Positive Papi (Duh)

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ortiz.jpgAt 2 pm yesterday afternoon, the New York Times broke news that Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz tested positive for steroids in 2003, making them them the sixth and seventh names to come to light as being on that list.  In case you don't know, this list is the result of a test that Major League Baseball conducted to see if it needed to implement league-wide testing for performance enhancers, enough players tested positive in that 2003 survey for the league to start cracking down on the problem and testing regularly.  (I wrote a little more about it in this February article about Alex (A-Rod) Rodriguez's admission of guilt, if you need some more info.)  Needless to say, this is devastating news to the people of Red Sox Nation (I'm not a member), as two beloved members of the 2004 team that broke the curse have now fallen, though Ramirez has recently lost some of his luster after serving a 50 game suspension this season for testing positive for a female fertility drug, the kind of drug that one would take if they needed their body to restart the production of testosterone.  Either way, it doesn't seem like baseball's steroid problem is going to go away any time soon, and it's probably going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

There's no longer any question that tons of major league players were at some point using performance enhancers.  All kinds of players have gotten caught, it doesn't make a difference if they're a big star or a guy doing whatever it takes to stay in the Majors.  Baseball is mired in a major quagmire right now, this is no longer up for debate.  Changes need to happen, and they need to happen right now.  There are two things that Major League Baseball should do to change the course of the sport: 1) release the names of everyone on that list and 2) tell Bud Selig to take a hike.

Even though the test and its results were supposed to remain anonymous, that 2003 list of the first steroid offenders is haunting the game right now.  I don't know how or why it wasn't destroyed, as the Commissioner's office had promised at the time, but it's too late to destroy it now, as it is in the hands of federal prosecutors.  In order to avoid a situation where the game gets dragged back to 2003 every six months or so, the names on that list need to be made public.  The league has already established the precedent of not suspending players for being on that list because A-Rod wasn't suspended, and no one listed in the Mitchell Report was suspended as a result of having his name in that document.  But, these guys need to take their lumps, make their veiled apologies and we all need to move on.  It's never gonna be over until it's over, and by being in a situation where "anonymous sources" leak a name or two every few months, or whenever the sports news cycle shows a sign of slowing down.  I'm not a lawyer and I don't know what the legality of this might be, the Deadspin post on the subject remarked that the anonymous source might have broken some laws by leaking the names, but it's really the only way.

And Bud Selig has to go.  I don't understand how he has held his job this long anyway, but it's really time for someone else to come in and change the culture.  Bud is too entrenched in his product at this point, and he's not able to look rationally at what's happening.  Maybe it's that he's more worried about profitability than integrity, and the league is quite profitable, and maybe he's just too much a member of some old boys network.  Either way, his time has passed.  How much more do we, as fans, have to take?  From the World Series-canceling strike of 1994 to the Expos/Nationals wandering franchise to the consistent talk of contraction in the late 90's and early Aughts to the steroid issue that has plagued the league for the last twenty years, enough is enough.  I'm not blaming it all on Selig, but it's time for him to step down for the sake of the league.  The league needs someone totally transparent and new to make clear that the time when we all looked the other way as players bulked up to ridiculous degrees and blasted home runs is over.  Baseball needs a new direction, and it starts at the top, with replacing Selig.

As for Ortiz testing positive, this one is gonna hurt a lot of people.  The amazing irony of all the steroid admissions is that, while many high profile names have come out, there hasn't been a widely loved player on the list, until now.  Sure, San Francisco Giants fans loved Barry Bonds, but most everyone else found him to be an asshole.  The same is true for players like A-Rod and Roger Clemens, they had both built up enough ill will throughout the course of their careers that they were not iconic anymore.  Ortiz is a little different, he's still loved by everyone who roots for the Red Sox, and he's always had an incredibly lovable aura surrounding him.  What's worse, he is on record as wanting a really harsh penalty for steroid users, making him not just a de facto liar for using them, but a hypocrite as well.  Oh yeah, and a cheater.

