Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Lingering Effect of Steroids on Baseball

In 2005, a young singer named Keyshia Cole released a song titled 'I Should Have Cheated.' In the chorus, the soft rasp of the 23-year old Cole declares "I might as well have cheated on you/as much as you accused me of cheating." Intricate and profound it's not, but I wonder if the lyric doesn't express the sentiment of some current Major Leaguers dealing with the residue of the steroid era. Many players were clean during the era, but with the constant wondering and suspicion, some must wonder if they should have just given in, since no one believes a player's denials anyway.

Before I go any further, let me first say that I'm not arguing any player who did it the right way in the 1990s and 2000s should regret what he may have missed out on had he taken the steroid plunge. (Admit it, that's a good pun... get it, with the syringe... anyway).

As I wrote earlier, Raul Ibanez reacted angrily to internet allegations that his hot start this season was juice infused. And to me, Ibanez seems like one of the last guys that would be juicing right now... he has a sterling reputation and just got paid big money, what does he have to 'roid up for?

But it does call to the forefront the stain of the steroid era left on all players who were a part of that era, whether they used PEDs or not. Ibanez made his Major League debut in 1996, and became a full-time Major Leaguer in 1999, right smack in the middle of the height of the steroid era. Rightly or wrongly, every player who appeared in the Majors during that time is under the same cloud of suspicion.

I understand Ibanez' anger towards the suggestion that he has used PEDs, I really do. However, I don't think it is fair for Ibanez' anger to be directed at a blogger who wrote something that many undoubtedly were thinking. Instead, the anger and blame should be directed at his fellow players and their union, who for so long ignored what was going on and even protected the interests of those who were using and abusing the chemicals.

But wait, you may think... how can blame be placed at the feet of those who were doing what they were supposed to? The short answer is that they either didn't know enough or didn't care enough about what was going on to try to stop it. And because baseball and the player's union didn't do anything to stop it, every player, clean and dirty is guilty by association. The 2003 steroid survey testing netted 104 positive tests. Alex Rodriguez was one, and in 2006 when he was busted by the Feds, Jason Grimsley stated that he had failed a test in 2003. That leaves 103 players who wake up every day wondering if that will be the day they get outed as a cheater... and countless more who didn't cheat but feel the weight of the unknown.

Howard Bryant, whose work I highly recommend, wrote an article about David Ortiz and his struggles about six weeks ago, right before Manny Ramirez' suspension was announced. Bryant wrote a follow-up column several days later, which explains more eloquently than I could the bind that the steroid era has put all players from this era in. Bryant received one (ONE!) email out of 109 in the 48 hours after the original column that DIDN'T accuse Ortiz of steroid use. Even in America, our national pasttime now has a 'guilty until proven innocent' standard applied to it, which really is too bad. At the same time, it's hard to feel bad for the players who now suffer the consequences, as they are in the position that they put themselves in. I don't remember who wrote it, but I recently read a line that sums it up well: steroids have done to baseball what they also do to the body... delivered short-term gains and glory for long term health and credibility.

It's easy for me or anyone else to sit back and say that they would not have used steroids if they were in that situation. Think about it though. I mean really think about it. Baseball is a job for these guys, it's how they put food on the table. For every guy like Ken Griffey, Jr. or Barry Bonds, there's a guy like Mark Bellhorn or Aaron Miles just struggling to stay in the league. Think about your job. What if there was something you could take that would make you do your job better, alot better. You can't get caught because there's not monitoring of it, and even if you do get caught, there are no penalties. Improving your performance will potentially set you up for life financially, but if you don't take it, there are plenty of people that are trying to take your job. When you think about it like that, do you really think there's a salesman, or accountant or anything else that wouldn't at least be tempted to do it? If you wouldn't be tempted by that, you're a better person than I am.

The steroid era is a difficult one to encapsulate. No one can give a definitive start or end date to it, and many if not most people believe that steroids and other PEDs are still a part of the game. My girlfriend, who has become a baseball fan over the last year or so, presented an interesting case study in trying to define the era. She asked "If Alex Rodriguez failed a drug test, and J.C. Romero also failed a drug test... then why did J.C. get suspended and A-Rod didn't?"

The answer, like all in the steroid era, is messy at best. And it's a mess that continues to linger on the players still in the game, and muddies the view of everyone wanting to see nothing but the innocence of the national pasttime. Until faith is restored in our heroes and that view is clear, Raul Ibanez and all the other players from this era will remain under a dark cloud of suspicion, fair or not.

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