It’s time for baseball’s PED witch hunt to come to an end

With all the discussion of Melky Cabrera and asterisks, I’d like to commend Melky for taking himself out of the race for the batting title. I’m not sure what his precise motivations really were, but his announcement on the matter — “I personally have no wish to win an award that would widely be seen as tainted, and I believe that it would be far better for the remaining contenders to compete for that distinction” — is, on the surface at least, a stand-up move.

Having said that, I think a lot of the clamor over PEDs in baseball — and “the Steroid Era” in particular — lacks historical perspective. It’s another example of people’s exaggeration of a “good old days” that never really happened, and it’s also reliant on scapegoating a few high-profile players for a general situation in which many took part, and which Major League Baseball seems to have tacitly allowed.

First of all, I would like to note that I am not a proponent of steroid use. Steroids are dangerous, they distort people physically and mentally, they set a horrendous example for youth and they are just generally disgusting and ridiculous. The thing is, I am not, generally speaking, even talking about steroids here. I’m talking about “performance-enhancing drugs,” an enormous and amorphous and ever-expanding umbrella term whose definition has continued to broaden for reasons both legitimate and overblown.

I understand why PEDs have been addressed by Major League Baseball; steroids aren’t the only example of PEDs that are dangerous and character-warping. But at the same time, caffeine can legitimately be seen as a performance-enhancing substance, and in fact is a performance-enhancing substance! It’s one of nature’s most reliable stimulants, and furthermore, it’s extremely addictive. Now, I know what you’re thinking here, and I am not putting caffeine in the same category as other more atrocious PEDs. And for argument’s sake, it would be unreasonable, illogical and completely unenforceable to regulate the caffeine intake of Major League Baseball players. But let’s not pretend that sucking down coffee, Coke and Red Bull isn’t a pretty effective way to stay alert and focused and sufficiently reactive to fastballs — and let’s not pretend that the increased production and marketing of absurdly caffeinated drinks hasn’t found its influence in MLB clubhouses. But this isn’t the crux of my argument, as let’s face it: Lots of Americans overuse caffeine.

However, most Americans do not overuse amphetamines.

That’s right: amphetamines. Or “greenies,” as they were called amongst major leaguers for years. In 2005, a Sports Illustrated article called out Major League Baseball about amphetamines. The issue never seemed to stick in the realm of public opinion, but Major League Baseball at least finally got around to banning them.  Nevertheless, from a New York Times article on their use:

Since 1970, using amphetamines without a prescription has been a federal crime. Still, that never deterred certain players, who used them to fight fatigue and to sharpen their focus. One reason amphetamines are popular is because they arouse the central nervous system, making users feel more alert.

So, how come there’s been no public outcry to “asterisk” the various records from the 1970s and 1980s?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that baseball should not attempt to contain the use of performance-enhancing drugs in its sport, particularly the illegal and/or highly dangerous ones. But I am pointing out that the “Steroid Era” is not the only era of Major League Baseball to be affected by PEDs, During the cocaine scandal involving the Pittsburgh Pirates of the early 1980s, a lot of players alluded to being given amphetamines by various high-profile players. Moreover, the prolific use of “greenies” has been an open secret for decades, and even Bud Selig himself reputedly first heard of their use back in the 1950s. I am simply saying the witch-hunt mentality that has evolved around PEDs, and their elimination, needs to stop. Moreover, the individual scapegoating of high-profile players — as though Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were the only ones using them — is also over the top. Here’s why …

First of all, let’s address the fact that the “big sluggers,” particularly Barry Bonds, McGwire and Sosa, have been at the center of the vitriol over the “Steroid Era” and supposed downfall of baseball integrity. Meanwhile, a lot of the players who’ve been caught for PEDs have been pitchers! This actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Aside from the “I juice so I can bench 300 pounds” conventional wisdom on the matter, a lot of the “value” in PEDs comes in the form of shortened recovery time between workouts and stressful activity. Now, of all people who could most benefit from this sort of thing, pitchers, especially relief pitchers, come to mind. Think about how many more guys have 90 mph fastballs nowadays; remember when throwing 90 was kind of a big deal? Let’s also remember how many RPs are asked to throw as much as four days a week. Anything that can enhance recovery speed would be extremely helpful for this endeavor. I’m not suggesting pitchers are the main offenders; I am suggesting that the focus on high-profile sluggers has been misguided.

Secondly, and no less importantly, the “witch hunt” phenomenon has neglected to recognize a key factor in the human condition: people do not read fine print. Prior to the broadening of awareness of PEDs, and the dangers of taking substances to make you bigger, stronger and faster becoming more widely known, there was a period when GNC and other “health and fitness nutrition” places were marketing over-the-counter products that made all kinds of promises to people who weren’t reading the fine print. Please note I am not talking about steroids here, I’m talking over-the-counter GNC stuff, everything from weight-loss drinks to protein shakes.

There’s always a lag time between when something hits the market and when its hidden hazards are leaked. I’d bet a lot of people, men and women alike — weekend warriors to semipro to folks just trying to work on their beach bodies — would have failed an MLB PED test during a broad stretch of the early 2000s. This is not to absolve people of the responsibility to know, and monitor, what’s put into their bodies. I am just noting that people, by and large, don’t do this very well, whether it related to heart-attack-inducing diet pills or somnambulant-crime-inducing sleep aids.

The thing about Major League Baseball players, a lot of them are pretty regular guys, and they’re often drafted quite young, which means many players, from the country bumpkins to the kids from the hood and the Caribbean, haven’t even gone to college. I’m not suggesting anything about the non-college-educated here, but I am saying that if you take a whole lot of people who are mainly just regular guys, put them in a situation where they feel compelled to recover as fast as possible to perform against highly talented competition for over 200 days out of the year, engaging in repetitive motion activities that wear down joints and backs and core muscles, then you walk them into your average “health food & nutrition” storefront where the shelves are stocked with live resin gummies to help them heal fast and get more efficient workouts … well, they’ll engage the same level of decision-making that the general population tends to make in such situations. Which is to say: often hasty and ill-considered decision-making. Again, I’m not saying this to disparage the general public, or baseball players, or the non-college-educated, or any other population for that matter. I’m just saying we ought to remember that for many, many years, it was probably a lot easier than you think to fail an MLB PED test because of something you unwittingly took at GNC.

Also remember: I am not failing to acknowledge the multitude of players who knowingly “get an edge” by taking substances they know are banned, or finding other ways to cut corners. I think steroids are disgusting, disgraceful and dangerous, and I, for the most part, avoid all but the most mundane protein shake-type-stuff — basically, I stop somewhere in the neighborhood of Nutrament or Muscle Milk when it comes to post-workout drinks. But I think the widespread cries for asterisks and expunging of records reeks of mob mentality and shoddy analysis, as well as failure to recognize that baseball’s history is far from squeaky clean. We should make our best effort to clean up the game; it doesn’t have to be at the cost of perspective on how some of the old records were set, or how some of our old baseball heroes got their “edge.”

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