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.

Report: Welington Castillo to be suspended 80 games for violating Joint Drug Agreement

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Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic confirms a report from journalist Américo Celado that White Sox catcher Welington Castillo will be suspended 80 games for violating baseball’s Joint Drug Agreement. Castillo was believed to have used a steroid, but according to Rosenthal, the substance was not a steroid. More details should come on Thursday.

Castillo, 31, entered Wednesday’s action batting .270/.314/.477 with six home runs and 15 RBI in 118 plate appearances. He has gotten the bulk of the work behind the plate, backed up by Omar Narváez.

Castillo’s absence will likely prompt the White Sox to call up Kevan Smith from Triple-A Charlotte. Smith battled an ankle injury in March and April, so he got a late start to the season. In 102 PA at Triple-A, he has hit .283/.343/.457.