George F. Will on Drugs and Sports

Would that Barry Bonds had retired after the 1998 season. He might be happier than he seems to be in his long trudge toward tainted glory. Certainly everyone who cares about baseball, and about the integrity of athletic competition generally, would be spared the disturbing spectacle of his unlovely approach to Henry Aaron's career record of 755 home runs.

The numbers Bonds had put up before the 1999 season were luminous enough to have guaranteed him first-ballot election to the Hall of Fame. He had 411 home runs, 445 stolen bases—he is now the only "500-500" player in history—eight All-Star selections and eight Gold Glove awards. He had won three MVP awards and should have won a fourth that was given to a lesser, but less obnoxious, player.

Since 1998, his gaudy numbers have earned him four more MVP awards. From his 1986 rookie season through 1998, he averaged a home run every 16.1 at-bats (Babe Ruth averaged one every 11.8 at-bats), and his season high was 46. Since 1999, when he turned 35, an age by which most players are past their peak production, he has averaged one every 8.9 at-bats, and in the 2001 season he hit 73. If Bonds, even as he aged, had continued to average one home run every 16.1 at-bats, he would have entered this season at age 42 with 590 home runs, not 734, and Aaron's record would have been beyond his reach.

Equally startling are these numbers: According to Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, the San Francisco Chronicle reporters who wrote "Game of Shadows: Barry Bonds, BALCO, and the Steroids Scandal That Rocked Professional Sports," Mike Murphy, equipment manager of the San Francisco Giants, testified that since Bonds became a Giant in 1993, the size of his uniform jersey has gone from 42 to 52. His cap size has expanded from 7 1/8 to 7 1/4, even though while it was expanding he shaved his head. (Bonds reportedly shaved his head because his hair was falling out as a result of steroid use.) And Fainaru-Wada and Williams also say Murphy testified that Bonds's baseball shoe size has changed from 10½ to 13.

Steroids, human growth hormone (HGH) and other performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) can cause gradual enlargement of bones in the feet, hands, face, jaw and skull. Bonds has never failed a steroid test, but there is no reliable test for HGH, and chemists concocting PEDs also devise masking ingredients to defeat tests.

Various PEDs can increase muscle mass (and the speed of hitters' bats and pitchers' arms). They can hasten recovery from the exertions of training or competing, and can reduce pain and increase the sort of concentration needed when a 96-mile-per-hour fastball is coming at you during a day game after a night game. George Vecsey, in his short new history of baseball, quotes a player: "The funniest thing I ever saw in baseball was Pete Rose's greenies kicking in during a rain delay." Greenies—amphetamines, a booster fuel for a 162-game season that is played across four time zones—were for years as openly available as sunflower seeds in teams' clubhouses.

The fascinating history of PEDs runs back into history's mists, to potions concocted to increase soldiers' aggressiveness in battle. This history is recounted in Will Carroll's "The Juice: The Real Story of Baseball's Drug Problems," an indispensable guide to today's controversies.

In 1898, a Welsh cyclist in a Paris-to-Bordeaux race died after drinking an alcohol-based product designed to increase stamina and control pain. In 1921, a University of Chicago chemist ground up tons of bulls' testicles and used chemicals to isolate testosterone. By 1932, Carroll writes, sprinters were experimenting with nitroglycerine to dilate their coronary arteries. In 1936, at the Berlin Olympics, injectable testosterone, developed the year before by Nazi doctors for military use, probably helped propel German athletes to 89 medals, more than any other team. In 1945, some German scientists involved in synthesizing testosterone moved to the Soviet Union, which soon became dominant in weight lifting. At the 1976 Montreal Olympics, large East German women with deep voices, body hair on their torsos and severe acne won 11 of 13 possible gold medals in swimming.

Now the caffeine in your coffee is a PED. Some major-league ballparks feature advertisements for another widely used PED—Viagra. Testosterone and HGH, which the body produces naturally, are components of some potent PEDs. Distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate enhancements, in the context of competition, is not always easy. One should begin by understanding the temptation.

Although dangerous, steroids and other PEDs can tempt two kinds of ballplayers. One is the superior athlete for whom mere superiority is insufficient when immortality might be injected from a syringe. The other is the marginal player, a category that includes most major leaguers at some point in their careers, and many throughout their careers. If such a player knows or suspects that competitors for his roster spot or playing time are getting illegal and hazardous chemical assistance, he must choose between jeopardizing his career or his health.

Aside from certain grossly anomalous achievements by a few individuals such as Bonds, it is difficult to measure the extent to which PEDs have distorted baseball. Carroll stresses that their increased use has coincided with other changes that have tended to increase offensive production. The changes have included more sophisticated strength training unrelated to ingested or injected substances; 16 new, mostly hitter-friendly ballparks; contraction of the strike zone; expansion of the number of teams, which diluted the quality of pitching; and maple bats that are more durable than those made from ash and so can have thinner barrels that increase bat speed.

