George Mitchell

Why we can’t talk intelligently about steroids in baseball

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Matthew Artus has a good story up over at NJ.com today. In it he takes Murray Chass to task for his steroids accusations against Mike Piazza.  We’ve covered that here before, but Matthew makes a grand point towards the end of his piece:

Every time we engage in a “Did he or didn’t he?” debate about PEDs in baseball, we stop debating the player’s achievements in the context of his era and his peers. While the players do themselves a disservice by continuing to stonewall efforts to understand PEDs in baseball, they also lack the incentive to do so since an admission will result in immediate expulsion and discredit from the baseball writers’ historical gaze.

If the writers won’t own up to their failure to raise the PED issue at its height and the players will not provide an intimate understanding of steroids in baseball, then how can any of us possibly ever hope to understand what we just saw? … I want to talk about the Steroids Era in baseball, not as a means to vilify players I didn’t like or to vindicate my favorites, but rather as a hope to judge baseball on its merits and in proper context

It’s a great point, and one I wish was made more often. But it has rarely been made, and the reason for this, I think, lies less with the writers themselves than with Major League Baseball.

It was Major League Baseball that decided that the most interesting and important thing about steroids in baseball was who used and who didn’t as opposed to what they meant and how they damaged the game and its users.  It did so when it commissioned the Mitchell Report which had as its climax a woefully incomplete naming of names as opposed to anything approaching a real understanding of the issue.  The writers merely took Major League Baseball’s cue in making this a gotcha game rather than a thorough understanding of PEDs and their role in baseball.

In doing so, the following topics (and many other germane ones) have been utterly ignored:

  • How often did people use?
  • Were the primary users were people who got hurt and were trying to come back more quickly? Stars who wanted to blast their way into the Hall of Fame? Minor leaguers who wanted to become major leaguers?
  • When did users actually start using? High school? College? In the minors? After making The Show?
  • Was drug use a personal thing? Specifically, did guys decide on their own, based on their own personal experiences to use steroids, or was it a peer pressure thing in which certain clubhouses promoted a “steroid culture?”
  • How did players connect with their dealers? Word of mouth, or did the dealers seek out their customers?
  • What dealers — besides the dumb ones named in the Mitchell Report who took personal checks and shipped drugs to ballparks — were the big players?
  • Were the people who didn’t use choir boys who had moral objections, or did fear of the dangers of steroids and/or a belief that they simply didn’t need them inform their decision making?
  • What impact did steroids have on actual performance, both actual and perceived?

But these questions were never answered, never asked. Indeed, the Mitchell Report and everything that has followed has evinced a profound lack of curiosity about such topics.  A lack of curiosity that mirrored the blinkered approach to the matter the press and the game took in the 1990s. To the extent we know the answers to any of these questions the information is piecemeal and, without the imprimatur of Major League Baseball, unofficial, unacknowledged and not at all rigorously researched.

But then again, the Mitchell Report was not meant to answer any questions. It was meant to stop them. To put a bookend on the p.r. disaster that Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco uncorked in 2002. To put a bookend on the steroids era itself, really, and to allow fans, the press and the government to pretend that steroids use was limited to a certain unfortunate time and to certain unsavory group of people.

In this same way, the writers’ current stance on Hall of Fame candidates — the dirty out, the clean in! — is an effort to avoid the tough questions presented by PEDs in baseball.  To impose certainty when there is none. To avoid having to ask why so much was missed before and what, exactly, should be done about it now.

Like the Mitchell Report, the current take by most of the baseball press on steroids is lazy, misleading and close to useless.  And like Matthew Artus, I wish it would stop and that we could move on to properly contextualizing this stuff.  Actually considering the merits of players who were known to use — rather than vilifying them — would be a great place to start.

James McCann is in The Best Shape of His Life

Detroit Tigers catcher James McCann blows a bubble while warming up during a spring training baseball workout, Saturday, Feb. 27, 2016, in Lakeland, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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As I note every spring, “Best Shape of His Life” stories aren’t really about players being in The Best Shape of Their Lives. They’re about players and agents seeking to create positive stories.

We know this because the vast majority of Best Shape of His Life claims are about guys who were either injured the season before, guys who had subpar years the season before or players whose conditioning was a point of controversy the season before. These folks, or their agents + reporters who have little if nothing to write about in the offseason = BSOHL.

James McCann hurt his ankle last season and had a subpar year at the plate. So not only is he a perfect BSOHL candidate, he went old school with the claim and hit it right on the money, verbatim:

Spring training is less than a month away, folks!

Bo Jackson is not gonna change kids’ minds

1989:  Bo Jackson #16 of the Kansas City Royals practices his swing as he prepares to bat during a game in the 1989 season.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Last week Bo Jackson said that, if he had it to do all over again, he would have never played professional football and that he would never let his kids play. The sport is too violent, he said. “I’d tell them, ‘Play baseball, basketball, soccer, golf, just anything but football.’”

Fair enough. Thom Loverro of the Washington Times, however, thinks that Bo could do more than simply give his opinion on the matter. He thinks Bo should become an official ambassador for Major League Baseball:

Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, pick up the phone right now and call Bo Jackson. Tell him you have a job for him — vice president of something, whatever you would call the man in charge of converting a generation of young athletes to baseball. And pay him what he wants.

You won’t find a better symbol of the differences between the two sports than Bo Jackson. After all, he was an All-Star in both. Bo knows football. Bo knows baseball.

Bo, tell the children — baseball over football.

The Children: “Who is Bo Jackson?”

Yeah, I’m being a bit flip here, but dude: Jackson is 54 years-old. He last played baseball 23 years ago. I’d personally run through a wall for Bo Jackson, but I’m 43. I was 12 when he won the Heisman trophy. While he may loom large to middle aged sports writers, a teenager contemplating what sport to play is not going to listen to someone a decade or more older than his parents.

This isn’t terribly important in the grand scheme of things, but it’s indicative of how most columnists process the world through their own experiences and assume they apply universally. It’s probably the biggest trap most sports opinion folks fall into.