Let Juice Loose

Illustration by Darrow

Even apart from the pudding-bowl haircut, it must really suck to be Bud Selig. Here you are in Chicago on the third day of the new season, delivering last year’s World Series rings to the defending champion White Sox—and all the press wants to talk about is steroids. After years of catching flak for acting like all three wise monkeys (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil) rolled into one on the topic, you’ve just appointed former Democratic senator George Mitchell to conduct an investigation—and yet all you’re getting is more abuse about the quality of your selection. The criticism strikes you as being almost as unfair as being saddled for life with the name Bud. “George Mitchell, after all, is a man who solved the problem in [Northern] Ireland that nobody else could,” you tell reporters plaintively. “He had the Mitchell Report when the U.S. Olympic Committee was in trouble. His credentials are so good.”

Well, they certainly must seem good to Selig—but to the sports commentariat … not so much. As a director of the Boston Red Sox and the chairman of the Walt Disney Company (which owns ESPN), Mitchell stands accused of being prey to a screaming conflict of interest. As a close friend of Selig’s, he’s been assailed for benefiting from wanton cronyism and battered with suspicions that he’ll be unable (or disinclined) to ask the hard, if obvious, questions about Selig’s own role in allowing the steroids era to flourish. Then there’s the question of whether Mitchell would be up to the job even if he weren’t a consummate baseball insider. As the late journalist Michael Kelly wrote of Mitchell’s career—after his stint as Senate majority leader helped to end his party’s 40-year control of Congress—he has “gently floated ever higher, borne on the uplifting vapors of mediocrity rising to its natural level.”

Yet on one point, at least, Selig, Mitchell, and their critics all see eye to eye: With baseball having finally gotten tough on steroids, as Selig put it, “we’ve taken care of the present; we’ve taken care of the future; now . . . it’s important to look at the past.” That Selig chose Mitchell for this task is unsurprising—he considers steroids a political problem, so he selected a politician. That Selig’s detractors find Mitchell wanting is unsurprising, too—they see steroids as an ethical-cum-legal problem, so they’d prefer a prosecutor. But by resolutely looking backward, both sides are ignoring an array of looming issues that are scientific, not political or juridical. And those issues raise a more fundamental question: Should steroids be banned at all?

From 1998 to 2002, the years during which Barry Bonds (the proximate cause of the current steroidal hysteria) swelled to the size of a cartoon action hero, I lived in San Francisco. In that time, I probably attended a hundred Giants games. I also happened to make the acquaintance of a sports agent who represented athletes both professional (baseball, football) and amateur (track and field, bicycling). At one point, naturally, I asked this fellow about the prevalence of juicing in the sports with which he was intimately familiar. Without commenting specifically on his own clients, he replied that he thought that something like 90 percent of the amateurs, and half or more of the pros, were at least occasional dopers.

Even if those percentages are exaggerated—though I wouldn’t bet on it—no one doubts that even the most stringent drug-testing regimes catch only a tiny fraction of the athletes who take banned performance-enhancing drugs. Why? Because the science of testing is always at least one step behind the science of doping, and often many more than that. On the day that Selig announced Mitchell’s appointment, he boasted that baseball is funding research at UCLA to develop “a credible test” for human growth hormone—a flavor of the juice that’s been around now for, oh, only 30 years.

The arguments for persisting in this Sisyphean push basically boil down to three. The first is that steroids and their ilk are dangerous for the athletes who take them. But, in fact, the physical risks of steroids—taken under a doctor’s supervision and not in excess—are relatively mild. (Two years ago, baseball-union chief Gene Orza noted, correctly, that steroids are “not worse than cigarettes.”) Certainly some sports, such as football and hockey, entail a greater degree of risk in the normal course of competition. (Two out of three NFL players finish their careers with a permanent injury.) More to the point, professional athletes are vastly compensated grown-ups. If they’re willing to suffer testicles the size of raisins, why should we object?

The second argument is that performance-enhancing drugs are dangerous for the kids who look up to, and thus often emulate, the pro athletes who take them. But the antidote here is better parenting and coaching, not a steroid ban—especially one, as the stories make clear, that’s so manifestly ineffective.

