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Why we can’t talk intelligently about steroids in baseball

Jan 11, 2011, 12:00 PM EDT

George Mitchell

Matthew Artus has a good story up over at today. In it he takes Murray Chass to task for his steroids accusations against Mike Piazza.  We’ve covered that here before, but Matthew makes a grand point towards the end of his piece:

Every time we engage in a “Did he or didn’t he?” debate about PEDs in baseball, we stop debating the player’s achievements in the context of his era and his peers. While the players do themselves a disservice by continuing to stonewall efforts to understand PEDs in baseball, they also lack the incentive to do so since an admission will result in immediate expulsion and discredit from the baseball writers’ historical gaze.

If the writers won’t own up to their failure to raise the PED issue at its height and the players will not provide an intimate understanding of steroids in baseball, then how can any of us possibly ever hope to understand what we just saw? … I want to talk about the Steroids Era in baseball, not as a means to vilify players I didn’t like or to vindicate my favorites, but rather as a hope to judge baseball on its merits and in proper context

It’s a great point, and one I wish was made more often. But it has rarely been made, and the reason for this, I think, lies less with the writers themselves than with Major League Baseball.

It was Major League Baseball that decided that the most interesting and important thing about steroids in baseball was who used and who didn’t as opposed to what they meant and how they damaged the game and its users.  It did so when it commissioned the Mitchell Report which had as its climax a woefully incomplete naming of names as opposed to anything approaching a real understanding of the issue.  The writers merely took Major League Baseball’s cue in making this a gotcha game rather than a thorough understanding of PEDs and their role in baseball.

In doing so, the following topics (and many other germane ones) have been utterly ignored:

  • How often did people use?
  • Were the primary users were people who got hurt and were trying to come back more quickly? Stars who wanted to blast their way into the Hall of Fame? Minor leaguers who wanted to become major leaguers?
  • When did users actually start using? High school? College? In the minors? After making The Show?
  • Was drug use a personal thing? Specifically, did guys decide on their own, based on their own personal experiences to use steroids, or was it a peer pressure thing in which certain clubhouses promoted a “steroid culture?”
  • How did players connect with their dealers? Word of mouth, or did the dealers seek out their customers?
  • What dealers — besides the dumb ones named in the Mitchell Report who took personal checks and shipped drugs to ballparks — were the big players?
  • Were the people who didn’t use choir boys who had moral objections, or did fear of the dangers of steroids and/or a belief that they simply didn’t need them inform their decision making?
  • What impact did steroids have on actual performance, both actual and perceived?

But these questions were never answered, never asked. Indeed, the Mitchell Report and everything that has followed has evinced a profound lack of curiosity about such topics.  A lack of curiosity that mirrored the blinkered approach to the matter the press and the game took in the 1990s. To the extent we know the answers to any of these questions the information is piecemeal and, without the imprimatur of Major League Baseball, unofficial, unacknowledged and not at all rigorously researched.

But then again, the Mitchell Report was not meant to answer any questions. It was meant to stop them. To put a bookend on the p.r. disaster that Ken Caminiti and Jose Canseco uncorked in 2002. To put a bookend on the steroids era itself, really, and to allow fans, the press and the government to pretend that steroids use was limited to a certain unfortunate time and to certain unsavory group of people.

In this same way, the writers’ current stance on Hall of Fame candidates — the dirty out, the clean in! — is an effort to avoid the tough questions presented by PEDs in baseball.  To impose certainty when there is none. To avoid having to ask why so much was missed before and what, exactly, should be done about it now.

Like the Mitchell Report, the current take by most of the baseball press on steroids is lazy, misleading and close to useless.  And like Matthew Artus, I wish it would stop and that we could move on to properly contextualizing this stuff.  Actually considering the merits of players who were known to use — rather than vilifying them — would be a great place to start.

  1. Panda Claus - Jan 11, 2011 at 12:20 PM

    The Artus story is the best thing to come out of New Jersey since cement.

    A fair number of good points, with a littany of unanswered questions Craig brought up to boot.