In a certain way, this news makes us have to face, once again, the disparity between who we think these athletes are and who they really are.  We've seen before players who have ruined their good guy reps by engaging in sketchy off-field behavior (Kirby Puckett, anyone?), but this is a little different because now (as much as ever) we've got to accept that this is cheating and these guys are cheaters, no matter how many names come out.  A very basic and schoolyard-esque rule has been broken, and for some reason, the more players who come out as having broken it, the more necessary that rule seems.  Which is to say, an aberration is one thing, but an epidemic is something completely different.  On the bright side, sometimes cheating only costs you your reputation; unfortunately and tragically for Steve McNair, cheating can sometimes cost you your life.

The steroid issue is never going to be truly behind everyone, not unless there is a major sea change within the game or we stop caring about it entirely.  In all likelihood, it's the latter that will happen first, and if the Ortiz revelation proves anything it might be that, indeed, such a vast majority of players are on performance enhancers that it will take several generations of players to weed it all out.  I don't really believe that this is a realistic expectation, and I think maybe it's time to accept that this is the state of the game.  No star is above suspicion, no fan base will remain unaffected by future leaks, the Hall of Fame will eventually (and might already) include steroid users.  We need to learn to get used to it because that's just the way it is, and it's probably the way it will always be.  Whether or not it has to be that way is an entirely different discussion.


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    You know, find it amazing how deeply ubiquidous that last question seems to be. Is the problem anomylous or systemic? I think every single aspect of our culture seems to be wrought with that question. Was it just Nixon or does the Executive Branch have too much power? Was it just Enron or is our system of corporate greed in need of an overhaul? Is it enough to plant a tree on Earth Day or do we need to give up air conditioning and automobiles? Is it isolated instances or do we need to overhaul our culture. And the really damning part about it is that while the answer seems more often that we DO have a systemic problem we almost always treat it as an anomoly. We punish a scapegoat and move on, probably to our collective and ultimate detriment.

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    I'm baffled by the attention garnered in the last 5 years or so by performance enhancing drugs (PED's) and the players that use them. There are two main reasons for my confusion: PED’s are not new; there is so much else in baseball that deserves attention.

    First and foremost, I've been watching baseball for over 20 years, and PED's have been a regular part of the game over that entire span. I mean, we're talking about a game in which the participants use and have, for over a century, used PED's (nicotine) on the field. Add the current prevalence of caffeine, pseudoephedrine, and corticosteroids (all banned, I think, by the International Olympic Committee), Mark McGwire's 1998 admission of androstenedione (an anabolic androgenic steroid) use, the supposedly cocaine-fueled '86 Mets, and longstanding prevalence of greenies (methamphetamine) used routinely (again, supposedly) by such greats as Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, and you have a game whose history is intertwined with that of pharmacology. So what's changed recently? Well, anabolic androgenic steroids and human growth hormone appear to be relatively new. Unfortunately, there's no evidence that they make one good at baseball, and certainly no reason to make anyone think that they're more effective than greenies or cocaine. Of course, there has been an offensive explosion since the strike in '94 which has seen records broken for home runs in a season (Bonds over McGwire over Maris), home runs in a career (Bonds over Aaron), runs in a career (Henderson over Cobb), hits in a season (Suzuki over Sisler), walks in a season (Bonds over Ruth), HBP in a career (Biggio over Somebody), and pinch hits in a career (Harris over Mota). (Did I get all those right? Did I miss any?) But ascribing the offensive explosion to steroids assumes that only hitters and not pitchers were using – not true. The offensive explosion is far more likely to be the result of expansion, Quest-Tec (sp.), smaller ballparks, and Moneyball than of new and improved PED's. On the other hand, anabolic steroids, along with the rise of the Players' Union and large free-agent contracts, are far more likely than changes to the game itself to have caused the recent and precipitous rise in the number and severity of player injuries. I mean, we've seen Jermaine Dye snap his tibia with a foul ball and a minor league pitcher in the Tampa organization snap his humerus by . . . pitching. Unless they have unidentified bone tumors, their injuries are steroid-related until proven otherwise.

