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Monday, November 24, 2003
Steroids mess far from earth shattering

By Rob Neyer
ESPN.com

Steroids, etc.: I'm sorry, but I'm having a tough time getting as worked up over this issue as I think I'm supposed to be.

It's not that I approve. I don't. It's not that I think players shouldn't be punished for violating the rules that are now in place. I think they should. But before we suggest that steroids and their evil cousins have cast a shadow that darkens the entire game, let's step back and get a bit of perspective on this whole mess.

There are two areas of concern, I think (at least if the profanity laced e-mail that I got after last week's column about Barry Bonds is any indication).

One is that various performance-enhancing chemicals make a mockery of the game's history. If the players are doing new things to their bodies -- so the argument goes -- then we certainly can't take their statistics at face value, and that destroys the very integrity of the game.

Another is that steroids and the like are yet another sign of the Decline and Fall of Western Civilization, and that if only so many examples of the Modern Athlete were not morally and ethically bankrupt, why then we wouldn't be in this fershlugginer mess.

Let's start with the second of those ... In the 1970s, the use of "greenies" -- pep pills, to use just one euphemism -- was widespread in the major leagues. Jim Bouton wrote about this in Ball Four (which was published in 1970), and in the early 1980s various National League superstars were widely known to have used greenies.

We can argue about the seriousness of greenies, but 1) they were illegal (at least when not legally prescribed by a doctor, as they generally were not), and 2) they were thought to enhance performance (after all, if the players didn't think greenies helped them play better, they wouldn't have ingested them in such great numbers) ... and couldn't both things be said about steroids?

So if it's the current players' collective character that offends you, then I'm afraid you'll also have to indict a significant number of your favorite players from the 1970s, too. (And then there are all the Hall of Fame pitchers who threw illegal pitches ... Whitey Ford, Don Drysdale, Gaylord Perry, others ... not to mention all the hitters who used bats filled with cork, toughened with nails, what have you. But we'll not open that can of worms today.) Considering for how long professional athletes have been looking for any edge they can find, whether within the rules or not, does anybody seriously want to suggest that at least a few baseball players wouldn't have used Human Growth Hormone if it had been available 50 years ago?

About the integrity of the statistics ... well, yes. You may, if you like, get angry with me for suggesting that Barry Bonds might rank among the all-time greats, and that's your right. But Bonds is simply a product of his times, and we have to consider his times, just as we consider Babe Ruth's times (zero black players in the "American" League), just as we consider Ted Williams' times (little night baseball, few black pitchers, few wicked sliders), just as we consider all the rest. Every statistic we see under a baseball player's name is the product of three things: his talent, random variation, and the environment in which he played.

I wish somebody could wave a magic wand and eliminate all illegal and/or dangerous performance-enhancing substances from professional sports. Who knows, maybe we'll get there someday. But today, right now, steroids and Human Growth Hormone and all the rest are a part of the environment. Not a positive part. But a part.

Is this a problem? Sure. But baseball's always had problems, and somehow it's always survived.

Yes, all of the great home-run records may be falling. But the sky isn't.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. Next spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site . Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS .