What We Talk About When We Talk About Steroids

Baseball is a self-dichotomizing sport. Rivalries like Red Sox and Yankees, Giants and Dodgers, Cardinals and Cubs are organic and intuitive. The first place team and the last place team seem generations apart. The American League and National League coexist in a state of symbiotic tension. There’s strain between the players and the press, the ownership and the fans, the fans and the fans, the players and the players, the owners and the owners.

This tendency, I think, can be dangerous. Baseball is also a self-regulating sport. Commissioners can literally remove players from the game with the flash of a pen. In an official sense, Shoeless Joe and Pete Rose were flat-out disappeared. The Hall of Fame decides, with vicious and often unjust finality, what player is immortal and what player is merely good. The whole thing, including the old guard media, is very insulated. Hence the struggles for racial integration.

But stark differences and harsh decisions are the manner of baseball; safe or out, honest or dishonest, Maddux or Clemens. Slowness to change is part of it too. Before steroids, that paradigm seemed passable enough. The game worked things out: some guys were piled upon with praise, others simply spat upon, others still faded to oblivion. And baseball slogged through it, draconian and direct as ever, nuance be damned. But all of a sudden steroids are changing the game faster than it can react, and we no longer know enough to be draconian. Nuance is quickly becoming our only option.

Simply put, if baseball doesn’t put on its perspective goggles – and I include the fans and the media and you and me in that definition of baseball – this steroid thing will spiral out of control. It’s bad enough now, with columnists calling for stoning and banishment and chopped off hands and everything. The quickness to react, especially in anger, is an extension of the good guy/bad guy worldview. Life is complicated. We screw up. So let’s step back, reconsider, and not get all huffed up over a problem we don’t quite understand yet. Let’s continue to deal with cases justly as they come up, but trade the histrionics for a sense of history.

Sure, there are winners and losers in sports and good guys and bad guys on television. But things aren’t quite so simple in real life.

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