    The second reason for my confusion is that while reporters can't stop talking about performance enhancing drugs, they can't start talking about performance dehancing drugs. I mean, the whole point of talking about PED's is that their use sets a bad example to those of us who look up to the users. But the same is true of alcohol. We have seen two major league pitchers die in drunk-driving related motor vehicle accidents recently: one on the Cardinals, one on the Angels. Meanwhile, companies that produce alcohol-containing products (mostly beer) continue to be some of the largest sponsors of major league baseball, and nobody’s talking about it. How can this be? During Bonds’s chase of the career home run record, I went to a Giants’ game at which a group of fans held up a sign that said “The Babe did it on hot dogs and beer”. Really? Are alcoholism (10% lifetime prevalence in the United States) and obesity (>25% point prevalence in the United States) admirable? Speaking of moral relativism, is it acceptable that Ruth beat his wife or that Cobb assaulted African-Americans? The New York tabloids have all written stories about the use of both marijuana (100% lifetime prevalence in the United States, as far as I can tell) and steroids by Mets players in the late ‘90’s, but all recent stories have concerned only steroid use. Our economy is sagging under the weight of tremendous private (as well as public) debt, but Lenny Dykstra, a member of the ’86 Mets and ’93 National League champion Phillies who both used steroids and recently filed for bankruptcy after accruing millions in debt will end up being denied admission to baseball’s Hall of Fame only for his steroid use. Finally, there is the greatest irony of all. With the reputations of Ramirez and Ortiz in tatters, it is Kurt Schilling who will be regarded by most New Englanders as the greatest hero of all from the 2004 season. This is the same Kurt Schilling who openly campaigned against Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and for former alcoholic George W. Bush (who owned the Texas Rangers in the midst of their own PED’s scandal – but that’s a story for another time) for President. My point is not that we should prioritize the vices of our heroes and seek to quash only those at the top of the list. My point is that we should regard the use of PED’s in baseball with some perspective. After all, their use creates a prisoner’s dilemma such that the people that are injured the most by PED’s are the players themselves. Players who would otherwise avoid PED’s feel compelled to use them in order to compete with their peers who may or may not be using. In other words, this is a problem for the Players’ Union to deal with. As for the rest of us, until steroid abuse becomes a problem on the scale of alcohol, cocaine, methamphetamine, nicotine, and food abuse, it’s safe to ignore it.

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    first of all, that was an amazing comment. i'm pretty sure it's the best one in the history of the internet, and certainly this website. second, you're right in your final point, that steroid use and abuse is not the biggest problem for the game, and i agree with you that alcohol in particular is a bigger problem than anyone wants to admit, with the one caveat that nick adenhardt wasn't drunk and neither was the driver of the car he was in, they were hit by a drunk driver highlighting the society-wide problem that alcohol use and abuse is and that baseball is totally complicit in through ubiquitous sponsorships.

    as for why fans and writers key onto the steroids issue instead of other substance abuse issues, my feeling is that we do so because steroids are unnatural - not in general, but to our day to day lives as fans and writers. to write about the pervasiveness of the alcohol industry in baseball is to confront it within our own lives, the same for all the little things that get one through the day, whether it's a red bull or a gram of coke, it amounts to the same thing - something that we can understand. few people use steroids to get through the day, few people consider the upside that you can train harder and longer an advantage when wading through the bureaucracies of one's job. athletes are the only ones who use steroids (generally speaking, i know that many medications are technically steroids) on a daily basis and that separates them, the athletes, from regular people, and that's what makes steroids (and the difference between athlete and fan) so big a deal. you've got to admit that baseball has a certain "everyman" quality to it, for every mark mcgwire-like mountain of man, there is a david eckstein-esque normal-sized person who is just working harder and playing smarter, and that's the thing - if it's the steroids that make the difference, then it's steroids that might have made a regular dude into an atheletic god and that makes them bad, or at least worse. this might also be why steroids in baseball are a huge deal, while steroids in football is something literally no one cares about, but it's been common knowledge that they've been in the NFL for thirty years, the 70's raiders teams that won championships were not at all shy about their use of ped's.

    there's lots to unpack here, which bring me to point 3: would you like to become the official Steve's Word sports reporter? I have a feeling that a need for responses like the one you've written above will continue to be necessary in the future and i know they are in short supply right now. just think about.


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    also, i forgot to mention: thanks for reading the site, man.

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    Someone get Jonas his own column!

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