And PEDs are, of course, not a problem only in baseball. Track—it was a track coach who blew open the BALCO lab scandal that brought Bonds before a grand jury—might be the sport most distorted by PEDs. And it requires the willful suspension of disbelief to think that diet and strength training are the only reasons why the average NFL offensive lineman weighs 307 pounds. But baseball is held to higher standards, for several reasons.

One is that baseball, unlike football, has a statistical measure of players' strength—the home run. For 34 years, 60 homers was the season record. Then for 37 years the record was 61. Then in four seasons, 1998 to 2001, that total was surpassed six times. In football, Carroll writes, "the players most likely to use steroids are offensive and defensive linemen. If these players get stronger via steroids, their gains in strength will merely cancel each other out, and there will be no noticeable difference in the statistics." Furthermore, Carroll says, football's premier players—quarterbacks—achieve greatness by recognizing defenses and throwing accurately, not by the strength that steroids can augment.

Another reason baseball is held to higher standards than are other sports is that fans relate to baseball players differently. This is partly because, as Bill Veeck said, players do not need to be seven feet tall or seven feet wide. Players are generally much bigger than they used to be: Mickey Mantle (5 feet 11½, 195 pounds) was smaller than most of today's middle infielders. But last year's World Series MVP, the Cardinals' David Eckstein, is 5 feet 7 and 165 pounds.

Also, Tim Marchman, who writes about baseball for The New York Sun, notes that last year Shawne Merriman, linebacker for the San Diego Chargers, was suspended for four games for steroid use—then was selected for the Pro Bowl. And few cared. Marchman detects a "soft bigotry of low expectations": Most NFL and NBA players are black; most of the paying customers are white and, Marchman argues, do not expect better behavior. Baseball, however, is, Marchman says, "culturally white and middle class" and its players "are more widely expected to conform to ethical norms."

Perhaps. Certainly those norms are under pharmacological attack, and the attack will be a protracted contest between the chemists who devise PEDs and the testers who try to detect the use of the substances. In any case, the norms need to be explained and affirmed, as follows.

Drugs enhance performance by devaluing it when they unfairly alter the conditions of competition. Lifting weights and eating spinach enhance the body's normal functioning; many chemical intrusions into the body can jeopardize the health of the body and mind, while causing both to behave abnormally.

Athletes who are chemically propelled to victory do not merely overvalue winning, they misunderstand why winning is properly valued. Professional athletes stand at an apex of achievement, but their achievements are admirable primarily because they are the products of a lonely submission to a sustained discipline of exertion. Such submission is a manifestation of good character. The athlete's proper goal is to perform unusually well, not unnaturally well. Drugs that make sport exotic, by radical intrusions into the body, drain sport of its exemplary power by making it a display of chemistry rather than character. In fact, it becomes a display of some chemists' virtuosity and some athletes' bad character.

Sport is play, but play has a serious side. It can elevate both competitors and spectators. But cold, covert attempts to alter unfairly the conditions of competition subvert the essence of sport, which is the principle that participants shall compete under identical rules and conditions.

Harvey Mansfield, a Harvard philosopher, says we need our athletes and their integrity because excellence is always endangered in democracies that often cherish equality indiscriminately. PEDs, he says, do not merely expand the limits of human nature, they erase those limits as a standard: "Perfection disappears as the upper limit, and is replaced by an indefinite, indefinable perfectibility."

Mansfield's colleague Michael Sandel, in his new book, "The Case Against Perfection," acknowledges that "the line between cultivating natural gifts and corrupting them with artifice may not always be clear." In 1999, Tiger Woods, whose eyesight was so poor he could not read the large E on the eye chart, had Lasik eye surgery—then won his next five tournaments. This was not a corrupting artifice. It enabled his eyes to do what normal eyes naturally do, not what unnatural eyes would do. But, Sandel says, when the role of chemical enhancement increases, our admiration for the achievement decreases. An athlete who succumbs to the "Promethean aspiration to remake nature, including human nature" ceases to be the agent of his achievements, which are drained of merit and moral responsibility.

It is a truism that baseball involves a lot of failure. Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times—that is the equivalent of three seasons of at-bats without ever putting the ball in play. Ty Cobb, whose .366 career batting average is the highest in history, failed more than 63 percent of the time. In a sense, most Americans are failed ballplayers. That is one reason for the sport's unique grip on the nation's imagination and affections.

PEDs make baseball less of a shared activity. Because of them, a few excel but everyone loses—everyone in the stands and on the field, and Bonds more than anyone.

George F. Will on Drugs and Sports | News