Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Steroid Stuff

I don't usually link to very many sports stories, but this piece on steroids by ESPN's Chuck Klosterman is well worth a read. This is not the typical "there's a problem" sort of article, but a more careful glimpse into the hearts and minds of sports fans. How do we reconcile the physical abilities of the supposed non-steroid users when these supposed non-users show some of the same physical prowess as those who were caught using steroids? And as the article points out, if punters like Todd Saurbrun are using steroids, are we really supposed to believe that defensive tackles throughout the league aren't using them?

Old timers certainly don't like steroids, but the real test of time will be how the younger generation feels about performance enhancing drugs. Illegality aside, does the use of performance enhancing drugs really mean much of anything?

For all the press given to pure physical ability, it can be forgotten that many of the best players in the league rely on the sorts of abilities that can't be improved with a pill. Think of Jerry Rice's ability to get open, or the incredible moves and vision of Barry Sanders. As a Patriots fan, I've watched Troy Brown stick around the league for 14 years, while catching 500 plus balls without a whiff of gifted physical ability.

To move to baseball, doesn't it seem as though many of the guilty and supposedly guilty had something lacking in their careers before the steroid scandal came to light? While Mark McGwire may have had a few great years, wasn't his career injury marred? And for all the numbers Rafael Palmiero put up, wasn't there a question about those numbers and his greatness before steroids came to light. And even with Barry Bonds, are steroids just a helpful way to deflect the fact that many fans just don't like him?

As I said, ultimately, the real issue of steroids will be resolved not by sportswriters, but the teenagers and twenty-somethings of today. We look the other way too, but is that to keep our head in the sand, or because it really doesn't matter?


Blogger John said...

Great article, great points. I'd just like to add a few quick hits.

Concerning football...
- We don't care because performance enhancers because they can't help a QB put a ball on the money, they can't help a guy catch and they can't help a guy's footwork. We just assume/ignore the linemen and linebackers of the world use steroids because we like hard hitting. The numbers we care about, TDs and yards aren't really effected by steroids or enhancers, at least we don't think.

Concerning baseball...
- This is much more interesting to look at. We're ready to crucify any suspected users because there's still this notion of innocence and purity in baseball. Most people who care about baseball have played it at some point in their life. As kids we're taught to "play the game right". You run everything out, you slide hard to break-up a double play and you play smallball (bunting, stealing bases). Power isn't necessary to win baseball games. You can have crafty pitching, great defense and move base to base (singles, sacrifices, etc). When the power element comes into play, games start to get cheapened. Instead of 3 or 4 guys in a lineup working together to drive in runs, 1 guy can step up to the plate and blast a run with one swing. This changes the way pitchers pitch and it changes the way the game is played.

Homeruns used to be the crowning achievements of ball players. You look at the guys who hit 500 homers in the past and it's a list of pure greatness. Ruth, Mantle, Ted Williams, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays...the best of the best. Nowadays, we have guys like Gary Sheffield and Jim Thome closing in on the benchmark of homerun hitting. Sure these guys are good, but they aren't the best of the best. And as the years go by, an elite club like 500 HRs is going to become less and less elite. So when guys like Bonds and McGwire not only break records, but shatter them, we see it as a corruption of our innocense and a violation of the purity of baseball and this causes us to go on a witchhunt to find who is cheating. Note that I only talked about hitting.

With pitchers everything is different. We ignore pitchers who use drugs, or use sandpaper or spit on the ball because who cares? Pitching isn't always about power. A great pitcher like Greg Maddux can win 15 games every year because of precision and accuracy. Also, hitters can hit 100 MPH pitches. So why does it matter if someone can throw 100? It is bothersome when a utility player starts hitting the ball 500 feet.

A few quick notes about baseball.

- Something that I have wondered about for a long, long time. How is it that up until the 60s, pitchers could throw complete games every outing on 3 days rest, but today it's a feat just to see someone throw a complete game? Three possibilites...Either the pitchers back then were just that much tougher, they were on drugs, or the hitters on drugs shortened outings and increased the need for "speciality" pitchers.

- How come nobody thinks surgery is performance enhancing? In the past, some injuries weren't even treatable. Nowadays, Tommy John surgery can not only help pitchers get healthy quicker, but it can even strengthen a pitcher's arm. Seems like an odd double standard.

10:17 PM  

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