    But let’s face another fact about baseball besides the great smokescreen that was the Mitchell Report: Selig and MLB won’t actively make a weighty decision about anything until they absolutely have to.

    • Jonny 5 - Jan 11, 2011 at 12:30 PM

      Heyyy, watch it tubby!!! I have some cement shoes that could fix your wagon. Buoyancy may become an issue, they’re big shoes though.

      • Panda Claus - Jan 11, 2011 at 2:42 PM

        Jonny, the way you reacted makes me believe you thought I was talking about cement as if it were a bad thing. There’s a vital, useful industry up there. Without cement in history how would we have ever had fine ballparks like Veteran’s Stadium, Three Rivers or Cleveland Municipal?

  2. JM Lattanzi - Jan 11, 2011 at 12:21 PM

    That last question – about the effects on performance – should be one of the most important ones, especially if we are debating numbers and such in the Hall of Fame. Some have attempted this, but there were too many moving parts and too many assumptions about what steroids are and what they do.

    I would love to see a long-term study about the actual effects on the physical actions of the game…although it’s just much easier to deal in innuendo and suggestion, as too many of our esteemed media folks are wont to do.

    • paperlions - Jan 11, 2011 at 1:54 PM

      You mean….like this?

      • JM Lattanzi - Jan 11, 2011 at 1:59 PM

        I had not seen that. Thanks for the link.

      • Detroit Michael - Jan 11, 2011 at 2:31 PM

        The best studies have seen have concluded that (1) MLB batters that use steroids increase their HR output by 7% – 12% and (2) there is no evidence that HGH affects batting performance. (Of course, it could be that HGH helps batters heal more quickly, not improve performance.)

        The Eric Walker webpage is worth reading but my impression is that he’s not a nonpartisan advocate for the truth. Others can judge for themselves.

      • Kevin S. - Jan 11, 2011 at 2:36 PM

        Care to indicate what these “best studies” are?

      • paperlions - Jan 11, 2011 at 2:42 PM

        Reading through Walker’s page a couple years ago, I got more of a sense that he was frustrated with the myriad assumptions people had made about steroid/PED effects. To me, it reads more like is a partisan for fact based analysis (as opposed to rampant speculation) than pro-steroids. If there is information to try to answer the question, isn’t it better to use that information than to just make up whichever answer suits you (which is what the majority of fans and writers have done)?

  3. giant4life - Jan 11, 2011 at 12:31 PM

    Before th players themselves step out of the closet the man behind the curtain needs to show himself. Future hall of fame head of baseball is unwilling to tarnish his reputation, why should the players. The writer like Chassless, and Blurrman are doing more damage by baseless character assassination than to report on a era. I two would like to know the answers to your questions but not with the zeal and contempt of some of the writers.. unfathomably, the truth might not set you free, it just will keep you out of the hall.

  4. elmaquino - Jan 11, 2011 at 12:34 PM

    It sucks, but you have to look at every big leaguer ever with some caution that he may have cheated somehow The 90s should have taught us that just because a guy is a ‘legend’ doesn’t mean he’s innocent (see Mickey Mantle) Fans have to do their homework. Roids in baseball go back to the 60s and greenies go way back to the late 40s. Check this out; it will change your thinking on steroids:

  5. Jonny 5 - Jan 11, 2011 at 12:35 PM

    “Why we can’t talk intelligently about steroids in baseball?”

    #1 reason. The window to talk about it intelligently is impossible at this point. BBWAA members for the most part refuse to do so. As well as the fact that no player in their right mind cough cough Jose! will come out and say one way or the other what really went on, and how much it really helped them.

  6. Detroit Michael - Jan 11, 2011 at 12:36 PM

    You might add to your list of questions:
    • Was using steroids considered by those within the baseball industry as “cheating” at the time that they were used? How serious a violation was it considered? How does it compare to other forms of “cheating” or unethical behavior? Do the answers to those questions change over time as enforcement measures and societal norms changed?

