Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
January 13, 2010
BASEBALL: Of Steroids and Agendas
The latest half-a-confession on steroids, this one from Mark McGwire, has set off the usual round of arguments on the topic. As usual, we see the formation of two polar-opposite camps. In one corner are the baseball beat writers and other traditional-media sportswriters, who are frothing with moral outrage as they attack players - at least some players - who used steroids. Craig Calcaterra has collected some of the more overheated examples, such as Dan Shaughnessy implicitly comparing Mark McGwire to Hitler and Phil Sheridan of the Philadelphia Daily News comparing steroid use to apartheid.
On the other side, we have a battery of analysts, mostly new-media sabermetric types, who at every mention of steroids roll their eyes, pronounce what a complete non-issue it is, express their weariness at moral outrage, and in some cases affirmatively seek to deny that steroids have any effect on performance whatsoever.
Personally, I find myself in the (somewhat unusual) middle position. On the one hand, I've explained before why I think steroids that help build physical strength contribute to hitting for power, and that's aside from (short-term) benefits to durability and fast-twitch muscle quickness. I'm perfectly comfortable calling out the users for breaking the law, endangering themselves (and implicitly pressuring others to do the same) to get an unfair advantage, and in some cases - but arguably many less than we may think - breaking the rules of the game, to say nothing of lying to us, to grand juries and to Congress. If moral opprobrium follows them wherever they go, that's fine with me.
On the other hand, I don't think steroid use is the biggest deal on earth; it's not as if players haven't always sought ways to gain unfair advantages, sometimes with illegal drugs - think of spitballs, greenies, corked bats, sophisticated sign-stealing schemes, extra balls hidden in the outfield, etc. As I have previously explained, I don't advocate keeping anyone out of the Hall of Fame for it, partly because we already have many Hall of Famers who cheated to win games, partly because steroid use was so widespread in the era, partly because we're never going to know all the people who did it, and most of all because at the end of the day, the Hall is as much for the fans and the history of the game as it is for the players. Let 'em in and let each man add his own asterisks. And let's get and keep to work on cleaning the influence out of the game going forward. And if the next Manny Ramirez misses out on the Hall because of time lost to suspensions, then we'll know the system worked.
And frankly, I don't give a hoot whether these guys admit, apologize, or not. They did what they did, and it can't be undone, and they must live with the jeers as well as the long-term health consequences. One of the most absurd spectacles in this whole mess is the importance sportswriters place on what players say, rather than what they do - as if the only thing that matters is not who wins or loses but who says the right things to sportswriters.
Which brings me to my main point: so much of what goes on in the public dialogue on this issue is driven by underlying agendas.
The traditional sportswriters' agendas are not hard to identify. First, moral outrage is a default position for many sportswriters, and helps sell newspapers (not an easy task these days). Second, as noted, sportswriters tend to overvalue what athletes say to sportswriters at the expense of all else. Third, to be frank, too many sportswriters are underpaid, unhappy, and not treated well by famous millionaire athletes, and thus get an undue amount of satisfaction from taking them down (this underscores why they tend to focus their ire on superstars). Fourth, much of the respect sportswriters used to command has been undermined by statistical analyses of the game. Thus, anything that undermines the integrity of the statistical record - or better yet, allows it to be undermined selectively by means of rumor and reportage on facts sportswriters are better-equipped to find than are outside analysts - shifts the balance of power back towards the traditional sportswriters. It is obvious, in many cases, that a motivating agenda here is the desire of the writers to discredit the accomplishments of post-1994 power hitters, especially when you consider the same writers' serial Hall of Fame elections of guys like Andre Dawson, Jim Rice and Tony Perez who were inferior hitters by the standards of their day but were clean.
All of these incentives are frequently mentioned by the analysts. And yet, the sneering superiority of many analysts has its own set of agendas. One is simply knee-jerk hatred of the sportswriters, combined with instinctual contrarianism. A second - one I confess to being influenced by myself to some point - is a recognition of the very threat that sportswriters seek to exploit: if you can't trust the numbers, that's a threat to people whose jobs involve explaining them. (In politics, we see the same phenomenon when the poll-analysts get nervous at too many attacks on the reliability of polls). A third, for what seems like a significantly loud faction of analysts, is part and parcel of a broader political libertarianism with regard to drugs and drug laws. (There's no group more consistently over-represented on the internet than libertarians of any stripe). A fourth, which is really part of a deeper trend that seems to run throughout the work of a lot of analysts, is over-identification with the parochial interests of the players in labor-management disputes.
In other words, the next time you read someone writing on this topic, ask yourself what their angle is, and which side of the longstanding sportswriters vs. analysts divide they fall on. You will probably find, sadly, that that predicts most of what they have to say.