There are valid reasons, related to public health, to be concerned about athletes using PEDs. These reasons probably justify some measure of paternalism with respect to amateur athletes, and may be good reasons for professional athletes and leagues to agree to a ban and testing regime (although whether they want to or not is their business.) Particularly where baseball is concerned, though, the hysteria about steroids has little to do with health and a great deal to do with bizarre myths about purity, about the frankly absurd idea that the use of steroids somehow constitutes something new or uniquely distorts statistical achievements or takes the “magic” out of the game or some such.
These arguments are pretty annoying in themselves. But combine them with blurry-eyed nostalgia about the Only Great Era In Baseball History, i.e. the time in which an especially narcissistic generation of New York writers were growing up, and things get positively painful. I give you Pete Hamill:
A long time ago in America, there was a beautiful game called baseball. This was before 30 major-league teams were scattered in a blurry variety of divisions; before 162-game seasons and extended playoffs and fans who watched World Series games in thick down jackets; before the D.H. came to the American League; before AstroTurf on baseball fields and aluminum bats on sandlots; before complete games by pitchers were a rarity; before ballparks were named for corporations instead of individuals; and long, long before the innocence of the game was permanently stained by the filthy deception of steroids.
This is pretty much reactionary bullshit from beginning to end (Adding 8 games to the regular season destroys the purity of baseball? Baseball is no longer beautiful if a starting pitcher throws 7 innings?) The stuff about baseball being “innocent” before some players used steroids is of course especially embarrassing, like people who think that America “lost its innocence” not, say, when the framers agreed to a constitution that protected slavery but when they found out as kids that TV game shows weren’t on the level. But what really gives away the show, I think, is the complaint about too many teams. In large measure, this complaint is about New York sportswriters craving a return to to what Ken Burns called “the Capital of Baseball” era — the 2/3rds of the 50s in which baseball was completely dominated by New York teams and large parts of the nation were deprived of major league baseball. This New York domination was terrible for baseball, of course, creating stagnating or declining attendance during a boom economy, but this is something we’re never supposed to notice. And to draw a line under it, he devotes another long paragraph to the elevently-billionth assertion that the Brooklyn Dodgers mattered more than any team has ever mattered to anyone ever, although this has nothing to do with either Willie Mays or the book under review.
Hammil’s whining about how the magic and innocence of baseball were destroyed by steroids is the whining of someone who is not in any meaningful sense a baseball fan at all, and to make that clear he amusingly notes that he also pretty much stopped watching baseball in 1957. I guess baseball’s innocence is kind of like “born-again” virginity (although, in fairness, your team leaving is a better reason to be upset than players using different kinds of drugs than your childhood heroes used.) Why the Times didn’t give the review assignment to someone who knows something about baseball rather than someone who would use the forum to indulge in puerile nostalgia for the most over-discussed era (Jackie Robinson aside) in the sport’s history I can’t say. For those who don’t click through, I think Greil Marcus on Don Henley provides an adequate analysis:
While it’s well known that as one gets older, one tends to find changes in the world at large unsettling, confusing, fucking irritating, a rebuke to one’s very existence, it’s generally not a good idea to make a career out of saying so.