I have only a passing acquaintance with baseball. I'll freely admit I'd be more open to watching if the players were all hard-bodied male model types, but somatypically, they seem to run toward dumpy-looking guys with large bottoms who spit a lot and scratch themselves in impolite places.
Now my husband, John, has described the game to me in terms of strategy and statistics in a manner that makes baseball seem as illustrious as some sort of Zen-inspired chess game, illuminated by patterns only mathematics can describe. When he talks about it, baseball sounds downright transcendental.
But when I sit down to watch, all I see are a bunch of satchel-arsed guys standing around, scratching and spitting. Something gets thrown and then they shout and scramble around a little bit, then everything settles down to more standing, scratching and spitting. That's not a game, that's an afternoon hanging out in the parking lot of the south Stockton K-Mart.
Suddenly, into this lofty picture has entered the specter of steroid abuse. Everyone is shocked. Well, the fans aren't, but a lot of people in high positions are pretending to be. Sorry, but when you have 23 guys on a 25-man roster who look like stuffed sacks of granola, then two who look like Speedo models with hair loss problems, it's a little obvious what's going on. ("There are no rules against modeling contracts!" MLB Commissioner Selig would say.)
As fun as its been watching the Congressional Committee members make idiots of themselves by asking the same questions over and over again in hopes that a three-second media byte taken out of context and shown in their home state will make them sound authoritative and insightful, (Congressman #1: "SOMEthing must be done about the either/or clause in the rules!" Selig/Manfred/Fehr: "Um, Congressman, we've already admitted that was a drafting error when the rules were written and agreed that it will be fixed immediately." Congressman #2: "SomeTHING must be done about the clause!" Congressman #3: "Something MUST be done..." Congressman #4: "Something must BE done..." Selig/Manfred/Fehr, tapping microphone: "Uh, is this thing working?"), I'm really not sure why we're making the big deal over this. Follow the NFL's lead: write the regulations, test regularly, fine/suspend violators. End of drama.
But there's the catch. Drama sells. It sells newspapers, it sells TV commercials, it sells baseball tickets, it sells incumbent candidates to voters. ("Wow, Ethel, I didn't watch the hearing, but I like how morally outraged our congressperson sounded on that film clip when they demanded that something must be done about that either/or clause!")
The only thing to astonish me from this whole issue is the number of people I've heard on call-in shows saying they didn't particularly care if players used steroids or not. That, to me, is a violation of one of the foundations of "athletic sport" - a test of the individual's mental and physical capacity. Let artificial enhancements enter into it and it becomes a test of who can dump the most money into getting the newest drugs and/or hormones. It becomes a "keeping up with the Joneses" issue again, instead of a competition of individual merit based on talent and hard work. But even that is not without precedence. There is a proud tradition of people in this country who have been willing to destroy their bodies in a grotesque manner for a few fleeting minutes of fame and fortune. It's called the freak show.
So why not have a "pure league" for athletes interested in the dignity of discipline and then have a separate "freak league" for those fools willing to inject, ingest and/or surgically alter anything and everything to improve their ability to play? They could have special regulations stating that all supplements and surgeries would be done at the players' own risk, there could be no litigation over long-term detrimental health effects, and players' medical records must be public domain. It would take care of cybernetics, prosthetics, genetic modification, cloning players from the DNA of Hall of Famers, and grafted-on animal parts, all before medical science makes these issues a reality.
Think of the ticket sales! Think of the contributions to medical science! Think of the educational value! ("Now, Timmy, don't take methamphetmino-bovino-steroids like 'Uber' MacGruber did. You know what shriveled up and fell off of him.") The integrity of the actual sport is maintained, AND humanity's self-destructive impulses are harnessed to cater to our culture's gluttony for drama. Win win, baby.
This article first appeared in the Sunday, March 20, 2005 issue of the Manteca (Calif.) Bulletin.