Also in Slate: William Saletan points out that Alex Rodriguez’s failed drug test is just the tip of the juiceberg.
Before Saturday afternoon, Alex Rodriguez was the most hated figure in baseball, a man perhaps best known for scurrying away from the birth of his own child to practice kabbalah with Madonna. Sports Illustrated’s report that Rodriguez failed a steroid test in 2003, you might think, would strengthen that well-earned hatred, causing fans and columnists to lash out at the hypocrisy of a guy who denied on prime-time TV that he’d ever taken steroids. Instead, our finest sports pundits have presented an implausible emotion: sadness. The player whose own teammates called him A-Fraud was, we’re now told, baseball’s “savior on a white steed,” and “the guy who would show that clean players could be just as prolific as the cheaters.” From the great Jay Mariotti, we even learned that “[i]f baseball ever was to move forward, past the integrity-scarring scandals that exposed a sport as dirty and the commissioner and owners as conspirators, Alex Rodriguez had to be juice-free.”
Of course, the only thing less surprising at this point than a baseball player being on steroids is a columnist clutching his pearls about the sanctity of the game. Anyone who was paying the least attention would recognize that a player as reviled (and as suspiciously muscular) as Rodriguez had as much chance of redeeming baseball as Barry Bonds. There was always something inherently implausible about the idea of a 225-pound shortstop playing Gold Glove defense while popping 50 home runs a year. Perhaps more to the point, Jose Canseco, the self-proclaimed Johnny Appleseed of steroids, wrote in his second book, Vindicated, that Rodriguez had asked him, “point blank, where one would go to get steroids if one wanted them.” At that point, Canseco wrote, he hooked him up with a dealer named Max.
An accusation in a book isn’t proof of anything, but this is the kind of claim that’s usually met with a lawsuit if it isn’t true. Rodriguez filed no such suit. That anyone could have connected those dots and yet maintained a belief in Rodriguez’s purity tells you everything you need to know about how much baseball’s drug scandals have taught the press and the public. Twenty-one years after Canseco freaked out the world by hitting 42 home runs and stealing 40 bases while carrying enough muscle to play linebacker, 11 years after the dubious exploits of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, eight years after Barry Bonds dropped 73 bombs, and four years after a 42-year-old Roger Clemens ran up a 1.87 ERA, smart people who pay close attention to the sport still haven’t caught on to the recurring pattern by which suspiciously superhuman achievement is invariably revealed, in the fullness of time, to have been chemically aided.
If the real lesson of the Rodriguez revelation is that anyone you ever thought might be on steroids likely was on steroids, it doesn’t necessarily follow that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, the SI report may offer baseball its last, best chance to come clean and admit the truth: There isn’t much anyone can do to stop determined ballplayers from doing drugs, and there may not be much reason for anyone to want to stop them.
Start with the most glaring commonality among the sport’s various drug scandals, which is that there is nearly always a lengthy lag between a player committing some allegedly drug-fueled feat and the public learning of it. While neither Major League Baseball nor the press have distinguished themselves in their handling of drug issues, the basic problem is that science is—and likely always will be—ahead of enforcement, whether it comes in the form of drug testing or press scrutiny. When baseball had no serious testing policy, athletes were able to all but openly take whatever they liked without anyone doing anything about it. We’re only learning now about the results of the first serious tests, which were administered six years ago. (Why we’re learning about them at all, given that these tests were supposed to be anonymous, is probably the biggest issue here, but leave that aside for the moment.) No one with any knowledge of the subject doubts that even now players are figuring out ways to beat the system, and it follows that five or 10 years from now we’ll learn from some tell-all book or epic work of investigative reporting that various players now generally taken to be clean are, in fact, juiced. That’s the reality to which we have to adjust.
Why is this so? Because just like lawyers, doctors, and students taking pills to help them work through brutal hours, many ballplayers think that taking drugs will make them better at their jobs. This may or may not be so—no one has ever presented credible evidence proving that performance-enhancing drugs make athletes better at playing baseball—but so long as at least some players think that drugs will help them, players will take them. Cases like those of Bonds, Clemens, and Rodriguez will always be more complex than that of the average player looking to make a few dollars he might otherwise not make, bringing to bear as they do the various psychological problems that both drive an athlete to excel and convince him that to meet his own standards he needs to be better than he can possibly be. But these scandals boil down to players wanting to be good at what they do, something no amount of bad press and no drug-testing program can eliminate.
In the end, no matter how much the shrieking moralists might like to pretend otherwise, drug use hasn’t done much harm to baseball at all. In their day, genuinely likable players like McGwire and Sosa were held up as real paragons of virtue and saviors of a benighted sport; the destruction of their reputations and the actual admissions made by equally likable players such as Jason Giambi and Andy Pettitte haven’t damaged baseball a bit. You can prove that more or less every great ballplayer is an outright fraud, but you can’t make anyone like baseball a jot less for it. It’s still an open question whether this fact will ever settle in: People don’t care much more about whether their favorite ballplayers take drugs than they care about whether Michael Phelps likes to get high. In the meantime, expect Alex Rodriguez to hit a lot of home runs and to be hated by everyone who watches baseball—exactly what would have happened had SI never run its report at all.