PEDs – From Savior to Villain and Back Again?

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a 10-part series commemorating baseball’s new commissioner with advice for his tenure. To read more about this series, click here.

Rob Manfred was questioned during the closed hearings about Alex Rodriguez's PED use. (via Keith Allison)

Rob Manfred was questioned during the closed hearings about Alex Rodriguez’s PED use. (via Keith Allison)

The first-pitch sinker from Steve Trachsel was hit so straight, a surveying laser could likely recreate the ball’s path from the moment of contact to just over the fence in left field. The engineer of the line drive didn’t even know it was gone until he saw his first base coach jumping up and down. Then, as he rounded the bases, every member of the opposing team’s infield congratulated him before he pointed to heaven, touched home plate and hoisted his bat boy son in celebration.

A hitter can do nothing better with a plate appearance than turn it into a home run, and in 1998, Mark McGwire produced more of the best possible outcomes than any batter in the history of baseball to that point.

For a sport still reeling from a labor dispute that cut short the 1994 season and threatened to derail the following year, McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s pursuit of Roger Maris’ single-season home run record represented a deus ex machina for Major League Baseball. However, instead of ending a tumultuous period with a happily-ever-after conclusion, the league’s willful ignorance of what was behind its sudden offensive increase eventually caught up with it.

After five years of boosted power hitting, a plethora of extra-base hits and the grotesque offensive numbers accumulated by Barry Bonds, something happened to put the legitimacy of these heroic achievements into question. Dr. Wade Exum, the former director of drug control administration for the United States Olympic Committee, leaked 30,000 pages of documents to Sports Illustrated revealing more than 100 covered up positive drug tests for U.S. athletes from 1988 to 2000.

American sports fans were presented with a disturbing revelation: The use of performance enhancing substances wasn’t merely the practice of Italian cyclists, German footballers and former Eastern Bloc Olympians. Athletes from the United States were cheating with the same regularity as their competitors.

In response to this loss of innocence, MLB moved quickly to condemn that to which it had turned a blind eye just long enough to enjoy a revival. In 2003, random drug tests (with exemptions for players on the 40-man roster) were introduced. A year later, the tests became mandatory.

Meanwhile, a federal investigation into BALCO—Victor Conte’s California laboratory that provided undetectable banned substances to numerous athletes—prompted Congress to invite several baseball players to testify before a committee looking into performance enhancers in sport. To quell a potential public relations disaster, Commissioner Bud Selig delegated former senator George Mitchell to investigate the use of anabolic steroids and human growth hormone in baseball.

As a result of the inquiry, suspensions for positive tests became more severe, and baseball went from blatantly ignoring a potential problem to vehemently prosecuting players confirmed to be using banned substances. What was once the unofficial savior of the sport transformed into its verified villain in fewer than five years.

More recently, MLB’s undeterred pursuit of players resorting to chemical convenience as a means of improvement led it to procure evidence at both financial and moral expense. The league’s investigation into Biogenesis—a Miami anti-aging clinic run by Anthony Bosch, revealed by a report in the Miami New Times to be a banned substance provider—was fraught with accusations of witness intimidation, extortion, impersonation of police, an affair between an MLB investigator and a Biogenesis nurse, and even the purchase of evidence from an alleged arms dealer currently facing federal charges.

The dubious investigation that resulted in the lengthy suspensions of 15 baseball players was led by Rob Manfred, who on Jan. 25 will take over as the commissioner of Major League Baseball.

If deception procreated with manipulation, the result would be ulterior motives. Actions compelled by intentionally hidden desires are more disrespectful than full-on confrontation. At least with the latter, there’s an openness and honesty to the engagement. The former doesn’t even grant its target the decency of being direct. Instead, it assumes you’re a puppet for a purveyor of manipulation, someone whose existence is only worth exploiting for gain. When it comes to its policing of performance enhancing substances, this is how Major League Baseball views its fans.

During closed hearings between MLB and Alex Rodriguez, Manfred was asked by Joe Tacopina, the third baseman’s attorney, whether providing legal aid to Bosch (as part of the agreement for his testimony and evidence) matched the league’s “public policy goals.” His reply: “I believe those goals were advanced by disciplining players who had used performance enhancing drugs, and thereby set a terrible example for young people who might be tempted to do the same thing.” It’s all about the children. Only when it isn’t.

The Incompleat Starting Pitcher
The end of the nine-inning start and how we got here.

Earlier in the same hearing, when asked about trusting the testimony of Bosch—who, among the many allegations against him, was accused of selling steroids to minors—Manfred replied, “Whether or not Mr. Bosch had distributed drugs to minors was not of paramount importance to me.”

