Power and Speed

Joe Posnanski and Jim Caple, both of whom I respect, argue that steroid use is indistinguishable, for Hall of Fame purposes, from amphetamines, which we know to have been prevalent in years past and undoubtedly used by many players now enshrined in Cooperstown. I disagree.
I’ve explained previously here and as far back as 2002 why I didn’t think steroid users should be held out of the Hall of Fame, and here why I tend to mistrust the agendas of a lot of people on both sides of the question who write on this issue. So, don’t confuse this for an apologetic for sportswriters’ preening and highly selective outrage on the topic. On the other hand, I remain utterly unconvinced by the claim that steroids do not aid performance in baseball.
But it’s a vast oversimplification to argue that amphetamines and steroids are exactly the same, or that the distinction between the two is totally illogical. An amphetamine is, basically, a mind-altering drug, like alcohol or caffeine or marijuana – you take it, it has an effect, the effect wears off unless you take more. (Once upon a time, the military used to give it to pilots). Steroids, by contrast, alter the very structure of your body, enabling the growth of more muscle tissue. On some level, taking steroids changes you, not just your daily mood or perception or energy level.
Is this an oversimplified distinction? Sure. Both mind- and body-altering drugs basically screw with your body chemistry, and given the physiological connection between brain and body it would be silly to overstate the distinction or ignore how things like speed and booze affect your motor skills. And it’s also true that while steroids have persistent effects, they’re not indefinite – guys who go off the juice are rarely able to sustain the same level of muscle mass, and tend to either sort of deflate or get fat.
But distinctions of this nature are not at all unusual in the way we draw moral, ethical, legal and practical rules, which are often based on the way our moral intuition interacts with our practical experiences after considering a variety of factors, rather than making rules based solely on one-line logical syllogisms. There are reasons why we have laws against pot and not booze or cigarettes, and while you can disagree with the distinctions of degree involved, those distinctions are not meaningless. It’s not irrational at all to see the alteration of the structure of the body by illegal and dangerous substances as a step too far, even compared to taking mind/mood altering drugs on game day. It’s also not irrational to look at some of the really unusual career paths of some known steroid users and see no parallel to a similarly dramatic effect discernible among amphetamine users.
Should we ban steroid users from the Hall? No. But is it crazy to treat them as more problematic than guys who took speed? Not at all.

15 thoughts on “Power and Speed”

  1. I kind of think the opposite. Amphetamines enhance performance during the actual playing of the game while steroids are a preparation enhancer. Amphetamines are a free boost while steroids are mainly just a workout and recovery aid.

  2. Steroids are far from a workout and recovery aid. They help build muscle mass. More muscle mass, quicker bat/arm speed, more power/MPH. For example, Eric Gagne sucked then he took steroids and started throwing ungodly heat and was one of the best pitchers in baseball. He wasn’t just recovering better he was performing in a manner that was previously impossible for him prior to a steroid regimen. There are countless other examples.
    Crank, I would guess that you think we have laws against pot for one set of reasons while I would say the reason has little to do with anything moral, ethical or practical.

  3. Jim,
    Steroids make it easier to get stronger – you don’t have to lift weights quite as hard and they help you recover. But you still have do the hard work of lifting, they aren’t some magic pill that makes you stronger. I sincerely doubt that all Gagne did was take steroids, I’m sure there was a pretty tough workout regimen that went along with it.

  4. I’m not that much of a hardliner on pot, I go back and forth on the issue and think we should at least repeal the federal laws and leave the question to the states & localities. That said, there is definitely a case for considering, as a matter of degree, pot to be more harmful than booze and little social value to legalizing it.

  5. Tom,
    The point is Gagne was probably already lifting and doing whatever it was that he did to legally improve performance prior to the ‘roids. It wasn’t until he got on a cycle that his performance improved. Yes, you can recover quicker with steroids but you can also flat out DO MORE on steroids than without them. There is no question, no even a little one that steroids enhance performance. He was a bigger, stronger guy with a body that he simply could not achieve without ‘roiding up. Taking them made him a pitcher for 3 years he could not have been without them.
    Crank, people have been smoking weed for nearly as long as they have been drinking alcohol. There is no question, not even a little one as to which is more dangerous, which kills more and which does more damage. Guess what. It’s not pot. BTW, I make alcohol for a living and I will go to my grave telling anyone who will hear it that alcohol used responsibly (blah, blah, blah) is fine, redemeptive, etc. The idea that it has done and does do less harm than weed is simply untrue, however.

  6. FWIW, regarding my last statement I can’t remember if Gagne ever tested positive so if he didn’t allow me to add “allegedly” to anything I said regarding him.
    Also, I haven’t smoked pot in something like 8-10 years so it’s not like I’m some big advocate for it. Where it is legalized/medically available it seems to work just fine though.