  7. giant4life - Jan 11, 2011 at 12:47 PM

    I see the Mitchell Report not as an effort to learn about steroid use in baseball. The report was done by a guy who has coveted the position of Commissioner.., and a personal friend of Budman. The report…was anything but definitive…I see it as it is….very similar to way the Army protected itself with the cover up of Pat Tillman’s death. The Mitchell report hung out few guys already villains in the American press so that no blame could be put on Selig’s doorstep.

  8. churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Jan 11, 2011 at 12:53 PM

    Why we can’t talk intelligently about steroids in baseball

    I hope you meant this as a rhetorical question and not a real one. Look at how this country deals with drugs. We teach our children that smoking weed is terrible and can have detrimental affects on our lives (including death from some commercials), but we see alcohol and tobacco adds everywhere. Far more people die from cigarettes and alcohol, but heaven forbid someone smokes weed on a saturday while watching cartoons.

    Never mind the hypocrisy between legal and illegal drugs. We expect our athletes to pump themselves full of cortisone [steroid] to get back on the field with bulging discs in their back, or broken limbs. Or we are bombarded with Cialis/Viagra adds boosting sexual performance. But taking HGH to repair muscles or another steroid to get back on the field is punishable by DEATH [slight exaggeration].

    • Utley's Hair - Jan 11, 2011 at 1:22 PM

      Pffft…you don’t spark one up to watch cartoons. You drop some acid, maaaaannn!!!!!

  9. spudchukar - Jan 11, 2011 at 12:58 PM

    When MLB grants an individual a hall of fame vote it doesn’t include some authoritative power to demean, debase, or destroy. People are prone to abuse power. Some of the voters seem to adopt a tone of a despot. They relish the opportunity to impugn. These diviners of moral authority could use a mirror. A little understanding is in order. The manichaean standards offered by Chass et al lends little light and a great deal of heat to an issue as complex as the proverbial Gordian Knot. How about an iota of humanity. Steroid users are not the devil incarnate. And we will do no one any justice if a balanced, cerebral investigation into the use and abuse of PEDs isn’t conducted.

  10. Chris Fiorentino - Jan 11, 2011 at 1:39 PM

    Craig, you are once again falling into the trap of trying to make a topic OBJECTIVE when it is and always will be quite SUBJECTIVE. It’s all just a waste of time and it is not possible to have reasonable, intelligent debate when you are dealing with the purely SUBJECTIVE tastes of baseball writers.

    * How often did people use? (Do you want a #…like 1,349 players used monthly…OBJECTIVE)

    * Were the primary users were people who got hurt and were trying to come back more quickly? Stars who wanted to blast their way into the Hall of Fame? Minor leaguers who wanted to become major leaguers?(You want a concrete list of users and what point in their careers they used??…again…OBJECTIVE)

    * When did users actually start using? High school? College? In the minors? After making The Show?(When = OBJECTIVE)

    * Was drug use a personal thing? Specifically, did guys decide on their own, based on their own personal experiences to use steroids, or was it a peer pressure thing in which certain clubhouses promoted a “steroid culture?”(Could be SUBJECTIVE, I guess…if you got each guy to give his personal story)

    * How did players connect with their dealers? Word of mouth, or did the dealers seek out their customers?(How = OBJECTIVE)

    * What dealers — besides the dumb ones named in the Mitchell Report who took personal checks and shipped drugs to ballparks — were the big players?(What dealers??…you want a list???..OBJECTIVE)

    * Were the people who didn’t use choir boys who had moral objections, or did fear of the dangers of steroids and/or a belief that they simply didn’t need them inform their decision making?(OK, this one is more SUBJECTIVE, but again, you’ll need to have the individual players talk about this and it will be different for each guy)

    * What impact did steroids have on actual performance, both actual and perceived?(What impact…do you want an actual # for the performance improvement???…ok…let’s say 20% LOL…PURELY OBJECTIVE HERE)

    Your questions beg for an OBJECTIVE answer where one will NEVER EVER EVER come. It will always be SUBJECTIVE and will always depend on which sportswriter you are reading. Face it…the awards…the Hall of Fame voting…ALL SUBJECTIVE.

    You rip a writer(rightfully by the way) who didn’t vote for Bagwell because he “suspects” him of steroid use…but are you really surprised? Some voters still voted to give the Cy Young to the guy with the most wins. Again…are you really surprised?

