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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Steroids in Baseball Don’t Matter

This is written by site contributor, John Ramey. Ramey works at KNX 1070 in Los Angeles as a sports anchor and web editor. He’s also an accomplished musician. He has been known to contribute passionate articles to LBS when the moment strikes.

Alex Rodriguez took performance enhancing drugs now banned and punishable by the rules of major league baseball.

As a baseball devotee and a human being, I implore you to take a breath.

This, nor any other performance enhancing behaviors of other players, is cause for concern. Here’s why:

It is given that drugs that help ballplayers play better – drugs which include but are not exclusively anabolic steroids – are most likely a competitive advantage over other players that do not engage in performance enhancing drug use.

Thus, the sanctity of the game’s great records – The Numbers – and the quality of character of the players themselves, are not absolute in their judgment of the game’s great talents.

Same as it ever was.

Set aside the argument of baseball’s distinguished tradition of cheating in all forms (examples include sign-stealing, ball-scuffing, etc.).

The questions are these: Are baseball’s numbers now no longer sacred? Are the long-held legends of Great Baseball Lore suddenly and definitively incomparable to today’s era? Is the very history that makes baseball so compelling and endlessly relevant and representative of the American experience now kaput? Is foul fair and fair foul?

No. There is no problem with baseball. There is no lack of authenticity surrounding the game, or how it is played.

There is no steroids problem.

If one posits that performance enhancing drugs, or ‘steroids’, for expediency’s sake, should not have been taken because ball players’ individual and collective conscience should not allow such a behavior, I have news for you. There are fantastic quantities of money to be made playing baseball at the highest level. No man can judge the behavior of another man to attain the riches available to the professional baseball player. What would you not do for 10 million dollars annually? Ask yourself that question the next time you feel dark, broke, or angry at your boss.

No!, says you. No! I love baseball and its history and all that it means to me and my father and Norman Rockwell and the children born 50 years from now who will be Cubs fans. No! The Great Rodriguez has stolen all perspective gleaned from numbers etched in bygone years, by long-dead players. The Great A-Fraud has ruined all connectivity through the historical canon of this most historical and beautiful game.

You are wrong, my friend.

Alex Rodriguez’ numbers (beyond his jaw-dropping skills) are reflective of dozens of amazingly era-specific circumstances. Performance enhancing drugs are but one of them. Also included (and HIGHLY RELEVANT) are better scouting, nutrition, weight-training, ballpark architecture, dilution of pitching talent through expansion, (or) increased competitive talent through the internationalization of the game, reviewable video on a per-at-bat basis in the clubhouse…even something so apparently benign as rest days in between playoff games games for Television Scheduling Purposes.

All These Things make numbers from the current era incomparable to past eras. No era is comparable to another era. This is the great and undeniable truth baseball historians cannot swallow. Baseball historians (myself included) can no longer lie to themselves; Babe Ruth’s 714 home runs are fundamentally not comparable to Hank Aaron’s total, nor Barry Bonds 756. Who knows how many home runs fewer Ruth would have hit had black athletes been able to participate. Who knows how many fewer home runs Ted Williams would have hit had he faced the best Puerto Rican relief pitcher of the day? Who knows how many stolen bases Willie Mays would have racked up had he been looking to pad stat totals in a contract year to push on the free agent market. How many home runs would Hank Aaron NOT hit trying to pull the ball into the homerun-crushing gale that blew into left field at Candlestick Park? We will never know.

It’s okay.

It’s okay because baseball is an inherently beautiful pursuit. It’s okay, because baseball is worthy of our attention, no matter what. Baseball is, by its nature, a fascinating thing. If your love of the game depends on anything other than these tenets, you are not a baseball fan. Thus, I don’t care what you think about Alex Rodriguez.

The concept of The Numbers Are Sacrosanct – pushed by people familiar with the history of the game – is false.

We will never quantify how great Bob Gibson was, just as surely as we will never definitively rank the top 10 greatest composers of all time. Baseball played at its highest level – the major leagues – is performance art. The beauty of this is that we are able to better grasp the transcendent talent through baseball’s unique tradition of fastidious data collection. We know Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941. We don’t know how many ideas Michelangelo decided not to use before painting the Sistine Chapel. That we know EVEN THIS MUCH about Williams is fundamentally exciting! We cannot quantify transcendent expression of the human form, no matter how hard we try through music, painting, theatre, poetry, journalism, whatever.

It’s one of the real bitches of the human condition. Sports are great because they allow us a tiny shred of knowledge of what is ultimately impossible to know. Baseball is a great sport because it allows us to pretend like we can quantify, and compare, and assess, and make fathomable, the talents of a Ken Griffey Jr. in 1997, or Dennis Eckersley in his prime, or a Mike Schmidt playing his last full 3-game series before retirement 1989. I mention these things, because I witnessed them. I cannot tell you what it means compared to Babe Ruth, Lou Gerhig, or Cy Young.

It’s an ever-elusive concept. How kind was Jesus? How calm was the Buddha? How bushy was Noah’s beard? How dominant was Rickey Henderson?

Unless you were there to see it, you’ll never know. You’ll hear about it and read about it, and you will reflect on this reported greatness you did not witness. You will wonder what it means. But you will never know. Just as I will never know how great Willie Mays was as described by my father. It is his memory, his story. The numbers are there, yes. They inform, they do not define.

Baseball in all its grace and beauty affords us loose data to help us sew the exceptionally human seeds of mythology. That these numbers may not be absolute should not cause any of us to lose any sleep. The stories will be told, the heroes remembered in verse and elsewhere. The fantastic deeds done on the field will be relayed for generations to come. The Big Ideas survive. Babe was good. Barry was good. Ernie Banks was good. Cal Ripken was good. Sandy Koufax was good. Those of us without a front row seat to history can hope for nothing more.

As for the moral character of the ballplayers currently implicated, – especially A-Rod – we cannot judge. The vast majority of us will never have that much to lose.



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