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.

7 thoughts on “Of Steroids and Agendas”

  1. Crank, I watched the interview and found McGwire to be as reasonably sincere. Since he has never tested positive there is no way to know if he is telling the full truth. In my opinion it is tome to move on. The sportswriters that are thumping their chests in indignation are, as you pointed out, trying to sell papers. The only ones with a gripe in this matter are the players and they have themselves and their union (as well as the owners) to blame.
    As I said in another thread, the sould not be another person added to the Hall until McGwire (and Blylevin) is enshrined.

  2. As for sportswriters moral outrage, how many were/are drunks (or illegal drug users), cheated on their wives, or padded an expense account. Or at least knew another writer who did that but stayed silent. Aren’t they condoning such action then?

  3. I don’t agree with steroid-apologists. Crank is right, what’s done is done, but:
    The Record Book is forever tainted. You know, as a kid, seeing all those players from the early 1900’s who had lifetime averages that were better than the BEST year for a hitter in the Divisional Era, well that was puzzling. But now we (I) know about making adjustments for things like that, to evenly compare players across eras. But how do you adjust for steroids? You can’t, so baseball’s Bible is no longer valid. That’s a problem.
    As for the Hall of Fame, it’s not like there are an infinite number of players who are practically eligible. The Steroid Apologists seem to be overwhelmed by the notion that “We don’t know who did or didn’t, so we either vote them all in from the Steroid Era, or we keep them all out.” Not so fast. Oh, but we DO know many of these players, from court documents and/or admissions. Others like Bonds and Clemens continue to lie about it, but there is substantial proof otherwise.
    Did Pedro? Did Maddux? Did Griffey Jr? I’m pretty sure “no” on all counts. It’s not an all or nothing thing, far from it.
    The funny thing about all of this is Canseco. He writes a dreadful book, at least stylistically, but in retrospect, it’s all been proven true. I’d like to hear someone who said, “No, not Alex!” when Canseco made the claim apology to Canseco.
    Steroid apologists are in denial and they mostly seem to be younger in age. Every generation idolizes the game from their youth. Growing up in the Seventies/Eighties, how could the game compare to Bob Costas and Billy Crystal speaking of the Mick in hushed tones. But to me, it could and did — I love the Divisional Era, because that’s the era closest to my heart.
    I think many newer sabermetricians and Steroid Apologists came of age from 1994-2004, the peak of the Steroid Era. For them to call that time a sham, or acknowledge how badly the game suffered from steroids would be to destroy their own myths.
    The game of baseball is in deep trouble, if not financially, then spiritually. No more the National Pastime, 4 hour games, a whole generation of kids who haven’t seen a Playoff Game when the sun is out, and that same generation always identifying the greatest baseball moments with Tim McCarver’s insipid voice, these are definitely baseball woes that AREN’T related to steroids…

  4. There’s another untold story here: if these media hacks are so friggin’ smart (just ask them), then why did not ONE of them have a CLUE as to what was going on in the 90’s, 2000’s?
    How did all the knowledgeable sportswriters, coaches, scouts and owners not know that the players were using juice (either from rumor, the statistics or just plain EYESIGHT). Answer: they knew, but they didn’t care.

  5. The sportswriters, like the fans and players themselves, are liars. They’d crucify a guy for coming clean and stating the truth.
    The truth: They did steroids and they would do them again.

  6. I think you are making too much of the “competing agendas.” Aren’t the two groups simply looking at the facts and characterizing them based on the perspective from which they are operating?
    Each group provides value. The sportswriters provide color in the sense of the atmosphere of the game and the moment, as well as the reactions of those involved. The analysts provide broader perspective from numbers crunched and reviewed.
    I guess I would put myself in the middle, though in a different place than you. The steroid users disgraced themselves and the game. Listening to John Kruk say that he was becoming angry because he did not use and felt cheated in terms of where his place in history could have been on a level playing field was moving. I think they need to apologize, at least to their peers who did not cheat. The notion, as you express it, that analysts think steroids are no big deal, is hard to reconcile with reality. Steroids works and that’s why athletes use them. The problem for the analysts is that they haven’t figured out a way to quantify the steroids bumb.

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