The third argument, of course, is that barring steroids is all about fairness; that it’s iniquitous when some players are on the juice and others aren’t; that the cheaters who break the rules gain advantage over those who choose to follow them. On its face, the argument is circular to the point of tautology: Using steroids is unfair because it’s against the rules, and it’s against the rules because it’s unfair. The deeper point seems to be that athletes shouldn’t be allowed to use “synthetic” means to build their bodies—and that those who want to compete au naturel (and with normal-size gonads) shouldn’t be penalized for it.

Which brings us back to science—and what its future holds for sports. In an essay last year in Wired, the science writer Steven Johnson predicted the coming proliferation of “elective-enhancement” surgical techniques. A football player might have muscle cells removed from his legs, reengineered to be stronger, then reinserted, allowing “a quarterback with the wisdom of a 35-year-old to run like he’s 20.” A weight lifter might benefit from stem-cell replacement that makes his shoulders more powerful. Or a cyclist might have his heart tweaked (to “increase stroke volume”) or digestive system rerouted (to “optimize energy absorption”). Johnson points out that primitive versions of such techniques are already having an impact: According to one study of more than a dozen baseball players who have undergone laser eye surgery, the players are “likely to see substantial improvements in batting average and power.”

As Johnson suggests, the rise of elective-enhancement surgery will make a mockery of the steroids ban. Why should it be illegal to take a pill that helps change your body’s structure but okay to achieve the same effect by going under the knife? Or is baseball going to outlaw such operations, too?

All the talk in baseball about the sacredness of its records is just another tactic in its campaign to mystify the game.

Elective surgery will also pose knotty problems for another of the arguments deployed in defense of bans on doping: that in a sport such as baseball, where history matters—where, indeed, records are revered as sacred—letting players juice would make it impossible to compare performances over time. This is why Bonds, as he approaches Hank Aaron’s home-run record, has ginned up so much consternation. But is it really possible that if a player known to have had laser eye surgery were to surpass, say, Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, that baseball would contemplate placing an asterisk next to his name in the record books (as some are suggesting should be Bonds’s fate if he surpasses Aaron)? If not, why not?

The truth is that all the talk in baseball about the sacredness of its records is little more than another tactic in the long-running campaign waged by its overseers to mystify the game. To treat baseball as if it were something more hallowed than mere entertainment. But although baseball is the greatest game (or so it says here), it’s no more than that—and a game which, at the major-league level, is paid for by its fans. It’s hard to quibble, therefore, with the conclusion of a recent essay published by the American Enterprise Institute: “If fans like spectacular plays made possible by performance-enhancing drugs more than the loss of historical comparisons and the risks borne by the players, [then] allowing enhancements makes sense.”

Baseball purists might say that’s a big “if,” but here again, I have my doubts. Back in San Francisco, watching Bonds hit many of his 73 home runs in 2001, I was surrounded by savvy, hard-core fans—virtually none of whom harbored serious doubts that he was juiced to the gills. Did it diminish their enjoyment of his feats? Not that I could tell. Instead the scene brought to mind a New Yorker cartoon of a couple of years ago: A guy sitting in a bar remarks to the bartender, “I’m probably in the minority, but I would’ve loved to see Mantle on steroids.”

Absent the officially enforced social stigma around steroids, I suspect that guy wouldn’t actually be in the minority. Outside of sports, the prevailing attitude toward most drugs is overwhelmingly blasé. We take drugs for depression, drugs for anxiety, drugs to lose weight, drugs to grow back our hair, drugs to get erections. We give Ritalin to our kids to help them focus and pour caffeine down our gullets to do the same. All these meds are, in their way, performance-enhancing drugs. And few people consider them shameful or illegitimate any longer.

And so when Selig, in appointing Mitchell, says that baseball “needs to stay ahead of the curve,” one can only laugh. In rooting around baseball’s recent past, Mitchell will no doubt discover evidence (more evidence, that is) that Bonds—along with plenty of others—used steroids. Duh. And if Mitchell dares look, he’ll also find that Selig did everything short of literally burying his head in the infield turf not to notice. What Mitchell won’t do, though, is pose the forward-looking questions that need to be asked. And so a few years from now, when a crop of surgically enhanced pitchers start throwing 117-mile-an-hour heaters and blowing past strikeout records, we’ll be having this very same debate again, wondering why we didn’t reach the inevitable conclusion the first time around.

E-mail: jheilemann@gmail.com.

Let Juice Loose