The double standard is characteristic of MLB’s history of dealing with performance enhancing substances. While the league would like to promote its policies as altruistic, the truth is that its public stance against steroids, HGH and other banned materials is motivated solely by self-interest.

Sports leagues depend on public perception because their business models are built on extracting attention and a little amount of money from a great many people. Unfortunately, the public that MLB looks to remains largely ignorant when it comes to performance enhancing substances.

Dr. Exum’s whistleblowing in 2003 was so impactful because doping scandals in the United States were relatively rare. Performance enhancing drugs were first brought to the American public’s attention as a form of propaganda during the Cold War.

As Eastern Bloc athletes began defecting, their tales of systematic drug use were identified with a sense of rivalry that extended beyond the political realm and into the world of sports. Each salacious story of state-prescribed drug regimens strengthened the association between performance enhancers and evil-doing. As an object of ideological opposition, steroids became yet another way in which the Soviet Union and East Germany were fighting dirty. Never mind the fact that Western athletes were using the same substances as their Eastern Bloc competitors, the power of this first impression resonates today.

We associate steroids not just with cheating, but with a form of immoral behavior, while simultaneously justifying Michael Pineda’s far more impactful form of on-field deceit with the “if he ain’t cheatin’, he ain’t tryin’” platitude. We feign concern that players are shaving years off their lives through performance enhancing drug use while laughing at a hunk of smokeless tobacco dripping from Pablo Sandoval’s mouth. We label steroids as an unfair competitive advantage while ignoring Hunter Pence’s paleolithic diet and forgetting about how nicely paved the road to professional baseball is for those of a certain socioeconomic class.

We paint all banned substances with the same brush while imagining it to be a Gummi Bear elixir that magically produces outstanding results for any user. We pretend it’s a black-and-white issue while ignoring its complexities. The result: major league players dealing with criminals to achieve an edge in performance.

As the 10th MLB commissioner assumes office, it seems incredibly unlikely he’ll try to overhaul the league’s policies pertaining to performance enhancing substances. Given public perception, an honest and effective approach that accounts for the health of players and exhibits genuine concern for impressionable youth isn’t something that’s within reach.

It’s doable, but it would have to begin with an unlikely admission: Perception doesn’t always match reality. Instead of being puffed up with pride over the introduction of in-season testing for a substance that hasn’t been proven to benefit performance in elite athletes, MLB actually could consider the potential value of dispensations for the therapeutic use of HGH.

It’s easy to lump all the so-called performance enhancers in one category, but doing so fails to recognize nuance. Human growth hormone isn’t derived from the secretions of somatotropic cells within the pituitary glands of demons. It’s not brewed in a witch’s cauldron. Real-life doctors of the non-quack variety prescribe HGH every day to treat their patients.

Used properly, HGH could bring our favorite players back from injury faster and extend their careers. We’ve seen it at work in the arm of Andy Pettitte, who on separate occasions in 2002 and 2004 received multiple HGH injections in order to recover faster from elbow injuries. There’s also 41-year-old Bartolo Colon, still pitching after taking a year away from the game in 2010 when he underwent an experimental medical procedure to repair damaged tissue in his right shoulder. This specific therapy involves stem cell transplants and typically is coupled with controlled doses of HGH.

Colon would go on to test positive for synthetic testosterone in the summer of 2012 and get named in the Biogenesis scandal the following year. In doing so, he further exemplifies the arbitrariness with which this issue is governed. Science is allowed, but only to a point. Stem cell transplants are acceptable as long as HGH isn’t used with them, while synthetic testosterone is an abomination that must be condemned.

But it feels as though no one has really stopped to ask why. Or, if they have, they’re not hanging around to learn the answer. It doesn’t seem as though that’s going to happen anytime soon, anyway. Instead, MLB will continue to manipulate its fans into believing a stand is being taken against cheaters. It will go for player suspensions and public relations wins rather than research the potential therapeutic benefits of HGH or increase its understanding of the effects of steroid use. And it will do very little to stop the league’s players from pursuing competitive advantages by any means necessary.

This is the league that Rob Manfred inherits, and this is the league that he will, by all evidence, go to extreme lengths to maintain. After all, a flawed status quo doesn’t appear awry when it ensures as much as $9 billion in revenue for those in charge. Judging by his handling of the Biogenesis case, Manfred seems the perfect man for the job.

References and Resources

  • Blood Sport: Alex Rodriguez, Biogenesis, and the Quest to End Baseball’s Steroid Era by Tim Elfrink and Gus Garcia-Roberts


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Dustin is a freelance writer and former columnist and features editor at theScore. His work has appeared at Baseball Prospectus, Sports On Earth, Toronto Life and the National Post. Follow him on Twitter @dustinparkes.
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Kevin
Guest
Kevin

Great piece, Parkes, glad to see you’re writing here! The hypocrisy of baseball’s steroids issue is frustrating, and hair-pullingly so when debates about the Hall of Fame arise, because it was the very same writers that were supposed to be reporting on the game who took great pleasure in exploiting the successes of these ‘steroid era’ players who now take the moral high ground and refuse them admission to Cooperstown.

