The Difference Between Steroids and Scuffed Balls

Much like what two consenting adults choose to do in the privacy of their own bedroom, what one consenting adult chooses to put into his or her own body is something I generally would consider to be none of my business. When it’s a major leaguer, I’m marginally more concerned given the potential impact to records that have a special place in my heart, but still default to respecting the right to privacy.

Nor is the stance mere sympathy. In my brief and spectacularly unimpressive high school and college athletic career, I – just like the professionals – sought an edge. True, they were tame by comparison – NODOZ (didn’t work, made everyone jittery), naprosyn (allowed you to play with inflamation), and a variety of protein shakes (tasted like hammered sand) – but still, the motivation is consistent if the tools are not.

So an anti-steroid screed, you will not be reading here.

That said, there is one argument in defense of steroid use and its place in the game that I hear regularly and cannot bear: that it is entirely consistent with the history of cheating within the game. Unlike other, nobler sports, baseball is and as nearly as I can determine always has been a game with room – if not an affection – for circumvention of the rules. Stealing signs, corked bats, foreign substances, scuffed balls – all of these are entirely unremarkable against the game’s colorful backdrop.

Last weekend, Jim Kaat spoke to Buster Olney on the subject of Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs), and made precisely the argument outlined above, saying (the whole thing is excellent):

My reason for pointing out these examples of “performance enhancements” or cheating is that it has been going on as long as the game itself. Steroids that help you perform better are no different except they can affect your health.

With all due respect to Kaat, who had one hell of a career as a pitcher and is credible in the booth as well, I’m not buying it. Besides the health implications, which he mentions, I think there’s a crucial differentiator between the old school and new school cheats: the ability to detect it on the field.

If you think a pitcher is scuffing or applying substances to the ball, you can have him searched. If the suspicion is that a bat is corked, you can have it confiscated and X-rayed. And if a player is stealing signs, you can knock him down. But Barry Bonds? The most they’ve accused him of – Game of Shadows notwithstanding – is perjury. You know, because steroids are difficult to detect period, let alone within the context of the game.

Until such time as in game urine tests are approved by the network censors, however, no such recourse exists for suspected steroid abusers. And with even allegations of steroids carrying with them a heavy price, I suspect many managers find themselves in a Scrabble like situation where they think something is wrong, but don’t dare chance it.

Consider that Sammy Sosa got caught for his corked bat, but not for anything related to steroids. Albert Belle would have been caught for the same offense if not for the daring, Mission Impossible style antics of Jason Grimsley. And a host of pitchers from Brendan Donnelly to Kenny Rogers have been caught applying the omnipresent pine tar to the balls.

Again, my role is not to sit and pass some half-assed judgement down on those who may or may not be guilty of using PEDs. But let’s none of us pretend that steroids are business as usual when it comes to cheating, because they are not. They may or may not confer the advantages assumed by external parties, and they may or may not be detectable by the questionable testing process submitted to by athletes, but they are decidedly not the equivalent of a scuffed ball.

Take whatever position you will on the subject of PEDs, then, but as Judge Harm once said, don’t spit in my cupcake and tell me it’s iciing.

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