Baseball, Steroids and Cowardice

Ryan Braun's recent statement regarding his use of PEDs likely convinced nobody of anything. Those who were predisposed to like Braun and want to move beyond the PED issue were probably satisfied with his statement. Those who either don't like Braun, or are absolutists regarding PED use were equally likely to be displeased and dissatisfied with Braun's statement. Ryan Braun, it seems, is just another rich man caught breaking the rules who exacerbated his problem by denials and obfuscation before finally offering an unconvincing apology. Perhaps if baseball does not work out for him, he could run for mayor of New York.

The Braun episode itself was another, albeit unneeded, reminder that the PED issue in baseball has never been simply about steroids or the abstract notion of cheating, rather it has been about public opinion and media relations. Braun and his advisors are smart enough to understand that for MLB, PED use has always been less of a problem if done by somebody who enjoys good media relations. Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, by contrast, caused as much problems for themselves through their image and media relations as by anything they did on the field.

PED use is, of course, cheating, but baseball has always had a complex relationships with cheating and cheaters. Pete Rose was banned from baseball for life and lost almost certain election to the Hall of Fame for breaking baseball's rules prohibiting gambling. However, Rose's contemporary, Gaylord Perry was broadly known to doctor baseball's throughout much of his own Hall of Fame career. For Perry, who authored a book in 1974 called Me and the Spitter, the cat and mouse game where opposing players and umpires looked for evidence of his rule breaking was often light-hearted and fodder for highlight films. The stories of teams moving fences in or out, tampering with baseballs to get an advantage are part of the lore of baseball. Scouting related shenanigans, particularly outside the US, have been reasonably common for years.

These things may not rise to the level of cheating which is assumed to be the case with PED use, but they suggest that in baseball cheaters have only sometimes, and generally somewhat capriciously, been punished. The most famous case of cheating in big league baseball occurred when the eight players on the Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Those eight players, as any baseball fan knows, were banned for life. Joe Jackson, Ed Cicotte and the six others played in a different media environment, but it is easy to imagine that today, some of them would have gotten off with no punishment while one, probably Cicotte would have been the scapegoat for the whole group.

The PED issue, which has now dogged baseball for well over a decade has been exacerbated by an appalling lack of courage on the part of nearly everybody involved. Cowardly denials, insincere apologies, failing to take responsibility and efforts to scapegoat individuals have characterized the behavior of the media, players, league officials and even the fans. For most of the last ten years, MLB has sought to persuade the public that the steroid era despite the regular revelations that players continue to use PEDs. Players continue to act surprised and disappointed when teammates test positive for PEDs, expecting fans to believe that this steroid use was concealed from teammates for years. Fans, for their part, happily cheer for their favorite teams despite evidence of PED use and usually forgive steroid use if it done by a beloved player who offers the requisite apology.

A courageous commissioner either would have spoken out against steroid use years ago when it became obvious to many that high profile players like Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were using, or would have recognized that steroids are part of the game. A courageous player, when issuing the career saving apology would, instead of asking for forgiveness, have pointed out the extraordinary pressure, financial incentives and inconsistent messages from teams and MLB regarding steroids. None of this has happened yet. The closest thing to integrity on the steroid issue has come from Jose Canseco who, despite his occasionally bizarre behavior and statements, has been one of the few people to recognize how widespread steroid use is, the benefits of steroid use and to call for allowing PEDs in baseball.

The role of steroids in baseball is not unambiguous. The line between steroid use and medical care is grayer than many would like to think. Ballplayers have access to medical care, including surgery, physical therapy and the like, that is considerably beyond that which is available to the rest of us. That is why, for example, they recover from injuries faster. Steroids are different, but this is perhaps more a matter of degree than of kind. Medical procedures, and the mores surrounding them, in baseball and elsewhere are always evolving. This is true of the concept of cheating as well. The amphetamines that were ubiquitous in clubhouses decades ago were not seen as a dangerous drug back then, but they are now. It is entirely possible that decades from now, some use of PEDs will be viewed as a normal part of medical treatment for athletes. This may not happen, but it is clear that how the steroid era is viewed will also change in the coming years; and very few people will come out of that looking good.