  11. aaronmoreno - Jan 11, 2011 at 1:56 PM

    The people who know the most about steroid use in baseball are the players and the writers who were around them. I can understand that the players won’t talk. They’re not saying anything, which I expect. But the writers spill ink vilifying players, with at least some knowledge of the truth, but they won’t give us any evidence to back it up. Pearlman can go on tirades all he wants, I don’t care. However, if you say Bagwell and Biggio used, and that he KNOWS it, then give us some evidence. Hearsay is fine. Just SAY you saw it, not “Just trust me on this one,” with a wink and a nod.

  12. paperlions - Jan 11, 2011 at 1:57 PM

    It is hard to discuss any topic intelligently when people form an opinion before they have even one shred of factual information. In the case of steroids, people decided what they thought about steroids and what effect they think steroids had on baseball without ever doing even the most basic research on any topic. To this day, most of the baseball media still have not bothered to read about steroids so they can understand the effects they have, potential dangers (if any), and how such things would have effected the product on the field.
    Lazy sums up the media’s and the fans’ approach to discussing steroids pretty well.

  13. Mark Armour - Jan 11, 2011 at 2:00 PM

    A huge part of the problem, I think, is that many people (including writers on both sides of this issue) use the Hall of Fame as a proxy for “understanding baseball history”. There is really no reason to do this. Writers should write about the history of the game without regard to what some group of writers at some point thought about someone.

    I long for the day when someone, anyone, can write a story about Ron Santo or Jim Rice or Tim Raines without mentioning the words “Hall of Fame”–just write about who these guys were, what they did well (which was a lot), what they did less well, big games they had. Help people understand nuances of these players without the overriding “How good were they?” question. I am not saying that these stories are bad, I just want the other stories too.

    Someone should try to write 1000 words about steroids, and don’t mention the Hall of Fame a single time. It can be done. One does not “vote” to decide what happened.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Jan 11, 2011 at 2:05 PM

      You’ll find this interesting Mark: today after I posted this, a certain baseball writer contacted me, angry that I was “once again beating up the writers.” I talked to him a bit and he said “you need to get over the fact that your guys aren’t getting in the Hall of Fame.” I told him that, while this topic was inspired by the Hall of Fame generally speaking, and while I make an appeal at the end to be more reasonable with Hall voting, none of the criticisms here had anything particularly to do with the Hall of Fame. The point just didn’t sink in at all outside of the context of the Hall of Fame debates.

      Given how much I’ve written about the Hall lately I can see how I’m not very good example and how my correspondent today could easily have been confused about my point, but it certainly was telling. I think your point is a damn good one.

      • Mark Armour - Jan 11, 2011 at 2:15 PM

        Hey, its January, and it is sensible that the HOF is a central focus. I (as you know) can engage in this discussion myself. But I do believe that there is less of an interest today in baseball history itself, which is something I love and enjoy, even though there is more interest than ever in the “how good was Player X?” debating. Part of this, I think, is that no one ever writes about Bert Blyleven other than in the context of a HOF debate.

      • calrulz25 - Jan 11, 2011 at 2:54 PM

        I think the steroids and the Hall of Fame debate is an important one, but I think it’s one that most people are getting wrong. Here is my take on the Hall of Fame and why not electing people based on suspicions of steroid use means you don’t understand why the Hall of Fame exists.

        The Hall of Fame is, I believe, most important to one group of baseball people, the fans. Baseball players don’t need the hall of fame because they lived it. Is it a great honor, yes, but they were already rewarded with millions of dollars for their athletic achievements. Baseball writers don’t need the hall of fame because they were already rewarded by covering and writing about baseball for a LIVING. Writers get to interact talk to and be a part of baseball.Also, they get paid to do what many baseball fans do for free. However, baseball fans who are the reason that both players and writers have a job, need the Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame is museum where fans can go to honor their favorite players. It’s where fathers take their sons to give them stories about their favorite Hall of Fame players. It’s where baseball fans go to celebrate the history of the game.