Andy
Guest
Andy

Painful. The writers aren’t taking the moral high ground. It’s about the legitimacy of the accomplishments of steroid players.
And what were the writers supposed to do? Randomly accuse certain players of doing steroids? They weren’t exactly doing it out in the open.

hopbitters
Guest
hopbitters

Well said.

Rob
Guest
Rob
I agree with the general point of the article, although your claim regarding the in-season testing for HGH that “hasn’t been proven to benefit performance in elite athletes” doesn’t mix with your later claim about HGH bringing back our favorite players from injury faster and extending their careers, having seen it work on “separate occasions in 2002 and 2004” when Andy Pettittte received multiple HGH injections in order to recover faster from elbow injuries. You also cite 41-year-old Bartolo Colon as evidence. To be clear, HGH has not been shown to enhance athletic performance in elite athletes. It has also… Read more »
Richie
Guest
Richie

Yeah, “hasn’t been proven to help performance” when that helps the author bash THE EVIL CORPORATE PEOPLE WHO MAKE MORE MONEY THAN I DO!!! and “could bring our favorite players back” when instead that helps do so.

Mr. Meeseeks
Guest
Mr. Meeseeks
Richie: There’s an inconsistency with the HGH thing here, no doubt, and it does seem convenient for the author’s point to have it both ways. But that doesn’t change the despicably self-serving manner in which the commissioner’s office has dealt with “PEDs” for the last 15+ years. And if you think the author (Mr. Parkes) is operating out of envy of people richer and more powerful than he is, then I think you’ve missed a lot of evidence and logical argument that exists elsewhere in this article. (I mean, by extension, he’s arguing in defense of A-Rod and other players,… Read more »
pft
Guest
pft

A lot of things have not been shown to do something because they have not be studied adequately due to various reasons (funding, legal restrictions, ethical concerns, difficulty in arranging the study, etc), but this not proof of anything.

Jonah
Guest
Jonah

There’s a difference between performance enhancing and recovery. I think that distinction is pretty obvious.

Matt
Guest
Matt
It’s really not, the same substances that can be used as performance enhances can also be used to greatly accelerate recovery from surgery and the like. Their main factor as an anabolic steroid is that they greatly accelerate recovery of damage to body caused by working out, or in the case of injuries, possible surgery. Having surgery to repair your ACL may take 1 year to return, having the same surgery and then being on HGH, Test, and Nandrolone, and you may recover more completely and in 6 months instead of a year, while experiencing far less atrophy to the… Read more »
Jonah
Guest
Jonah

1) Nothing you said there makes HGH a performance enhancer.

2) HGH is not considered by anyone to be an anabolic steroid, but thanks for showing up.

Jonah
Guest
Jonah

I don’t normally comment on anything I read, but the ignorance in the comments section kind of proves the author’s point in my opinion.

james wilson
Guest
james wilson
If HGH does not contribute to enhanced performance perhaps someone could tell us why it was in universal use by sprinters at the turn of the century. Not to mention by Barry Bonds. Bu, yes, players, and most especially pitchers, should be permitted approved and prescribed steroids and HGH–agreed to by MLB and the players union– in recovering from injury. The damage which pitchers do to their arms cannot be overstated. Paleolithic diets and a certain privileged class? There’s no crying in baseball, and no Marxist dialectic. All MLB players are privileged. Pedro, Ortiz, Manny . One was too stupid… Read more »
Bonk
Guest
Bonk

I think that we could all agree that HGH is not known to ensure enhanced performance. However, if success in baseball (or any other athletic endeavor) is seen as a battle against the failings of one’s own body over time, then a plateau of performance can be seen as an “enhancement.” Marxist rhetoric aside (not that there’s anything wrong with that), the idea that a measured acceptance if HGH or other supplements might lift the stigma of PED’s and allow us to enjoy a higher quality of play is intriguing. This was a great read.

Marc Schneider
Guest
Marc Schneider

Thanks, that was a useful comment.

james wilson
Guest
james wilson

Three comments.

Richie
Guest
Richie

Actually, the article is straight from Commandments #1 and 2 from the Sabremetrician’s Gospel: “I am SOOO! much smarter than the people who think steroids are bad for you!”, and “Rich Corporate people are EEEEE-VIL!” To paraphrase Peter Noone, 383,692nd verse, same as the first.

Andy
Guest
Andy

Ha. Good stuff.

