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Steroid Musings

Jeff Bagwell
Not that I'm a real expert, but I am a real baseball fan. A real baseball fan with a real baseball blog, and a mind that likes to think about these things.

This post isn't as timely as it could have been. It would have been better last week when people were really buzzing about Jeff Bagwell's relatively low Hall of Fame vote total, and how it seemed to be driven down by the mere speculation that he looks like a juicer.

However, really, the debate is timeless. Steroids are what they are, and especially were whatever they were at the height of the "steroid era."

For my taste, steroids users are being treated way too harshly by Hall of Fame voters.

In fact, I'm not even convinced that steroid users from the steroid era were cheaters.

Steroids are no magic pill. Here is a basic write-up on how they work. Essentially, muscle is built by the body repairing small tears in muscles with stronger connections (hence why working out builds muscle, and why added resistance is needed to continue muscle growth). Steroids increase the body's production of proteins needed to build muscle.

From what I've read, the greatest benefit of steroids for athletes is that it allows for longer, harder training. There is still a ton of work involved, and it is more natural than I think it tends to be portrayed as.

Athletes drink protein shakes, ingest all sorts of pills, eat quirky diets, and wear necklaces and bracelets, all in the name of performance enhancement. Why are these sorts of things not considered cheating, while steroids are? What is so different about swallowing pills with all sorts of long names that might make a chemist drool, and injecting something that makes the body produce more protein?

With that said, I am against steroid use. It's just not the performance-enhancing qualities that I have a problem with.

Have you seen the list of side effects that come with steroid abuse? To me, that's what makes steroids different. The risk is not worth the gain. Baseball players (and any athletes) should not kill themselves to be better at their sport. Life is more precious than any athletic achievement.

As too brief of an aside, I also oppose gene doping. While I have no idea how it would be caught, I have serious ethical issues around someone changing the person that they are to be better at sports.

Anyway, back to steroids and cheating. If using steroids is considered cheating, it seems to me that several other accepted practices are similar forms of cheating.

Furthermore, players did not take steroids in a vacuum. They saw teammates shooting up. They knew competition was shooting up. There was pressure from all over to compete at the highest level, either to earn a big contract, or live up to a mammoth one. It is an oversimplification of the steroid era to simply pin steroid use on players trying to cheat.

The shadow of the ugly 1994 lockout can't be ignored. It created a context that incubated steroid use, and a culture developed. That doesn't remove all the blame from players. It doesn't magically make steroid use right or permissible either. However, it should alter how we view their use. Steroid use wasn't as wrong then as it is now. I'm not even convinced it was perceived as wrong at the time, yet players are getting punished retroactively like taking steroids was a cardinal sin. Given the context the 1990s was played in, that's not fair.

It is doubly unfair when a player like Jeff Bagwell gets caught up in the mess because he looks enough like a prototypical juicer. In Hall of Fame voting, he seems to be guilty until proven innocent, which fundamentally opposes one of the pillars of our understanding of justice - not just in baseball, but in general.

Plus, getting back to my bigger point, what exactly is Bagwell guilty of if he took steroids? Trying to be the best baseball player he can be? Pushing his body to its limit of performance? Going along with an accepted culture in baseball at the time? Hall of Famers have done much worse things.

By the way, players complaining about tainted supplements might be telling the truth. A study just four years ago concluded that up to a quarter of supplements are tainted with illegal PEDs. Enough players have tested positive now to safely assume that somebody has tested positive that did not take anything illegal or banned. We probably are up to a handful of players that have without really juicing, and it could include Rafael Palmeiro. He continues to deny he ever took steroids, and has a plausible explanation for his positive test.

The reality is that we will never really know who juiced and who didn't in the steroid era. Plenty of players slipped by without detection. Others likely got caught who didn't actually take anything banned. Put both together, and we are left with a hazy mess.

Given how unclear the steroid era is, the no tolerance, scorched-earth approach in current Hall of Fame balloting is justifiable, at least to a degree. Without certainty, one response is to block everyone, which seems to be the predominant thinking right now. It is the only way to safely say that a juicer will not make it into the hall.

Were steroids so bad for baseball that they warrant such treatment though? With the current approach, players who were clean and otherwise would have made the Hall of Fame are almost certain to be left out. That is outrageously unfair to those players, and were steroids bad enough to allow such a harsh consequence?

Additionally, getting back to my bigger point, should known juicers be shut out? Was it really that bad of a thing to do at the time, all things considered?

For me, the lasting stain is the fact that players were willing to take on such grave personal health risks in the name of money, fame, and accomplishments, and that a whole culture developed where that was okay. That is terrible and shameful, but it is different from cheating.

I do not believe the integrity of the Hall of Fame would be compromised with some steroid users in it, particularly from the height of the steroid era. Steroids warp the lens we have to see players through, but it doesn't mean that there were no truly remarkable players and accomplishments.

Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa still revitalized baseball.

Rafael Palmeiro still did something only three others in baseball history have done - amass 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. Whether Palmeiro injected more than B-12 or not, nobody else in the steroid era reached both milestones.

There still were only three players that blew past the old single-season home run record.

Barry Bonds still generated offensive numbers that only Babe Ruth and Ted Williams can compete with - and ones that dwarfed his juicing peers.

Amazing things happened, and it seems like the Hall of Fame is poised to lock many of these accomplishments out. Granted, steroids make what we saw less impressive, but I still believe a handful of players ended up with Hall of Fame credentials.

Even with the stains that steroids dribbled over baseball, there are still some collectibles of value. Locking steroids completely out of the Hall of Fame is a punishment that doesn't fit the crime.