Sunday, May 19, 2002

Juice on the Loose

Jose Canseco announced his retirement last Monday, and the very next day announced his intention to write a tell-all book about his career. Assuming he hires a decent ghost writer, it’s a book I’d love to read. After all, in addition to hitting 462 home runs and becoming baseball’s first 40-40 man, Jose liked to live it up. He fooled around with Madonna. He drove and crashed the finest Italian sports cars. He was arrested for everything from gun possession to domestic violence to nightclub brawls. The man must have some stories to tell.

But what really has the baseball world atwitter is Canseco’s pledge to blow the lid off of steroid use in baseball, and name names in the process. Canseco, some may remember, was one of the first really muscular guys to make a mark in baseball and was famously accused by The Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell of using the juice during the 1988 playoffs (Boswell subsequently retracted his accusation). Though he continues to be coy about his own drug use, he recently said that steroids "revolutionized baseball" during his era.

And they very well might have. While baseball’s lack of drug testing makes verification impossible, anecdotal evidence points to widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs. In October 2000, The New York Times interviewed major league strength coaches, general managers, league officials, and players, and reported that there was a "general view that steroid abuse has become a problem in baseball," with insiders opining that anywhere from twenty-five to forty percent of all baseball players were juicing. Indeed, one look at the ever-increasing home run totals -- especially when posted by players who gained significant amounts of muscle mass over a single off season -- makes it hard to imagine that Canseco couldn’t names lots of names if he chose to.

To me, the more interesting question in all of this is should we care, and if so, why. We all know that steroid abuse causes impotence, acne, water retention, aggression, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, palpitations, jaundice, and death. (by the way, I copied that list from a pamphlet aimed at high school athletes; notice how it leads with the side effects that are the least serious but the most likely to resonate with 17 year olds? One of the Great Moments in Rhetoric, I’d say). Obviously, anyone who uses the stuff is an idiot.

But though they may be idiots, it’s hard to believe that any major league player using steroids is unaware of these risks. If anything, they’re well aware of the risks but have chosen to take them nonetheless. The libertarian in me wants to say that anyone can do anything that is plainly bad for them as long as he isn’t hurting anyone else, and if the guys on Canseco’s list want to piss on this virtual electric fence, that’s their decision. Politics aside, if the players themselves don’t care enough about this sort of thing to insist that there be rules about it, why should I lie awake at night worrying whether some overgrown first baseman can’t get it up? Or dies?

Health aside, is there any other reason to care? Recently, the extremely smart readers of Baseball Primer (a site I frequent and you should too) discussed this in reference to Barry Bonds’s response to the steroid rumors that have dogged him in the past couple of years (Gary Hart, er, I mean Barry Bonds challenged his accusers to prove that he uses). Many of the Primer posters posited that because baseball doesn't test, all of its players operate under a "cloud of suspicion," tarnishing the accomplishments of all of those who don't use. While such arguments strike me as a bit Ashcroftesque ("I’m sorry to be interrogating you Mr. Abdullah, but I wish to remove the cloud of suspicion that hovers over your people"), I sympathize with the sentiment. Sure, I’ve argued in the past that differences across eras don't tarnish records, but when some athletes start playing by rules different from those of their own contemporaries, even my logic starts to unravel.

So here we are. Lots of players are probably using steroids. Everyone presumably knows the dangers. No one in the game itself appears to care, except to the extent that they're worried about being called out by Jose Canseco. Most fans probably care in abstract ways, but based on the continued popularity of the Olympics and professional wrestling, it isn’t as if allegations of drug use are going to cause them to make their displeasure felt in a way that will impact the game financially. I guess that means that until some slugger keels over on the field from a juice-induced heart attack, the issue of steroids in baseball is going to remain the bailiwick of sports ethicists like Bob Ley and Bryant Gumbel. At least when it doesn’t pop up as tabloid fodder.

Olde Tyme Baseball

My grandfather died before I was born, so I never had the privilege of having an old man sit me on his knee and tell me about the days of Liberty Cabbage, Hoovervilles, and Dusenbergs. On the one hand, this was regrettable because I missed out on the opportunity to learn about history from my own flesh and blood. On the other hand, I never had to argue with my grandpa about "good old days" that featured rampant racism, crippling global depression, and genocidal world wars. I would like to have known Garfield Calcaterra, but it’s much easier to criticize a whitewashed view of history when it comes from a stranger like Tom Brokaw.

