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Yup. Still waiting for distinction between greenies and 'roids.

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Thomas B. Shea

Last week, Hall of Fame voter and blogger Internet columnist Murray Chass announced that he wouldn't vote for Craig Biggio because he strongly suspects that Craig Biggio used steroids to enhance his baseball playing. Okay. I did write about this, and included this bit:

Oh, and I should mention AGAIN that Chass remains among the vast legion of voters who simply refuses to make a meaningful distinction between the steroids of the 1990s and the amphetamines of the 1970s and '80s (and '90s). Frankly, I cannot take the steroids argument seriously until someone does make that meaningful distinction. I've been waiting for some years now.

Well, actor/sportswriter Brett Ballantini took me up on that challenge:

You ask at the end of this piece, as I've seen you ask before, for a meaningful distinction between reds and steroids. I'm surprised no one has obliged you, particularly someone more qualified than me. Or perhaps they have, and you have not been moved.

I am not a doctor, and while I have played a troubled teen and mass murder victim and eyeglass model and a hillbilly who wrested a President and even TV reporter, I have not played a doctor on TV. But here's the gist, and to me it is more than enough to vilify the juicers and minimize the poppers.

Steroids, at least anabolic steroids, promote cell growth. Their effects CHANGE our COMPOSITION:

  • Skeletal mass is altered (increased),
  • Bone growth is stimulated.
  • Bone marrow growth is stimulated, which leads to
  • increased red blood cells (more red blood cells mean more oxygen to the muscles, increasing a muscle's ability to produce energy/avoid fatigue, particularly with higher intensity and longer duration--essentially, this aspect of anabolic steroid use is blood doping).

So the "positive" effect of steroids are twofold: increased strength through increased bone/muscle mass, and increased stamina due to upping marrow/red blood count/oxygen flow.

The "negative" effects of steroids are very well known (Chass and bacne!, as well as liver damage, male boobs, cholesterol, liver damage, lower testosterone), but they are not as immediately detrimental to performance as amphetamines.

Amphetamines, as you theorize, have similar effects, on the surface: increased strength, speed, stamina, quickness. But they are surface effects, more like the more temporary buzz from an espresso. Even a player gobbling amphetamines would create an effect more akin to slamming Cokes than CHANGING COMPOSITION, and with the gobbling would have some fairly debilitating (for a ballplayer) side effects (nausea, dizziness).

Here's my weak, geek analogy: On amphetamines, David Banner turns into the Hulk, all hell breaks loose, and eventually he is restored to David Banner. The only change he suffers is a lack of suitable wardrobe, as his clothes are all shredded up, and perhaps a little "green skin hangover." On anabolic steroids, David Banner turns into the Hulk, and he never, ever changes back. With continued "normal" use of steroids, he will "never" get weak.

This is probably all too simple, but I hope I've created a pretty straightforward contrast.

Just for fun, let's talk about The Incredible Hulk.

Jose Canseco's last great season came when he was 26, and at 35 he was finished. Yes, Canseco's said many times that steroids can turn you into the perfect Homo Sapiens and that he's living proof ... but here on Planet Earth he's living proof that steroids do not, by themselves, turn Bruce Banner into the Hulk forever.

And then there's Rafael Palmeiro, who showed essentially zero signs of vulnerability -- as a hitter, anyway -- until he was 38. Coincidentally or not, that was the first season in which major-league players were tested for steroids. I'm not being facetious or sarcastic; it really might have been a coincidence. I mean, Palmeiro was going to stop hitting eventually. He did happen to stop hitting in the first year of testing. Oh, and then he actually failed a test the next year, and was suspended.

All of which is a pointless digression, since I find the physical and practical differences between amphetamines and steroids relatively uninteresting. For two simple reasons:

First, everyone's just guessing about those differences. Oh, we do have some modest idea about the physical differences; Brett's explication is probably good enough for our purposes. Yes, these different drugs do different things to one's body. Nobody's disputing that. But the practical differences? Nobody seems to have any good idea about how many more bases were stolen or 100-mile-an-hour fastballs were thrown because of amphetamines, and nobody seems to have any good idea about how many home runs were hit or 100-mile-an-hour fastballs were thrown because of steroids. And yet somehow the amphetamines are ignored while the steroids are a HUGE factor in the minds (and the ballots) of the Hall of Fame voters.

