On Steroids

There’s a list of Baseball Players who tested “positive for steroids” that someone has lying around which pops out a name or two when the time comes for another embarrassment. Never mind whether it was legal for the list to exist (I believe it wasn’t and was being used to blackmail some of the other stars into sticking by the Baseball Union when it came out), there’s enough roided players (who had time and forewarning to “clean themselves up,” let me add) on that list to sully a game that once prided itself on being “for natural talented people only.”

Of course, there’s another question worth asking: Why Care About Steroid Use In The First Place? After all, if sports is supposed to be about superlative physical activities, then why should we care if (and how) that activity is aided and abetted. After all, we’ve replaced wood poles with fiberglass and leather helmets with heavy-duty plastics.

How about this for an answer:

I: Isn’t Sports Supposed To Be a Meritocracy?

America likes to think of itself as an meritocratic nation. Never mind its hatred of working-class types who earn more than the minimum wage and/or believe that they actually deserve more than the minimum wage, Americans (at least those in a nation called the United States of America) like to believe that they rose or dropped to where they belonged, and could have done much better if they wanted to.

Sports is probably the most meritocratic institution in our society, and we like to think it so. Unlike anything involving the mind (remember, this is the nation that believes that 99.9% of the scientists are wrong and that there’s no global warming), it’s pretty obvious that the people we see on the playing field (court, diamond, ice rink, track, marathon route, ski slope, pole vault, etc) were in some way physically superior to us and therefore deserved the stardom placed on them.

Steroids mess with that.

A normal Joe willing to work hard, practice and shoot up Anabolic Steroids can make it over someone who works hard, has talent and tries to make it without Steroids. In other words, it messes up the way we perceive things should be, and throws things out of focus.

A good example is Tony Mandarich. A spectacular player during his years at Michigan State, he proved an absolute bust in Green Bay. One wonders how Green Bay would have done had they chosen Barry Sanders instead (of course, Detroit would have chosen Mandarich and maybe Tony wouldn’t have been known as such a Big Bust. After all, we’re talking about the Football Puddy-Tats, and he would have been yet another high draft that didn’t work out.).

Another example is Barry Bonds. Not because he would have made the Hall Of Fame easily without the stuff; but because his numbers ended up acting abnormally. Instead of dropping slowly, they suddenly bloated up to such a degree that they looked cartoonish. Not only that, but so did HE.

The fact is this: While football may be an exception (in part because of its violence), we expect our athletes to be more fit, smarter on the field, and just plain physically better than us. And we expect them to be young because sports is generally a youngster’s game (golf and bowling are exceptions here). And when something looks very off, it sets up alarms.

And that’s why we care if someone did steroids. Even if that roid use was years (or decades) ago.

II: And What About The Harm They Do?

Okay, I understand why the normal Joe Jock would consider shooting up with Steroids, Testosterone, HGH and other helps: It improves their game in many ways, from sheer strength to reaction and twitch time to speed. Stronger muscles means harder hits (on bats or players), quicker twitch time means longer time to wait, faster reactions means quicker actions and better mistake correction.

However, I can’t think that Steroids, Testosterone and HGH are ALL positives. Not only that, but I also find it a bit suspicious that whatever drawbacks there are only work in the long-term. Also consider that it makes sense that people would be willing to gamble the (always iffy, even if the iffy part is vanishingly small) future for massive immediate gains, and that sometimes that gain is the difference between starting and being cut (as minor league teams are more focused on developing young talent than winning championships).

So…what’s a drawback of Steroids/HGH/Testosterone?

How abut nerves?

Think of it: You have quicker twitch times and the ability to cover mistakes quicker. While this stuff may make you a better player in the day-to-day world, it could easily lead you astray when the pressure is on. A twitch may be not quite fast enough when you need to be a bit faster, or you twitch when you should hold off. What would normally be a walk turns instead into a ground-out, and what would normally be a ground-out becomes a ball thrown past the first-baseman and a two-base error.

In other words, the pressure times end up being the times when you fall back onto your non-steroidal self. Batting averages drop during playoffs, errors start popping up on the field and “superhorses” become suddenly nags.

Now admittedly football is a different animal in that the parts played are more specific. Blockers generally block, rushers rush the passer/runner, receivers try to catch the ball, QBs job is to insure the football moves forwards towards the goal, and kickers/punters try to boot the ball as far/well as they can. Each part has its place, and rare (and funny sometimes) is when the players have to go outside their space of expertise. That’s why football and Steroids/HGH/Testosterone seem to go better together.

But in a game that requires a more general, more complete skill-set (baseball), it’s possible to see that over-concentration (or cheating) on one set of skills would lead to a diminishment in some way of other aspects.

And that’s why Sosa would go from sleek and quick to rooted in place at the field (while able to pound the ball out of the ballpark). And why Barry Bonds would, towards the end of his career, end up being paraded out only when it was time for him to hit another home run. And why Jose Canseco, with the numbers he ended up producing, would end up playing for seven different teams (and didn’t so much play on World-Series winning teams as was a fellow traveler on them).

So maybe this should be the tag line: Steroids: Drug of Chokers?

III: And While We’re Thinking About It, Aren’t There Drawbacks WHILE The Drugs Are Being Taken?

While catching up on Tony Mandarich, I found out that not only did he now admit to using Steroids at MSU*, but he was also doing other drugs. Painkiller type drugs, and plenty of them.

Now of course, we can be cynical about all this: Tony’s coming out only because the silence of the Steroid users is coming to an end. People who once kept silent are now singing, so the world’s second most obvious steroid freak might as well come out.

However, I find it interesting that he felt the need to take the painkillers and alcohol so much that it made his life in Green Bay a living hell. And part of me wonders whether his decision to take Steroids was what led him to do alcohol and painkillers.

Seriously: With Steroids, HGH and Extra Testosterone, we’re talking about a decision to extend your muscles and reactions further than your body was meant to handle them, and in a way that cannot be kept up without outside intervention. Done right in sports, and steroids make muscles do what they weren’t meant to do at the time, and in a way that you weren’t meant to handle.

And what do you get? Pain…and injuries.

Think of it: Bonds may have bludgeoned his way in three years from 500 to 700 home runs, but the rest of the way was an injury-filled long march complete with the last few homers coming after weeks of absolute rest.

And it’s amazing that Canseco may have had enough power to come close to hall-of-fame numbers, but we’re talking about someone who was injured so much and badly for much of his career. I can’t help wondering if he would have lasted as long (or longer) without the juice. Sure, he might have been a journeyman (or an AAAA player) for his time, but I can see it as a longer time than what happened, and probably injury-free for that time as well.

And Wood and Prior…one has to wonder about them, with their constant habit of getting injured. And we know about Corky Sosa, of course (since one form of cheating wasn’t enough).

(*As for why Mandarich finally admitted using steroid during college, I believe part of it is because he can. Never mind his ability to play for three years in Indianapolis, but he now has a photography business which I’m guessing is successful enough for him to define himself outside of football. He can now say “I’m beyond that, I can admit to stuff.” Stuff that failures must hide because admitting their usage would mean admitting their failurehood.)

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