Or Joe Falls. Falls is a baseball columnist for the Detroit News, who last week wrote a few hundred grandfatherly words about how the iron men of yore never missed games due to little things like broken bones, pulled muscles, and torn ligaments. Apparently these ailments were treated quickly and simply by applying a compress of boiled milkweed on a wad of cotton, Lister's Carbolic Unguent, and a curative galvanic belt. (wait, maybe that was for dropsy...oh, never mind). Falls’s point is that too many players spend too much time on the disabled list these days.

At least I think that was his point. Read the article yourself and let me know what Falls was talking about, because I can’t seem to figure it out. All I can see are self-aggrandizing anecdotes and tired clich├ęs about the softness and greed of today’s players. What Falls leaves out of his analysis is that because today’s players actually treat their injuries with medicine rather than voodoo, they have considerably longer careers and likely spend their retirement suffering considerably less chronic pain than the tough guys he seems to admire. I could continue attacking the benighted ramblings of Noachian columnists such as Falls’s, but it has already been done to perfection.

For the time being, I will content myself with wondering just how in the hell guys like Falls get paid by major newspapers for their nearly incoherent scribblings while much better writers are forced to sleep in their cars.

It’s Not the Size of the Sample That Matters. Oh, Wait, it is.

Most people have probably heard about the dustup that recently took place in Cincinnati. For those who haven’t, some local television station ran a phone-in poll asking which of the Reds’ outfielders should be benched when Ken Griffey Jr. comes off the disabled list this week. The majority of people who have little enough of a life to vote in this sort of thing decided that Griffey himself should ride the pine and that phenom Austin Kearns, second-year sensation Adam Dunn, and surprise of the year Juan Encarnacion should continue to start every day. Not surprisingly, the poll set the notoriously thin-skinned Griffey off.

Nearly everyone in baseball heaped scorn on the idea of benching a future Hall of Famer. Most correctly pointed out that the TV station’s poll wasn't random or representative. But while baseball people appear to appreciate that sample size is critical to opinion polls, many of them routinely discount it in the context of player evaluation. If you want to know who really understands the concept of sample size and who doesn’t, just take note of who Reds GM Jim Bowden manages to swindle when he gets around to addressing his outfield logjam.

Juan Encarnacion has been a life-saver in Griffey’s absence, but given that Dunn and Kearns represent The Future for the Reds, he is likely to be the odd man out in the outfield mix. Rather than keep him around as a caddy for Griffey, Bowden will probably try to trade him for some much-needed pitching. Attention GMs: if by the time Jim Bowden calls you shopping Encarnacion you don’t know who the sucker is, you’re the sucker. That’s because Encarnacion’s OPS in the first 40 games this season is nearly one hundred points higher than anything he’s ever posted in a full season and is likely to plummet back to the extremely ordinary baseline that he’s established over the course of his six year career once he’s been given a representative sample of at bats. Put simply, Encarnacion’s season is a fluke, and wise men don’t trade good pitchers for flukes.

Despite my warning, however, someone is going to blow it and give up a good young arm for Juan. My guess is that it will be a panicky George Steinbrenner, but it might just as easily be Baltimore’s fluke-loving Peter Angelos (see his signing of one-season-wonders Marty Cordova and David Segui). Neither of them seem all that hip to the concept of statistical significance.

Insanity Watch: Bud Selig’s Telephone Habit

Two weeks ago I reported Bud Selig’s strange habit of taking time out of his busy schedule to call and personally berate writers Rob Neyer and Doug Pappas after they wrote things the commish didn’t care for. Now reader Kevin Holmes informs me that Budzilla called Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski last December too.

While I have to admit that I’m a little irked that the local writer for one of baseball’s worst teams got the ring before a nationally known columnist like me, [Ed's note: I like your optimism, but perhaps you should change this to "nationally available"] I like Posnanski’s work, so I’ll cut Bud some slack. Besides, Bud’s apparent obsession with stamping out dissent is clearly a symptom of an unwell mind, and I’d hate to disturb him anymore than he already is. For now I’d just like to tell Bud that I’m in the book, and if he feels well enough to call me, I’d love to hear from him. If not, hey, the road to good mental health is a long one and I’ll wait as long as necessary.