But would random drug testing actually deter baseball players from taking performance-enhancing drugs? Don’t bet on it.
The first problem is that it’s easier to move several months’ worth of steroids out of your system than it is to hit the cutoff man consistently. Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, who wrote the Caminiti story, also noted that “so-called designer steroids are chemically altered not to leave the drugs’ known signatures on urine tests.”
Designer steroids are an example of classic-yet-contemporary American ingenuity. The rise of workplace drug testing has fueled the parallel growth of a cottage industry in drug-test-avoidance, where entrepreneurs make clean urine and substances that mask other substances readily available.
“Only stupid and careless people get caught,” is how Dr. Charles Yesalis, a Penn State professor, longtime baseball fan and expert on performance-enhancing drugs put it to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “People with a lot of money can hire people … to make sure they don’t flunk drug tests. Drug testing is done mainly for public relations, to make the media feel good and fans feel good.” It’s hard to imagine that baseball players, highly motivated and flush with cash, wouldn’t avail themselves of these and other methods to get through the biggest pass-fail tests of their lives.
Drug testing is hardly a panacea, but its public-relations value could make some sort of program a shrewd move for the game. The best idea I’ve heard came from Don Malcolm on the baseballprimer.com Web site, where he suggested that union chief Don Fehr should advise the players to agree to random drug testing in exchange for the owners ditching their contraction plans.
That could be a neat twin killing.
So what’s the solution? Are we headed for a world in which the old put-down about a player “not hitting his weight” could still make you a .280 hitter?
Again, not likely. And even though it’s much easier to spot the flaws of the current setup than it is to devise a solution, we probably have to start with an idea that may be hard to swallow.
You can’t pay some of the most physically gifted, ultra-competitive people on the planet buckets of money and make them cultural icons and not expect them to do whatever it takes to hold on to that elite status. The truth is that if you wanted to devise a setting to maximize the incentives for people to take performance-boosting drugs, you couldn’t do much better than big-league baseball.
The conclusion? Drugs are here to stay; we need to figure out ways to live with them, in baseball and beyond. History, honesty and common sense all lead to that conclusion. The starting point for a solution to baseball’s drug problem is to give an unconditional release to notions like “zero tolerance” and making the sport “drug-free.” At best such notions are delusional fantasies; at worst they diminish any hope of progress.
Let’s buck the historical trend and start dealing with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be. That might be harder than hitting against Roy Oswalt, but to do otherwise is strictly fantasy league.
Steve Beitler is a writer and has been an Astros fan since 1962. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.