  7. I came in a couple of years and complained about the class that had been voted into the HOF that year. I suggested that people were being voted into the HOF, for the sake of inducting someone. This year is a classic example of a year when they just said “No” and no one should have been voted in. This is a ridiculous class.
    As for the Gagne discussion. I don’t think he ever failed a test, but he was link to catcher LoDuca. I think there were shipping records included in the evidence. All in all, he used and when he stopped using, he was out of the league quickly. It was all disappointing to me as a Dodgers fan.

  8. With all due respect, this is false.
    Perf(Body + Amphetamines) > Perf(Body)
    Steroids on their own don’t work like that, its a time series:
    Body + (Steroids & Hard Work) = Body’
    Perf(Body’) > Perf(Body)
    You can make logical arguments on both sides why one is better or worse, but they are “in the same ballpark” to be sure.
    The mind is a component of the body.

  9. With all due respect to DodgerSteve–who at least knows what team to root for–anyone who does not think that Roberto Alomar is a worthy Hall of Famer obviously wasn’t watching baseball in the 1990s. As for Blyleven, it shouldn’t have taken the heroic efforts of sabermetricians to get him in: looking at his career positions on the traditional stat categories innings, K’s, and shutout career lists should have made it rather blatantly obvious that he should have been in a long, long time ago.
    If anything, not enough players were voted in this year. Larkin should have been voted in last year, and will apparently be voted in next year. Bagwell got slammed by the PED McCarthyites, and may end up waiting years to get in, but his numbers were first ballot worthy. Raines belongs, too. Hopefully, next year’s relatively weak class of incoming 1st timers will boost the totals of these worthy candidates.

  10. Steroids were around for a long time before they were made illegal in 1990 (and were not formally banned in baseball until much later). It is naive to think that there were no baseball players using steroids in the 1970’s or 80’s (I recall significant attention being paid to the workout regiments of certain players in the late 70’s). If exposed, should such use ban them from the HOF? If yes, why, when use of illegal amphetamines does not appear to be cause for a ban?

  11. M. Scott Eiland: We are not going to agree on anything here. My argument two years ago when I came to this forum (I think I objected to Jim Rice at the time) was that when we look back at the HOF in 50 or 100 years, are these players really the best of the best? I’m not for voting in players just because there are players to vote on. The players each year on the ballot need to be measured by the history of the game and where they rank there. You will never convince me that Blyleven deserves to be in a place with names like Mathewson, Cy Young, Koufax, Nolan Ryan, etc.
    I look at it like this: Would I want my kids or grandkids going to the HOF in 50 or 100 years, and seeing the bust of Blyleven with the likes of Ryan, Koufax, Young, etc, and thinking that they were in any way equivalents? My answer is NO.
    As for Bagwell, the guy was using PED and it’s pretty obvious if you watched baseball in the 90’s. I also don’t think his numbers match up anyway.

  12. Crank, your take is a good one. Greenies enabled players to maintain high energy levels during a grueling 154/162 game season, particularly in the days when air travel was rare and much less comfortable than it is now. But ultimately, being a little buzzed is not going to turn long fly balls into homers or a 90mph fastball into a 95mph fastball. That takes additional muscle mass, and steroids if you want more than your genes would otherwise allow. If steroids were risk-free, then I guess I wouldn’t really care if players used them, but given their reputed nasty side effects, it’s bad policy to put players in the position of having to choose between their long-term health and keeping up with the Bondses. All that said, I wouldn’t keep PED users out of the HOF, but I definitely would apply a discount to their stats when making the determination of their worthiness. On that basis, guys like Bonds and Manny Ramirez would get in, but Bagwell and Juan Gonzalez would be out. By the way, does anyone else think that Fred McGriff deserves a hell of a lot more consideration–he was consistently excellent for a long time in both the pre- and post-PED era. The Crime Dog was twice the player that Jim Rice was.

  13. The one specific ability that a person must have inr order to play baseball at a major league level is superior hand-eye coordination. Not even one study has shown that PEDs have any positive influence on this. The poster child for steroid use is Jose Canseco. He claimed it turned him from a so-so minor leaguer to an All Star. Jose has an identical twin, Ozzie, who is still identical to Jose (meaning he also use steroids). Why didn’t the same chemicals working on the exact same DNA turn Ozzie into a MLB All Star too? If steroids really do turn scrubs into stars, Ozzie should have at least had a career along the lines of Eric Karros or Reggie Sanders.

  14. dodgersteve,
    Was it really obvious to you that Bagwell used steroids? I’ve heard others make claims like that about Bagwell and his jump in power.
    What about a sure HoFer like Nolan Ryan? Is it pretty obvious to you that 40-something year olds can’t pitch no hitters unless they’re using?
    Dave Righetti for President!

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