Trying to Put PEDs in Perspective

One of the most controversial issues in baseball history has arisen recently in regards to the Hall of Fame. Historically the debates over a player’s worthiness of enshrinement have focused almost squarely on a player’s career statistics and in fact for many that remains the case today. But recently a new trend among candidates has begun to emerge. The morality of their careers now seems to matter more than ever and not just with borderline candidates. Players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens have numbers that put them in the conversation for being the greatest position player and pitcher of all-time, respectively, but because people question the means by these players attained their numbers, they have been thus far shut out of receiving the game’s highest honor. The issue? PEDs, or, more simply put, any drug concerning the use of anabolic steroids or HGH.

I feel that it is important to differentiate the difference between PEDs and these two families of drugs, because in a technical sense over-the-counter aspirin could be considered a PED. The idea of punishing a player for taking a simple Tylenol seems utterly ridiculous even under the most draconian of PED rules.

It is specifically the use of anabolic steroids and/or HGH that has been the square focus of people’s outrage and it’s the attitudes people have about these two drugs which I will be focusing on.

The Health Risks

To date no long-term study on the long-term health effects of these drugs has ever been done, mainly because no scientific institution of significance would ever approve of such a thing, but the anecdotal evidence seems to be mixed at best and not good at worst.

Countless athletes across various sports have contracted various health issues during and after their playing careers, some of which no doubt stem at least in part from steroid use. Others however have had minimal to non-existent side effects of use and with the rigors of sports such as football it’s almost impossible to make the distinction between issues that were caused by the side effects of drug use and the side effects of the physical toll caused by playing the sport itself.

Another issue as it relates especially to sports like football and other combat sports like MMA and boxing is the issue of facing opponents who are on steroids or HGH themselves. Regardless of any physical effects Barry Bonds’ PED use may have had on himself, it’s hard to correlate any direct negative health consequences this would have on another player because of the non-physical nature of the sport. Taking steroids or HGH to add more power to your jab would seem to be a different story, especially over time.

Less mentioned is the role that illegal or hard drugs may have played in many of the more notable cases of steroid-attributed health issues. Steroids rose to prominence around the same time as the drug cocaine did and while the long-term health effects of steroids may not be very well documented, the long-term health effects of cocaine use certainly are.

Unlike the scare-tactic view of Len Bias’ allergic reaction death, the more likely health outcome of cocaine use, especially long-term, is a premature heart attack. Sadly there is probably no greater evidence of this than among some of the more recent celebrity deaths. In addition to having and or succumbing to serious heart-related issues, Carrie Fisher, Whitney Houston and Robin Williams were all noted heavy cocaine users and I have no doubt that use played a significant part in the health struggles all three went through in their later years.

Ken Caminiti was both a steroid and cocaine user. How much of an impact each had on his health independent of the other is impossible to say. It is worth noting though that Caminiti’s off-field lifestyle may help explain why he is now dead and why others like McGwire are still alive even though their total HGH and/or steroid use over the course of their lives may have been close to equal.

How serious the side effects of drugs like steroids and HGH are from one person to the next is impossible to say, but I haven’t seen any anecdotal evidence yet to suggest that aside from the most extreme cases that steroid use on its own can cause your mortality to be lowered by 20-30 years.

As it relates to a sport like professional baseball, in the grand scheme of health risks related to the sport, I actually don’t view the direct side effects of steroids or HGH as being that significant of a health risk. If a player suffers an injury such as an ACL tear, it is just assumed that player will undergo major knee surgery and 6-9 months of serious rehab like it’s nothing.

Guys have developed lifelong chronic pain by trying to play through injuries that they wouldn’t have had they taken better care of themselves instead of playing baseball. Derek Jeter broke his ankle in the 2012 ALDS trying to play through a bone bruise and even received a cortisone shot to alleviate the pain. In terms of long-term health effects, I would put that injury up there with any side effects that could come from a steroid cycle.

Many may claim we take these types of health issues players go through to get on the field for granted because it’s what they want to do and they are getting financially compensated, but I think the real reason is because most people can’t really relate to it. Most jobs aren’t entirely dependent on your physical well-being. If you have a debilitating injury you’re probably not given the options of getting it fixed ASAP just so you can have the opportunity of getting your old job back, or find a new line of work.

