While he’s wrong about the filibuster, I should note today that Brien Jackson (at 10:40 A.M.) is completely right about PEDs. As I’ve said before, I have no problem if a majority of players agree to have enforceable bans on substances because they believe the health risks are unacceptable and they don’t want a race to the bottom, or because they want other concessions in collective bargaining, or whatever. What I’m opposed to is 1)calling people who violated nominal but completely unenforced rules as “cheaters” and 2)engaging in empty moralism about how Athletic Purity has been violated because some particular chemical means of enhancing performance has been used.
To follow-up on Brien a bit, both variants of this moralism are plainly unserious arguments. If the argument is about health, well, if it was unacceptable to take any risks that might produce suboptimal health outcomes, you know what would be banned? Throwing baseballs overhand and hard a hundred times every five days. (We won’t even start on football.) Unless you support banning all professional sports altogether, to focus on the health risks of steroids in particular is ludicrously arbitrary. (And the fact that virtually nobody cares about steroid use in football — where the health effects are compounded — just underlies the point.)
But of course, this isn’t about health; this is about the Sanctity of the Record Book, and especially the records Back From When It Was A Game And the Players Proved Their Loyalty and Pride By Playing For A Fraction Of Their Market Value. But this also makes no sense. As Brien says, all records are contingent. If Hank Aaron had played for 15 years at Griffith Stadium, he wouldn’t have owned the home run record. If there hadn’t been two new bandboxes added to the league in 1961, Roger Maris probably wouldn’t have had a record to be broken by History’s Greatest Monster Except For Barry Bonds. If Greg Luzinksi had come up with the Rockies in 1994 who knows what records he would have set. Maybe Ty Cobb would have hit 900 homers if he had played in another era. And so on and so on. There’s no such thing as a statistic that purely reflects a player’s performance. In addition, people like to assert that steroids were the dominant factor in the increase in power numbers that started in the early 90s, but this is very, very questionable. There are a lot of other factors: smaller ballparks, much improved bats, aluminum bats in amateur ball teaching hitters to hit for power to the opposite field, Lasik surgery, improving training and nutrition, etc. etc. etc. My guess would be that steroids rank well down that list; certainly, it’s much easier to document the effect of ballparks on home run totals. But at any rate, all records are a product of their time, and Bonds’s records are no more and no less “legitimate” than Henry Aaron’s or Roger Maris’s (and Bonds, pre- or post- steroids, was a greater player than either.)