1) A couple of quick hits, while still recovering from yesterday’s game (and I keep hearing from the likes of John Seibel that the BCS is great because it generates so much discussion. I guess that makes steroids great for sports, too).
Good take from Bill Simmons’ Friday mailbag on the Red Sox (http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/page2/story?page=simmons/061117):
“The Red Sox have gone in so many different directions over the past two seasons, I can't summon adequate reactions to their transactions anymore. No move seems to have any correlation to the last one. They claim they have a budget, then they toss $10-million-a-year contracts around like it's the year 2056. They claim they want to build something substantial for the long haul, then they deal quality prospects who end up thriving on other teams and keep ones who look positively terrible when they get called up. They claim to care about clubhouse chemistry, then they keep allowing popular players like Pedro, Damon, Lowe and Roberts to leave. They claim to value at-bats, on-base percentage and pitch counts, then they trade for a free swinger like Wily Mo Pena. They claim to understand which players would succeed in a baseball city as tough as Boston, then they keep bringing in players who aren't mentally tough enough to play there (Renteria, Suppan, Kim, Crisp, Clement and hopefully not J.D. Drew). They claim they don't want to overspend like the Yankees do, then they blow everyone else out of the water in the Matsuzaka bidding.”
Part of what’s wrong with the general reaction to Sabermetrics is a tendency to assume that it’s more dogmatic and less flexible than it really is, and Simmons is guilty of some of that here (like the Red Sox with Wily Mo, Beane has occasionally gone out and gotten a player who doesn’t fit the mold, like Jose Guillen, for example). But, Simmons is on to something: the pressure of the Boston market may knock the front office off its intended course more than perhaps is ideal.
Simmons is also on the mark with this assessment of Matsuzaka:
“Do I like Matsuzaka? Absolutely. I would have been disappointed if any other team acquired a pitcher good enough to earn a "Japanese Pedro" tag. Consider me on board with the initial $51.1 million bid and imminent contract. Still, this doesn't feel like a slam dunk like Pedro did in '97, or even Schilling in '03 -- those were no-brainer, jump-up-and-down, "my team has been transformed before my very eyes" moves. This one didn't make me feel that way at all. Can he adjust to America? Can he handle the pressure? Is his arm in good shape? Is he overrated? We just don't have definitive answers to those questions. For upward of $20-25 million per year, shouldn't you know?”
I’m guessing Matsuzaka is going to be very good, but then again, I thought Beckett would be, too (and he still might be, but Simmons is right that there are very few pitchers whom you know will be great and we just don’t yet about Matsuzaka).
And, finally, this (perhaps unintended) homage to the classic Elliott Ness line at the end of The Untouchables:
“Back in the day, I liked being the underdog to the Yanks -- they were the ones that broke the bank, we were the ones that played by the rules, and even though we were spending crazy amounts of money, it never really felt that way. Then the Manny contract changed that perception, followed by Schilling (everyone forgets this now, but Boston was one of only two teams that could afford him) and all the ridiculous contracts that followed over the next 3-4 years. Now we're conditionally spending $51.1 million just to bid on a Japanese player. We're no different than the Yankees anymore. We've become what we always despised and resented. It's a little disconcerting.”
2) It’s not where you’d expect to find in-depth sports analysis, but Dave Zirin has a great analysis of the issue of performance enhancing drugs and sports in the December issue of the International Socialist Review (http://www.isreview.org/issues/50/steroids.shtml).
“LISTENING TO the Congress, the media, and the endless yipping of sports radio, it seems that an anabolic specter is haunting America. USA TODAY likened steroids to “the bubonic plague of baseball, a pestilence.” Congress has held heavily hyped hearings and called steroids in baseball an “emergency public health crisis”: this while forty-five million people live without health care. And last year, in a time of war and global conflict, George W. Bush-the Decider in Chief-took time out of the State of the Union address to speak on the evil of steroids. The message was clear. Our children are at risk. Our “national pastime” is at risk. Our sacred baseball records are at risk: preyed upon by evil, freakishly muscled athletes. As World Anti-doping Agency chair, the unfortunately named Dick Pound, said, “How would you like to take your son to a baseball game and you've got your hot dog and you've got your Coke and you say, 'Son someday if you fill your body with enough shit, then you can play in your country's national game.'”
