OpinionMarch 20, 2004

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Why We Really Care About Steroids

By Arlo Vander

Opening day isn�t even here yet, and already we have enough controversy to last us the whole season. At a time when we�d much rather be thinking about fresh-cut grass, hot rookies, and pennant dreams, we�re forced to deal with a far darker issue: steroids.

As baseball fans, we are of course used to controversies of every shape and size (some might even say we thrive on the ensuing debates). Does the game need a salary cap? Should Pete Rose be reinstated? Was the 1975 World Series the best ever? From QuesTec to clutch, we�ve taken it all in stride. But this time it�s different. This time, it�s hit home.

It�s not that we didn�t see it coming, of course. Ever since Ken Caminiti revealed that he had used steroids during his 1996 MVP season, and stated that more than half the league�s players are on the juice, we�ve known that something was amiss. Now, with ongoing federal investigation and countless headlines, we can�t dodge the issue any longer.

Why do we care so much about steroids, far more than about so many other issues affecting the game? Part of it is certainly pure voyeurism. When something potentially embarrassing happens to the rich and famous, be it Britney or Barry, we all invariably tune in. When names such as Jason Giambi, Gary Sheffield, or Barry Bonds are mentioned in connection with the steroid investigation, we�re going to pay attention, particularly when Bonds has a chance of breaking one of baseball�s most hallowed marks, the all-time home run record. But that�s not enough to explain the extent of our interest, nor the uneasy feeling that�s made itself at home in the pits of our stomachs.

It�s certainly not the fact that steroids are illegal. We�re quick to forgive athletes who commit far more serious offenses. Caught driving with a blood-alcohol level higher than your ERA? Don�t worry, the fans will forgive you.

The reason also isn�t simply that steroids are against the rules of the game. On the contrary: cheating has always been a part of baseball, from the days when John McGraw hid extra balls in the outfield grass to today, and fans accept that. Our attitude toward doctored balls and phantom tags is extremely tolerant. When we think of famed spitballer Gaylord Perry, we�re far more likely to chuckle indulgent than to feel genuine outrage.

Yet steroids are different, because they fly in the face of one of our fundamental beliefs about the game, namely that skill is far more important than physique. Sure, we all marvel at the athleticism of a Vladimir Guerrero or a Torii Hunter, but we all know on a fundamental level that when it comes to hitting a baseball, reflexes, a good eye, and quick wrists are what counts, not muscles. Perhaps that�s why we like players like John Kruk, who once said, �I ain�t an athlete, I�m a baseball player,� so much, or the great Babe Ruth, who once shocked Harry Hooper by wolfing down six hot dogs and six bottles of soda before a game: these are people like us, people we can identify with. Long after those dreams of playing center for the Knicks have dissolved, presumably right after that last high school growth spurt left you well shy of seven feet, you can still fantasize about being a ballplayer.

Steroids challenge that notion. If steroid use is as common as some players, such as Caminiti, say, does muscle mass perhaps play a more important role than we�d like to think? Do we have to redefine the way we think about ballplayers? And more importantly, do we have to change the way we think of ourselves?

Arlo Vander�s articles are written without the use of performance-enhancing supplements. Except for Cafe-ine, that is.

What�s your take on steroids? Why are they such a big issue? Join the discussion in the forums!

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