Friday, July 24, 2009

Zen Dayley: Bill James, 'your grandchildren are going to be steroid users'

Thank goodness Bill James can put into words what the rest of us can't.

James has written an essay, "Cooperstown and the 'Roids," for billjamesonline and the Bill James Gold Mine 2010 annual which argues that all those disgraced PED-using pariah ballplayers are going to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame — Mark McGwire, Alex Rodríguez, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and "probably even Barry Bonds." It's available as a PDF and The Sporting Blog and blog have linked to it. For the most part, it's new to people who don't go down the rabbit-holes which are the hardcore Seamhead sites, plus the Hall of Fame's induction day is on Sunday, so it's topical.

James is far from the only person who has espoused a belief ballplayers affected by what he calls MLB commissioner Bud Selig's "periodic spasms of self-righteousness" will be judged more fairly over time. A lot of people have felt that way for the past couple years while listening to kneejerkers in the media prattle on about PEDs.

It's hard to argue their points, oversimplified though they might be. However, the way some commentators have Plasckhed on and on about fans moving on before sportswriters gave them the OK has never set right. It goes double when it contradicts what a writer said previously. Thank god for Bill James:
"The fact is that, with time, the use of drugs like steroids will not disappear from our culture. It will, in fact, grow, eventually becoming so common that it might almost be said to be ubiquitous. Everybody wants to stay young. As we move forward in time, more and more people are going to use more and more drugs in an effort to stay young. Many of these drugs are going to be steroids or the descendants of steroids.

" ... we can reliably foresee a time in which everybody is going to be using steroids or their pharmaceutical descendants. We will learn to control the health risks of those drugs, or we will develop alternatives to them ... If you look into the future 40 or 50 years, I think it is quite likely that every citizen will routinely take anti-aging pills every day.

"How, then, are those people of the future — who are taking steroids every day — going to look back on baseball players who used steroids? They're going to look back on them as pioneers. They're going to look back at it and say 'So what?'
At that point, all the moralizing you've heard over the past few years won't have a leg to stand on.
"The argument for discriminating against PED users rests upon the assumption of the moral superiority of non-drug users. But in a culture in which everyone routinely users steroids, that argument cannot possibly prevail. You can like it or you can dislike it, but your grandchildren are going to be steroid users. Therefore, they are very likely to be people who do not regard the use of steroids as a moral failing. They are more likely to regard the banning of steroids as a bizarre artifice of the past."
Whether the self-improvement of future generations actually involves "steroids and their pharmaceutical descendants" is beside the point. For all we know, genetic enhancement might be the future. That is no different from a moral/ethical standpoint, and that is James' focus.

The normalization of steroids is merely the first argument. The others are as follows.
  1. Eventually, some players who have been associated with steroids are going to get into the Hall of Fame.

    Right now, the "extreme position" that no steroid users should ever be inducted still holds sway. Mark McGwire's weak support in his first two years on the ballot is a case in point. The man hit 583 home runs and he's 12th all-time in park-adjusted OPS, but he hasn't cracked 25% on the ballot.

    However, it only takes one. Basically, as James says, once there is "no longer a firm consensus at an extreme position, there (is) an fluid standand that moved inevitably toward more and more openness ... It was like a battle line that disintegrated once the firing started. The important of holding the battle line, in old-style military conflict, was that once the line was breached, there was no longer an organized point of resistance."

  2. History is forgiving. Statistics endure.

    James uses the example of 1960s and '70s slugger Dick Allen, who was kind of the Albert Belle or Milton Bradley of his time, a productive power hitter who was a hothead and careened from team to team. Allen dropped off the Hall of Fame ballot when he was first eligible despite having the numbers, albeit over a relatively short career. However, the Veterans' Committee might put him in someday.

    Another example is Shoeless Joe Jackson. There was a time when it was unfathomable a player banned for life would ever be inducted, but more people than not believe he should be in posthumously. Professional lobbyists are working to get Jackson into Cooperstown, almost 60 years after his death.

    People forget, in time.

  3. Old players play a key role in the Hall of Fame debate. It seems unlikely to me that aging ballplayers will divide their ex-teammates neatly into classes of 'steroid users' and 'non-steroid users.'

    Some players who are quote-unquote untainted will be elected. They will speak up for teammates. Off the cuff, Pedro Martínez lobbies hard for Manny Ramírez. Pudge Rodríguez goes to bat for Palmeiro. Mike Mussina, Mariano Rivera or Randy Johnson speaks up for Alex Rodríguez, and so on and so on.

  4. ... was there really a rule against the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs? At best, it is a debatable point.

    That is the big matzo ball hanging out there for the steroids = cheaters crowd. James notes:
    " 'Rules,' in civilized society, have certain characteristics. They are agreed to by a process in which all of the interested parties participate ... The 'rule' against Performance Enhancing Drugs, if there was such a role before 2002, by-passed all of these gates. It was never agreed to by the players, who clearly and absolutely have a right to partipate in the process of changing any and all rules to which they are subject."
Perhaps the rank-and-file of sports columnists who make a fetish out of simplicity don't want to hear it. When it comes to grey areas with the Steroid Era, a lot of them are like the grown-up brat played by Isla Fisher in Wedding Crashers, holding their breath, sticking their fingers in their ears and stomping their feet until Daddy, played by Christopher Walken, gives in and says, "OK, I will go along with your vision of baseball as it existed when you were 11 years old and say no steroid users in Cooperstown."

Andrew Stoeten of Drunk Jays Fans fame made a good point that James has added "a layer of complexity that we can't just barge our way around by screaming that PEDs are illegal and whoever did them is a cheater." It's an important arrow to have in the quiver.

People are coming around. Former Chicago White Sox pitcher Jim Parque wrote an op-ed where he confessed to using human growth hormone to try to come back from an injury. He now runs a youth baseball academy, and as he told it, enrolment went up after he told people he had taken HGH and regreted it.

People are forgiving. The Hall of Fame might, as Craig Calcaterra noted, be "owed just as much reverence as Wal-Mart, Google, Congress or any other useful yet ultimately self-interested institution," but ultimately it is going to reflect the principles of society of general. It will take pressure and time. The pressure will likely be economic; as Pete Rose said in February, what's going to happen if in 10-15 years, no players are getting in? It's hard to have an induction weekend when there was no one to induct.

The Hall of Fame: it's all about the money (Craig Calcaterra, Circling The Bases)

1 comment:

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