Second, the voters aren't even trying to make a distinction between amphetamines and steroids. They don't address the difference. They don't even mention amphetamines.

Why don't they? Maybe they find the difference so obvious that it's not worth mentioning. But I don't think that's the answer. I think the answer, frankly, is that grappling with amphetamines is simply too hard. Most of today's baseball's writers grew up lionizing, first as fans and later as journalists, players who routinely used drugs illegally. I mean, sure: marijuana and, especially in the late '70s and early '80s, cocaine. Those were recreational drugs, though. Little different from how Babe Ruth and the great majority of his colleagues used alcohol during Prohibition. I'm talking about amphetamines used illegally as performance-enhancing drugs. Did they actually enhance performance? I don't know. You probably don't know. But the players sure as hell thought they did.

Which is my point about today's Hall of Fame voters. Those who bother to explain why they're not voting for certain known or suspected steroids users offer two rationales. They cite the so-called "integrity clause" in the voting guidelines, or they suggest that players shouldn't be allowed to cheat their way into the Hall of Fame.

I can at least imagine a reasonable case for the latter argument. I see somewhere between 15 and 20 players on the current ballot with legitimate Hall of Fame numbers. If I had a ballot, I would essentially be searching for reasons not to vote for players. Given two candidates with roughly equal qualifications for the 10th (and last) spot on my ballot, isn't it appropriate to give bonus points to the player who's not a known or suspected steroids user? Or a spitball pitcher?

I think it's appropriate. I think everything counts. I think postseason performance counts, and setting a good example for teammates counts, and not annoying the manager too often counts, and ... yeah, drugs count, too. I cannot agree with voters who believe that drug use is everything. I do think it's a thing. Tim Raines' cocaine addiction almost certainly didn't cost the Expos a division title in 1982. They finished six games out of first place, and even with the coke he was still a pretty good player. But what if they'd finished two or three games out? Then yes, I would absolutely count that against him.

What I cannot understand at all is the integrity argument without taking specifics into account. I still cannot see any distinction, integrity-wise, between using amphetamines in 1980 and using steroids in 2000. In both cases, players were using drugs illegally. In both cases, players were hoping to become better baseball players. In both cases, players were, wittingly or not, hoping to gain edges over players who were not using those same drugs.

Integrity has little or nothing to do with results. If two students cheat on a test and one gets and 92 and one gets a 73, does the C student have less integrity than the A student?

Another problem with the integrity argument is that there's almost no precedent for it. Do you know how many players have obviously been kept out of the Hall of Fame because of their perceived lack of integrity? One: Shoeless Joe Jackson. Until the late 1980s, when the Hall of Fame passed a rule to keep Pete Rose out, Jackson was technically eligible for election. Also, there was a rumor about Carl Mays throwing a World Series game that might have hurt his chances some. But he was marginal anyway. All the liars and cheats and spitballers and bat-corkers and sign-stealers who have plied the baseball trade, and nobody else has ever been locked out of Cooperstown because of the integrity clause. Maybe because, unlike Jackson, they were cheating to WIN. Which has always been considered perfectly acceptable behavior by nearly everyone involved.

So why now? You tell me. We know that steroids didn't make Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens great players; their numbers make them No. 1 or 2 on your ballot, not 10th or 11th. We know that their "integrity," however questionable, probably falls right in line with the integrity of most other professional athletes, both today and forever.

It's simply not enough to say that steroids helped players break records, and greenies didn't. Even if that were true -- and we don't know it's true -- there's no logical link between integrity and breaking records. A cheater who hits 70 home runs has exactly as much integrity as a cheater who hits 30 home runs. Or, more to the point, a cheater who steals 80 bases or racks up 40 saves.

Which leads me all the way around to where I started: I continue to wait for a Hall of Fame voter, just one, to draw a meaningful, Hall of Fame-relevant distinction between amphetamines and steroids. I don't mean this rhetorically. I would love to see that distinction. I would love to be surprised.