Captain Hook: Baseball and Steroids, Cont.By: Sean Pidgeon
“Very violent sport now, isn’t it, baseball?”—Captain Hook
Reading pavpl’s comment on my post Baseball and Steroids and Viagra reminded me of a scene from the movie Hook. Peter Pan’s son Jack is teaching Captain Hook and his pirates how to play baseball. During the game, a pirate runner takes off from first base. The opposing pirate catcher, in a show of some rather brilliant ingenuity, pulls out a pistol and shoots the potential base stealer dead in his tracks. Captain Hook yells from the stands, “No, no, no, stop it! We’re playing this game according to Master Jack’s rules. Bad form!”
Bad form, indeed. That pirate catcher broke the rules. You could even say he was cheating, which is not only baseball’s cardinal sin, but one of baseball’s longstanding traditions.
Yes, cheating is a baseball tradition. In the early 20th century, players like Hal Chase supplemented their income with mafia money by throwing games, culminating in the Black Sox scandal that resulted in lifetime suspensions for eight players, including an eternal damnation walking the cornfields of Iowa.
Baseball cheating has evolved since Shoeless Joe Jackson. Most baseball players cheat because they are trying to get better and trying to win, rather than trying to lose. Jim Bouton discusses the greenies, or caffeine pills, used by players of the 1960’s in his classic memoir Ball Four. Players and coaches have always stolen signs. And if we asked any player if he’d tell the umpire to reverse an obvious blown call in his team’s favor, I think we all know what the answer would be.
Am I happy with baseball’s history of cheating? No way! I wish none of it ever happened. But I’m also realistic. I find Negro League legend Buck O’Neil’s remark about steroids poignantly honest: “The only reason we didn’t use steroids is because we didn’t have them…It is in an athlete’s psyche to push the limits.”
Baseball players always have and always will look for anything that will give them an advantage. It raises two important questions, I think. One, is it cheating? And, two, are steroids harmful to player health?
Baseballs records are cherished by sports fans above those of all other American professional sports. There’s magic in numbers like 714 and .406 and 56 and 61. Steroid use bothers us because it calls into question the integrity of the baseball record book. Yes, it is easy to point out every player has had built in advantages distinct to his era. Sandy Koufax got to pitch off of a raised mound. Babe Ruth never had to compete against greats of his time like Satchel Paige or Oscar Charleston or Josh Gibson. Yes, there is a difference. Babe Ruth did not create a segregated and watered down Major League (although players like Ty Cobb certainly supported that status quo), whereas players in the 1990’s chose to give themselves an advantage by using steroids. It’s an important difference. But that said, there has never been and never will be a period of baseball history that we can point to and say, “Look! The records from this baseball era are authentic.” All baseball records always have and always will be historically and socially conditioned. I think Bill James is right. Eventually “drugs will mean virtually nothing in the debate about who gets into the Hall of Fame and who does not.” And it’s not that I’m happy about baseball players cheating. I’ve moved on. I don’t have the energy to get that upset about steroids anymore.
And, honestly, I think the second question is more pertinent. Safety and health are far more important than the sanctity or integrity of baseball records. It is good that Major League Baseball is finally starting to confront the problem. Baseball does not need any Lyle Alzados. But it’s only a matter of time before many different PED’s are safe for human use. Jeremy S has a great line in his comment on my last post: “If a scientist could create a steroid that would do for the brain what steroids do for the muscles, without the adverse side effects of baseball’s PED’s, it would be beneficial to everyone on this earth.” If steroids could be made without any bad side effects, would they still be a baseball sin? I don’t know.