For a player like Joe Mauer, the financial implications of this decision may not be nearly as severe as, say, a nine-year backup catcher who needs one more year in the league to get a full pension, but the expectation to handle these serious injuries that require surgery to fix them is all the same.

All this being said, the biggest health risk I see with steroid and HGH use as it relates to baseball isn’t any direct side effect stemming from use, but rather the long-term effects from the increased amount of injuries caused that can be attributed at least in part to steroid or HGH use. As always, it is important to note that your mileage may vary with this statement. In a sport like baseball, it may mean a chronically sore elbow or shoulder caused by overuse. With football, it could be a more damaged brain caused by being hit by a 280 pound player who added on an extra 40 pounds of muscle by taking steroids.

Looking at the issue through that lens I think should give people a different understanding of how the risks of these drugs should be viewed. The conventional argument of “no player should have to choose between using a drug that could potentially cause them harm and playing” can still hold true, but the long-term consequences can be very different. Say what you want about Roger Clemens, but aside from Mike Piazza, I didn’t see him trying to cause bodily harm to any opposing player he came across. For someone like former defensive end and noted steroid user Mark Gastineau, causing physical harm to the opposing player is pretty much in the job description. The amount of physical strength he gained from those drugs was used against his opponents in a way that caused more adverse harm to them than would otherwise exist.

This may not quite be the boogeyman “all drugs can kill you” view that many anti-drug advocates have taken, but it takes a far more honest look at the risks associated with these types of drugs not just on an individual level, but a league-wide one as well. Looking at it through that lens makes the type of sport a lot more relevant to the discussion and I think subsequent punishments.

However strict the MLB and NBA are with regard to steroids and HGH, sports like the NFL and UFC should be far stricter and far more serious about talking about this problem. Regardless of how you feel about steroids in sports morally, I don’t see how anyone using steroids while playing baseball is causing any type of increased health risk for any other player beyond the increased incentive for that other player to use just to keep up with the rest of the pack. I can’t say the same when it comes to combat sports and for that reason I can’t say the issue should be viewed the same across all sports.

The Attitude

At the heart of the media and fan outrage toward the issue of steroids, I think, is what simply boils down to the idea of an otherwise perfectly healthy person taking a potentially dangerous drug purely for the benefit of making themselves a better athlete.

I add in the word “perfectly healthy” because when it comes to players trying to play through injuries and ailments, people tend to be far more understanding. A cortisone steroid for instance can have health effects that are just as adverse as an anabolic steroid, but because cortisone steroids are almost entirely associated with players recovering from injury, their use is tolerated largely without question.

Which is actually worse for your health is tough to say, but it is fascinating to me that the same people who would condemn the use of blood doping by Lance Armstrong having no issue giving praise to the athlete who “gutted it out” through an injury that would have kept most people on the bench. One is viewed as a selfless action, the other selfish, yet aside from the issue of one athlete being perfectly healthy and the other not, the dynamic between doing what’s best for your career or team versus doing what’s best for your health is almost identical.

What seems to bother people more than anything when it comes to PEDs is when athletes are able to obtain results through these drugs that would be impossible to achieve without them.

In all, 52 players have been suspended under the MLB’s adopted drug policy, which began in 2005. Of those 52 players, most fans of the sport could only name a small handful of players who have actually been caught, but even the casual fan will have no issue recalling that Álex Rodríguez was one of the 52 players that have been suspended. When it comes to Bartolo Colón, his ability to provide entertaining at-bats appears to have caused most fans to come down with a case of amnesia.

The amount of outrage a player receives over using PEDs appears to be more correlated to their overall ability and whether or not they are likeable than it is to the act of using itself. It may not be a coincidence that at the same time that David Ortiz is getting more and more attention for being a serious Hall-of-Fame candidate, the overall view towards known PED users seems to have softened somewhat. It certainly hasn’t been lost on me that some of the same writers who have been pounding the table how they would never vote in a person with a PED cloud around them tend to get a bit quieter on the subject matter when it comes to David Ortiz. A 2003 failed drug is now seen as a “minor association” with PEDs.

Is this is a sign of writers softening their stance on the issue, or is it simply the case that a lot of this “outrage” over PEDs is really just an excuse to perform a litmus test on a player’s “likeability”? Each writer will have a different answer to this question, but as a whole the group probably falls somewhere in the middle.

