first published in Golden Gate [X]press, March 3, 2005
Roger Maris, New York Yankee right fielder
STEALING BASES: IS BASEBALL FAIR WITH STEROIDS? by Matt Gonzalez
IN 1998 ROGER MARIS’ ICONIC 61 home run record was finally conquered. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs that season, followed by 65 in 1999; Sammy Sosa hit 66 home runs in 1998, 63 in 1999, and 64 in 2001. Then Barry Bonds hit a staggering 73 home runs in 2001.
Many questioned how a four decade old record could suddenly be beaten six separate times. Are today’s athletes better than Maris and Babe Ruth, who hit 60 home runs in 1927 when the season was eight games shorter? And how did Bonds manage to add 18 pounds of muscle at the age of 36? Testimony leaked from the BALCO grand jury proceedings, coupled with allegations in Jose Canseco’s recent book of rampant steroid use, have changed the dialogue about steroids in baseball from speculation to recognition.
Nevertheless, in a recent poll 33% of respondents didn’t support Congressional action to curb steroids use by professional athletes (13% had no opinion). Shouldn’t more people care?
Some believe steroids are just another technological advancement in sports performance, like new running shoes. Improvements in training regiments, nutrition, equipment, and even track conditions, have allowed records once held by legendary runners Jim Thorpe and Jesse Owens to be blown away.
While steroids enhance strength, speed and endurance — they cause immediate detrimental health impacts. Anabolic steroids are a synthetic derivative of the male hormone testosterone. Normal males produce less than 10 milligrams of testosterone a day while athletes on steroids get 10 times as much in its synthetic form.
Although derived from a male sex hormone, effects are actually “feminizing” for men because synthetic steroids fool the body into thinking there’s an excess of testosterone, thus stopping the body from producing its own. Men experience reduced sperm count, impotence, development of breasts, shrinking of testicles, and discomfort while urinating. Steroid use causes mood swings and extreme aggression. Over time, steroids damage the liver and increase the risk of heart attacks.
In effect, allowing steroids use in sports says anyone that wants to be able to compete with the ”juiced” athlete will also have to endanger their bodies to keep up.
Don’t athletes routinely injure themselves in the pursuit of their art without steroids? Linebackers get knee replacements and ballerinas battle arthritis and even psychological ailments. But what’s different is that steroids injure the player immediately and often creates violent tendencies that directly pose a threat to others.
Even if steroids were safe there are compelling reasons related to the nature of the game itself to still prohibit them.
In a 2003 game against Tampa Bay, Sammy Sosa was suspended for using a corked bat. Baseball’s Rule 6.06(d), prohibits altering a bat for the purpose of “causing an unusual reaction on the baseball.” By lightening the lumber with cork, a batter can swing the bat faster, thus allowing more time to consider a pitch. It’s estimated that reducing a bat’s weight by 1.5 ounces can give a batter an additional five-thousandths of a seconds advantage – enough to change a strike into a hit.
Why does baseball regulate corked bats? The answer lies in the need to set equipment parameters so that all players are playing the same game. The core equipment includes a ball, bat, glove, field, and human body. Steroid use is equivalent to a pitcher throwing a spitball or a fielder using a glove that’s two feet wide, things obviously prohibited. By using similar equipment, the kernel of competition and purpose in sport, the wild card, is in how the human spirit performs within these parameters.
Some argue that not all human bodies are the same and steroids only further these variations. Although not all bodies are equivalent, neither are all gloves and bats. A corked bat and, similarly, a juiced human body, alter the “equipment” to an extent that changes the nature of the entire game. Corking a bat makes it too easy to hit home runs, resulting in a game of intentional walks and big hits, with less emphasis on infield defense and base running. Likewise, allowing players to build muscle mass with synthetic assistance increases the likelihood that an infield out is now a home run.
This new game is no longer baseball, but something entirely different, with unique strategies, players, and fans. Let’s call it “uber baseball” and keep records held by Maris or Hank Aaron, whose all-time career 755 home run record is being approached by Bonds, sacrosanct.