Zirin outlines the history of the development of steroids:
“Let's start with what it's not: it's not the source of all evil in the world. It's not-as baseball Commissioner Bud Selig once said-a “horrible substance that must be eradicated.” There are more varieties and sub-varieties of anabolic steroids than a freezer full of Ben and Jerry's, and it seems like you need a Ph.D. in pharmacology to read the sports page, but at root an anabolic steroid is synthetically produced testosterone-the principal male sex hormone (though it is also found in smaller amounts in women). Among other things, testosterone promotes the growth of muscle mass and strength, as well as bone density. Scientists have attempted to use testosterone to build muscle going back more than 1,000 years, but the modern era of steroids started in 1889 during the birth of the Industrial Revolution. Prominent French scientist Charles-Edouard Brown-Sequard was trying to figure out how to increase the strength and mass of workers. In his old age, Sequard began to inject himself with a liquid extract derived from the testosterone of dogs and guinea pigs. He claimed that the injections “have increased my physical strength and intellectual energy, relieved my constipation and even lengthened the arc of my urine.”
No wonder steroids use has been banned from competitive urinating. (I couldn’t resist).
More seriously, Zirin challenges the prevailing assumptions about steroids as a unique health risk:
“This gets to the central issue about steroids. Like any drug or pill, if abused outside a doctor's care, all kinds of health problems can result. They can damage the heart, lungs, and liver. They can also affect the serotonin levels in the brain leading to depression and mood swings referred to as “roid rage,” which has been linked tangentially to several cases of suicide. Three hundred thousand high school athletes took steroids last year, a dangerous trend, because of the damage steroids can do to bodies that are still developing. Young athletes take steroids because they want to compete effectively-the same reason they take diuretics and painkillers. “I don't believe kids are taking steroids because they think it helped Barry Bonds,” said Dr. Michael Miletic, a leading sports psychologist, to columnist Robert Lipsyte. “They're taking it because team-mates, opponents, a strength coach, a gym owner is telling them it will make them better. And often it will. I'm more worried about other drugs. Diuretics can kill you quickly. And pain killers not only mask athletic injuries that should be attended to, they offer an addictive high.”
But taken under a physician's care, steroids can allow people to heal faster, build muscle mass, and train longer than they would be able to otherwise. It can also be a lifesaver, particularly for people with HIV/AIDS and multiple sclerosis. A September 19, 2005, HBO Real Sports report, bucking the steroids hysteria rampant at the time, noted that there is not a single scientific study linking steroid use in adult men to death or to significant health risks.”
Zirin’s also points up the hypocrisy of Congress (and President Clinton) on this issue. Legislation passed in the 1990s called the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act (DSHEA)made oversight of dietary and other supplements much more difficult, allowing for a boom in the industry:
“DSHEA's passage spawned the almost overnight creation of the $27 billion dollar supplement industry, turning the average team's locker room into a GNC store. Because of DSHEA, teams began to import completely legal weightlifting and dietary “aids.” Many of these are now banned substances. Androstenedione-or andro-a highly potent steroid derivative, was legal, available over the counter, and listed as a food supplement. After the 1998 home run race where Mark McGwire kept it in his locker, andro sales rose 500 percent to $55 million dollars per year. Substances like andro were available in every clubhouse. It started with a few teams, but the pressure to keep up pushed other teams as well. As former Mets general manager Steve Phillips said, “I'm hired to win ballgames and if other teams are doing it, I want my players doing it too.”
Zirin insightfully dissects the class dimensions of the problem, including the financial incentives for owners to look the other way and the pressures on players, especially from poor countries and backgrounds, for whom the difference between using and not using is the difference between a life of poverty and a life of plenty. He also analyzes in depth the racial dimensions of the focus on Barry Bonds’ usage (and, as an aside, quotes me at some length) and suggests that prohibition will work as well for steroids as it has for other kinds of drugs and alcohol before that (which is to say, not at all).
It’s a long piece, but worth reading – the most thorough discussion of the issues surrounding steroids/HGH that I’ve seen so far.