What Should The Hall of Fame Be About?

“Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”

That is the official verbiage by which all Hall-of-Fame players should be voted on, yet the phrase itself is incredibly vague and unspecific as far as how much weight should be placed on each characteristic.

If you are to view all of these attributes as being equal though, then a player like a player like Carlos Delgado should have a slam-dunk case for getting into the Hall of Fame. In addition to his three Silver Slugger Awards and his 473 career home runs, and having no PED-related issues; Delgado was also one of the most active players in baseball when it came to charity work, activity trying to increase exposure of the game, while also being a spoken advocate of things like improving education in his native home of Puerto Rico.

On the flip side of the argument though is Roberto Alomar, who spit in umpire John Hirschbeck’s face during an argument over balls and strikes in 1996. It was a disgraceful moment in baseball history for everyone involved, and thankfully it didn’t prevent Alomar from getting into the Hall of Fame, but it was amazing to me how many fans and writers were willing to completely disregard Alomar’s 17-year career over one 30-second incident. Anyone who thought this incident alone was bad enough to warrant being kicked out of the Hall needs to pick up a history book.

I bring up these two players because it offers proof that the whole case with character and integrity is really a one-way street. As honorable as Delgado’s off-field actions were/are my guess is very few voters even know about how extensive Delgado’s charity work is, let alone care enough about it to the point where it could actually influence their vote.

If I were voting it would not influence my vote one bit and in my opinion Delgado is not a Hall-of-Famer, but I’m not someone who also claims to put a great deal of weight on things like “character” and “integrity” when it comes to voting.

I’m not asking for anti-PED voters to vote for Carlos Delgado. What I’m asking is for them to be consistent about what it is they want from a player and not look at things like character as someone thing that can only be a pure negative.

The Hall of Fame doesn’t necessarily need to honor the best players who ever played the game. I would be all for honoring players that weren’t just great on the field, but also people who anyone associated with the game could be proud of, but that would seem to change the Hall-of-Fame worthiness for some of the players who are now in.

A player like Joe DiMaggio who easily has the numbers and the reputation to warrant induction would not be someone I would consider worthy of induction under this new system because of his off-field transgressions and general personality which was not described as all that friendly, to put things mildly, based on numerous accounts.

It’s impossible to talk about baseball in the 1940s without mentioning Joe DiMaggio, and some may feel that his service in WWII should go a ways in overcoming some of his more off-putting attributes, but is DiMaggio’s situation really all that different from someone like Curt Schilling, who is being held out for a lot of the same reasons that DiMaggio was given a free pass on? (i.e. Just not being a nice or good human being.)

These are the unintended consequences of morality run amok. You wind up doing things you don’t agree with or don’t support, but have to do anyway, else risk contradicting yourself and calling into question how strongly held your principles on this really are. The alternative is what I think we have now. A double standard where players like David Ortiz have their PED issues overlooked or brushed under the rug simply because they were a popular player who voters would very much like to get in, while less popular players like Kevin Brown are treated like almost chopped liver because they didn’t get well with the media and weren’t marketed very much during their career.

Some may think putting players like Bonds and Clemens in will damage or even ruin the integrity of the institution itself. That may in fact be true, but the alternative to that is the Hall of Fame loses credibility as an evaluation tool for confirming a player’s greatness. This aspect was already damaged during Frankie Frisch’s reign as head of the Veteran’s Committee. Guys like Chick Hafey and Jesse Haines may be Hall of Famers, but have nowhere near the kinds of numbers you need to have in order to view their enshrinement as a serious endorsement of their greatness.

But Roger Clemens does not need a plaque in Cooperstown in order for people like me to consider him the greatest pitcher of all time, just like Pete Rose doesn’t need a plaque to be considered one of the greatest hitters of all time. But if the Hall of Fame wants to be viewed as the foremost authority on player greatness, the Hall of Fame needs these players to be members way more than those players need the Hall of Fame.

Just speaking for myself, I’ll take a morally ambiguous Hall of Fame that that can be viewed as an authority of player greatness over a morally righteous Hall of Fame that can’t.

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Paul Moehringer is a data analyst, a SABR member and inventor of the Pyramid Rating System; originally from Mount Olive, NJ, now living in Westwood, MA. Follow him on Twitter @PMoehringer.

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