Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What Exactly Do We Know About Steroid Use in MLB?

A wise man passed on a philosophy that I firmly subscribe to - “trust is given; distrust is earned”. Put simply (in deference to you, Kent), I’m willing to trust you right up until the point where you give me any reason at all not to, at which point we have problems.

In case you missed it, Alex Rodriguez* has been lying to us. Probably his most public lie was 17Dec07 when he lied to the American public (with Katie Couric asking the questions), saying he never took any performance enhancing drugs. Then, of course, we find out he tested positive for steroids in 2003. Alex responds by issuing the most carefully crafted “admission” since Jason Giambi’s*, when Jason apologized for everything and nothing. Alex admitted to taking a particular steroid, while denying he knew what it was, knew what he was doing, and limited the years in which he admitted to taking it to 2001-2003 – the years when it was “safe” to take steroids in MLB. I want to believe that, but it turns out Santa Claus isn’t real and Elvis isn’t cutting records anymore.

The fact of the matter is that Alex lied. As time goes on, the known list of baseball stars who took steroids continues to grow. Recently Miguel Tejada was added to the list, and Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens will almost certainly find their way onto the list soon. As each star is added to the list, all we’ll know is that they took steroids.

Unfortunately we won’t know for how long they took the drugs. We won’t know what drugs they took. And we won’t know what impact these drugs had on their performance on the field and the numbers they put up.

And above all, we won’t know those who don’t wind up on any “confirmed” list did or did not take a drug.

People have called for the release of the remaining 103 MLB players on the list of those who tested positive in 2003. While that might help clear things up for some people, the reality of the situation is that the testing done in 2003 was inherently flawed. The way drug testing is supposed to work is tests are administered at random times when the players aren’t expecting it. The MLB Gestapo Players Association agreed to these tests in 2003 hoping to avoid future testing, as the only way future testing would happen is if 5% of the players tested positive. The MLBPA figured if it was announced in advance that testing was about to take place cheating players would clean up. Unfortunately for the MLBPA it turns out that MLB players aren’t quite as sharp as they seem. 104 players tested positive despite being told in advance that they were going to be tested. All the 2003 tests tell us is there are 104 players who aren’t smart enough to cycle off the drugs in time for a test, not every player who was taking drugs in 2003. A player not appearing on the list doesn’t exonerate them.

So here we are knowing little more than we did before with essentially no hope of getting any real idea of the scope of steroid use in MLB over the last 20 years. What players are clean? When were they clean? What do the numbers they put up mean? What have we watched in Major League Baseball that wasn’t in some part touched by steroid use?

Nobody knows. And that’s the biggest crime.

While everyone including Bud Selig has denied responsibility, the fact of the matter is that everyone, including the MLBPA who protected the players, the players who took the drugs, and the owners who turned a blind eye are all culpable. But I don’t want to worry much about pointing fingers. There’s plenty of blame to go around, and plenty of other fingers to do the pointing for me.

My question is – what do we do now? Do we eliminate all the numbers for the last 20 years? Do we prevent players from going into the Hall of Fame who are proven to be steroid users? What about players who are likely dirty but have never tested positive?

The answer is there’s nothing we can do. Unfortunately we are left having to accept the numbers as they are. As I’ve blogged before, we can still choose to decide what numbers mean something to us. But the genie’s out of the bottle and there’s no shoving it back in.

I’m with Bob Costas. There should be a plaque explaining that many things have changed over the years in baseball, including segregation, the pitching mound height and the dead ball. Steroid use is simply another factor that impacted the game.

After all – what else can we do with so little known?

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