What The Dumb Hysteria Over A-Rod And PEDs Is Really AboutS

As you all know, Major League Baseball seems determined to prematurely end the career of one of the greatest players in the history of the sport. Given that the 211-game suspension provides chance both to attack the never-popular A-Rod and to join a PED witch hunt, it has the enthusiastic backing of a lot of the press. Bill Madden of the New York Daily News won the hysteria competition early, comparing one of the countless athletes to have used PEDs with a guy recently convicted of killing 11 people during the time in which he ran a massive racketeering enterprise. (If you combine this with A-Rod slapping the ball out of Arroyo's glove, I think that makes him comparable to Ted Bundy. If he's ever caught with a corked bat, he'd be worse than Hitler.)

The furor over PEDs is fundamentally a moral panic, and like the much more serious War on (Some Classes of People Who Use Some) Drugs it's defined above all by arbitrariness and irrational double standards. The singling out of Alex Rodriguez for a punishment that far exceeds what his offense merits is a classic example of the problems with the media's PED obsession.

I should make two points clear at the outset. First of all, I don't have a problem with MLB trying to impose a suspension on A-Rod, per se. My agnosticism about PED use cuts both ways: I don't care if players use, but if players see it in their interests to collectively bargain a testing regime, that's fine with me. If the Biogenesis evidence is strong—and the fact that even players on contending teams took a deal suggests that it is—then Rodriguez deserves a 50-game suspension as mandated by the deal the players agreed to. And second, it's important to acknowledge that, despite being a victim of one of our habitual anti-drug hysterias, A-Rod will remain insanely privileged. The typical person caught up in the drug war is a poor person given a life-destroying prison term, while even if MLB can make a de facto lifetime ban of A-Rod stick he'll spend the rest of his life sleeping on top of a huge pile of money with many beautiful ladies.

But even very rich people who may have commissioned portraits of themselves as centaurs deserve to be treated fairly. Even the ones who play for the New York Yankees. And it's hard to imagine any reasonable defense of MLB's decision to seek more than four times the agreed-upon punishment for A-Rod's first actionable offense. We can't know for sure without seeing the evidence baseball will present. And maybe Madden is onto something and it can be shown that Rodriguez had a dozen people poisoned to keep the truth from coming out. But if the arbitrary 211-game suspension is based on Rodriguez being guilty of "multiple offenses," MLB's argument is farcical. As a first approximation, the number of top-level athletes caught by drug testing who used PEDs only once is zero. If taken seriously, the entire punishment scheme agreed to through collective bargaining would be worthless; everybody would be subject to a lifetime ban for a first offense. Barring some implausible new evidence, Rodriguez should get the same 50 games for a first offense that the other players received.

And yet, singling out Rodriguez is a perfect symbol of anti-PED hysteria. First, there's the singling out of baseball players in general. Almost nobody cares about NFL players who use PEDs, although PED use in the NFL can actually result in players better able to inflict injuries on each other. This should make it clear that whatever our anti-PED hysteria is about, it's not about a concern for the health of the athletes. People who (like me) watch the NFL—let alone people who make a good living covering it—really can't get on their high horse about the health effects of PEDs. Injecting yourself with Human Growth Hormone is certainly a lot safer than playing a sport in which the normal course of action results in hits that might slowly turn your brain to mush. Nor is it obvious why taking PEDs is considered highly objectionable but taking cortisone to play through terrible knee or back injuries is considered part of the game.

The anti-PED hysteria isn't about the cheating, either. High-level athletes will always seek an edge. Gaylord Perry, author of Me and the Spitter, is in the Hall of Fame. Whitey Ford, who as Jim Bouton put it in Ball Four "could make a mud ball drop, sail, break in, break out and sing 'When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,'" is in the Hall of Fame. Meanwhile, equally Hall of Fame-caliber players like Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell are kept out of Cooperstown by a majority of preening sportwriters although there's no actual evidence that they even used PEDs.

And it's worse than that. While there are certainly cheaters in the Hall of Fame, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds—denied entry to Cooperstown even though they're arguably the best players ever to play their respective positions—weren't cheaters in any meaningful sense. As the sabermetric pioneer Bill James put it, "[T]he commissioner's periodic spasms of self-righteousness do not constitute baseball law." If you want to call A-Rod and Manny Ramirez and Ryan Braun cheaters, that's fair game—they violated rules that had been fairly collectively bargained and were enforced with, A-Rod aside, fair and transparent procedures. (I don’t like the additional 15 games that Braun was assessed either, but I don’t blame him for taking a plea deal to get the suspension over with during a lost season for the Brewers.) But Bonds and McGwire and Sosa weren't actually violating the rules of baseball of the time. Michael Powell recently sniffed in the New York Times that "McGwire, for reasons known only to Bud Selig, has been allowed back into the game." What on Earth would the basis for banning him be?

But the particular focus on players of the '90s makes it clear where baseball's anti-PED hysteria comes from. It's about the boomers who are offended that better players have taken over records they believe should belong to their childhood heroes in perpetuity. The nostalgic sentimentalism that used to produce lots of drearily irritating tributes to baseball now leads to lots of drearily irritating attacks on baseball. For me, the ultimate example has to be the bizarre review of a recent biography of Willie Mays by the normally outstanding journalist Pete Hamill. As former Deadspinner Tom Scocca noted, Hamill opens with the umpteenth example of someone blubbering about how the Brooklyn Dodgers are the only team that anyone has ever really cared about ever (a particularly curious choice given that Willie Mays had nothing to do with the team.) Having set the appropriate mood, he goes on to pine for the era of segregation, multiple teams drawing fewer than 10,000 fans a game, appalling labor exploitation, and rampant amphetamine use, because in that veritable Eden the "innocence of the game" hadn't been "permanently stained by the filthy deception of steroids."

That's what the war against A-Rod is about. Not all MLB PED-users have been singled out, after all. Prominent accused users like Andy Pettitte, Jason Giambi, and David Ortiz aren't treated like pariahs, because they haven't broken certain iconic records or passed certain statistical benchmarks or threatened any sportswriter's right to remain a child forever. After comparing Rodriguez to a murderous gangster, Bill Madden goes on to complain about "the steroids plague that has tarnished the game's integrity and made a mockery of the home run records." In a sentence, that's what motivates the anti-PED fanatics.

And here's the thing: It doesn't make any sense. There's no such thing as a record set in neutral conditions. Roger Maris wouldn't have hit 61 home runs if he had been required to play his home games in Griffith Stadium or the Astrodome (or if he had been a right-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium.) He wouldn't have hit 61 home runs if he'd had a lesser bat than Mickey Mantle's hitting behind him and therefore received 40 intentional walks rather than none. He probably wouldn't have hit 61 home runs if not for the league expansion that gave him a significant number of at bats in bandbox stadiums against what used to be minor league pitching. It's not a "pure" record because there is no such thing. All statistical records are a combination of individual performance and a context beyond the player's control.

None of this is to denigrate Maris's accomplishment—what's true of 61* is true of all sports records. Lots of gifted players have played in circumstances far more favorable than Maris's without approaching 61 homers. But the remarkable achievements of Bonds and Clemens and, yes, Alex Rodriguez shouldn't be denigrated because of the circumstances of their times either. And love him or (much more likely) despise him, Rodriguez deserves the same treatment as other players, no more and no less. Suspend him for 50 games and let him finish his great career on the field.

Scott Lemieux is an assistant professor of political science at the College of Saint Rose. He contributes to Lawyers, Guns, and Money and The American Prospect.

Image by Sam Woolley.