Friday, March 18, 2005

Baseball needs to get its house in order

There has been much fanfare recently regarding a Congressional hearing into steroid use in Major League Baseball - seven leading names from baseball's recent past were subpoenaed to testify before the hearing. Many big names denied using steroids, but the big story was Mark McGwire giving a highly equivocal answer to questions put his way.

His response - that if he said he hadn't, everyone would see him as a liar regardless - does hold up. But the reason that no-one would take him seriously is because there is such clear visual evidence in many cases that steroid use happened. "Before" and "after" pictures of Jason Giambi, for example, demonstrate that he bulked up significantly. Some highly improbably home runs have been hit in the past few seasons. Improbable, that is, if steroid use is denied. One of the big acclaimed strengths of steroid use is improving the speed of the hands, allowing top players to make hitting decisions later yet maintain their power.

Baseball's new policy to combat steroid abuse is derisory. Rene Sandberg, about to be admitted to the Hall of Fame, believes that the new policy should be given a chance. But simply publicising the name of a steroid abuser isn't going to stop them. Indeed, Jose Canseco has made millions by writing a tell-all book casting accusations left, right and centre about steroid abuse. The first player to get stung by these allegations will get notoriety, for sure. But he will also garner serious media attention.

Nor is a 10-game ban sufficient. In most sports, a positive drugs test sees you banned for several months, and steroid abuse would be sufficient to warrant a two year ban. A 10-game ban in baseball doesn't even last two weeks.

If you want to tackle the drugs problem in baseball, you have to make martyrs. You have to take offenders and ban them for large amounts of time, and give them a punitive fine. Because taking drugs is different to most other forms of cheating - there is something intrinsic in it which runs against the entire moral fibre of sport. And it is that moral fibre which makes it mean so much to so many people.

I'm not sure if MLB actually wants to face up to a drug problem. The NFL has already bottled out of punishing known THG users heavily, and a large part of the reason must be that big guys, heavy tackles and the like make for great highlight reels. So it is in baseball. Home runs draw more fans than pitching duels. And steroids lead to more home runs. Bud Selig and his cronies therefore draw up a policy which pays lip service to stopping drugs but doesn't really scare anyone. It's as much a PR exercise as the Congressmen lining up to sit on a hearing which will play well with the voters. And it stinks. The only way to tackle drugs is a zero tolerance policy.