        The plea I make to Hall of Fame voters is elect players like Bagwell and Bonds if you are feel they are worthy and don’t elect players like McGwire or Palmeiro if you feel they are not. But judge them on what happened on the baseball field, not off. Let us, each and every fan who ever visits the hall of fame, let us decide how we feel about what they did off the field. Don’t tell us who supposedly did steroids or who didn’t, we the fans are smart enough to decide that for ourselves.

      • schlom - Jan 11, 2011 at 3:00 PM


        Is “you need to get over the fact that your guys aren’t getting in the Hall of Fame” a direct quote?

        If so, that pretty much explains this whole issue.

      • Craig Calcaterra - Jan 11, 2011 at 3:01 PM

        It’s very, very close to a direct quote.

      • schlom - Jan 11, 2011 at 3:21 PM

        I may be making out too much from the quote from an unnamed writer but maybe this “steroids in the Hall Of Fame” issue doesn’t have anything to do with steroids but another battle between the mainstream writers and the internet writers.

      • natslady - Jan 29, 2013 at 1:07 PM

        I think Craig makes very good points, if I’m understanding correctly.

        (1) Can we separate PED investigation/analysis from the Hall of Fame voting? I really don’t care that much about the HoF, who gets in, who doesn’t. Some of it seems arbitrary, and whether or not members of the HoF should be sports “heroes” is interesting in its own right–there are creepy guys in the HoF beyond PED users.

        (2) On the other hand, I am very interested in whether players are using PEDs, to what degree, why, how they affect performance, how obtained and the other issues mentioned by Craig. As in the case of the NFL/concussion issue, there are medical facts that can be identified and reported.

    • paperlions - Jan 11, 2011 at 2:28 PM

      In what other venue can so many reporters and columnists get away with not informing themselves on the topic, while continuing to write about it for a decade?
      The “writers” should count themselves lucky that they are “beaten up” about the topic of PEDs so little. As a group, they have earned much more scorn for their laziness and failure to seek information than they have received.

  14. Chris Fiorentino - Jan 11, 2011 at 3:42 PM

    Look guys…if it was not PEDs, it would be something else. Don’t you get it? The most important thing to a Baseball Writer is THEIR VOTE!!! It is their control over the game that they can only write about 99% of the time. They will continue to exert this control over the end-of-year awards, as well as the Hall of Fame, until this power is taken away.

  15. thefalcon123 - Jan 11, 2011 at 3:57 PM

    Most annoying is the assumption that steroids work on every player the same way. Granted, I doubt Barry Bonds hits 73 home runs and posts a .863 slugging percentage because those went above his previous norms(fantastic as they were) at an age when he should be past his prime. But clearly it doesn’t have the exact same effects on all players. Otherwise, I can’t imagine how shitty Gary Bennet was at baseball before he started using.

    • thefalcon123 - Jan 11, 2011 at 4:05 PM

      Another point that drives me nuts is the absolute *certainty* so many people have that Brady Anderson must have used steroids in 1996 which is why he hit fifty homers. Well, let’s follow this logic: Brady Anderson, above average hitter at a premium defensive position, decides he wants to take it up a notch and starts using steroids. He proceeds to have the season of his life, becomes the 3rd center fielder in history to hit 50(Griffey would be the fourth in 97) bombs, slugs over .600 and basically has a Ken-Griffey-in-his-prime type season. He then decides that he didn’t really like hitting 50 homers and being awesome at baseball, decides to quit taking steroids going into his free agent year so he’ll make less money and returns to being merely a pretty good centerfielder.

      Makes perfect sense.

  16. Old Gator - Jan 11, 2011 at 10:32 PM

    What can we talk intelligently about? I just finished trying to explain unified field theory to an idiot.

    • theolgoaler - Jan 12, 2011 at 10:38 AM

      Well, politics is out (obviously)… Hey! “How About That Snow?!

      Home runs can be increased by ballpark factors (Coors Field, Wrigley with the wind blowing out, etc.), changes in the manufacture of the baseball (see: 1932), strength increase due to steroids (or, conversely, due to weight training without steroids), and… oh, yeah! Crappy pitching!

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