Dustin Parkes
Guest

I don’t mind being poked fun at, but I’m far from a sabermatician. I don’t think I’m smarter than anyone, either. The entire point of writing, to me, anyway, is to look at a topic from a perspective that isn’t common or bring new information to the table. That’s the type of writing I enjoy, and it’s the type of writing I try to employ.

Bpdelia
Guest
Bpdelia
There is an on incredibly compelling argument to be made that rush corporate people are, in fact, evil. This argument has been made by folks like, oh, Jesus of Nazareth, Gandhi, Buddha. As well as some of the greatest minds in philosophy, art and political discourse our world has ever known. The world is constructed of resources. These resources are of a finite nature which makes resource consumption a zero sum game. Every dollar i have you CANNOT have. Therefore if i use some of these finite resources to build a forth yacht while will you struggle to feed a… Read more »
GOJAYS
Guest
GOJAYS

While we are on the performance enhancing topic, I’ve never understood how Tommy John surgery never gets mentioned. In the procedure, they take part of your LEG and put it in your ARM. Hmmm I wonder which is stronger. When an arm is powered by a tendon meant for a leg, how is that not performance enhancing?

Benjamin
Guest
Benjamin

The source tendon *can* be from the leg, but most often is not. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tommy_John_surgery

“A harvested tendon (often the palmaris tendon[2])—from the forearm of the same or opposite elbow, from below the knee (known as the patellar tendon), or from a cadaver—is then woven in a figure-eight pattern through the holes and anchored. “

Scooter
Guest
Scooter

I thought this was a swell article, and it contained some insights (notably the Eastern European history) that I don’t recall hearing before. Nice work.

pft
Guest
pft
The juiced ball effect is still being ignored. Its clear from the sudden jump in offensive number that started in 1994 after a bit of transition in 1993 that steroids was not solely responsible for the jump in BABIP from about 280-285 to 300 where it has remained even today, nor the jump in HR rates from 1.6-1.7 per game to over 2 overnight. Meanwhile today we still see BABIP still at levels not seen since 1930 despite the shifting while HR rates have plummeted to pre-1994 levels, but strikeouts per game have increased every year since 2007 and are… Read more »
Dustin Parkes
Guest

Good points. I felt badly for simplifying the causes of the offensive outbursts of the late ’90s, but I didn’t want to meander too much and bring other topics up that might derail the introduction. Everything you’ve said here, though, could absolutely be part of what we saw.

JJ
Guest
JJ

Yes, MLB loves the fact that people stress the PEDs issue and call it the ‘steroid era’ which places all the ‘blame’ on the HR and scoring environment one thing. They ignore the fact that the strike zone is the #1 thing causing the decrease in runs because this doesn’t fit the story of “See how good we did at solving the PEDs ‘problem’ “. Not saying they shouldn’t try to keep this story up, as it will keep the US gov’t off their back, but it is a story none-the-less.

rubesandbabes
Guest
rubesandbabes
Good article. I don’t go for the conspiracy of the owners thing, but to my mind if the World Series hero from last year had tested positive, “they” would have covered it up, no doubt. Plus, there’s this history of owners’ PED tolerance, for sure. Also yes, right now the baseball players have a clear path to heavy PED use without detection under the current anti-doing scheme. 95MPH fastballs all around – what does it mean? Recent epidemic of TJ surgeries? Here’s where the author could take it further: Yes, It’s right to start talking about these things, but it’s… Read more »
rubesandbabes
Guest
rubesandbabes

“anti-doping”

Dustin Parkes
Guest

That’s a good point that really hasn’t been examined. I’d argue that the public’s stigma — maintained by the leagues — prohibits the players from being honest about their use and what they’re able to accomplish because of it. I think the path to openness about performance enhancing substances begins at the league level. I’d love for them to truly show us how it can negatively affect the health of athletes instead of making it some sort of moral issue. Then, I think athletes would be more likely to open up.

Steinbender
Guest
Steinbender

This article could’ve started at, “As the 10th MLB commissioner assumes office, it seems incredibly unlikely he’ll try to overhaul the league’s policies pertaining to performance enhancing substances.” About 2/3 of the way through.

All that moralizing to get to the interesting part. We were all there, friend. We lived it and we don’t read online articles for grandiose recaps. Less talk, more rock and more about how we could’ve seen more Andy Pettitte types. Interesting proposition.

And maybe some more eastern european roid tales, please.

Kevin
Guest
Kevin

I don’t mind reading a recap of things I know if it’s been written as eloquently as it has here, and it has the added bonus of engaging those not as well versed in the history of PEDs as yourself.

Dustin Parkes
Guest

I’m sorry you didn’t like the composition, but it’s not something I threw together without consideration. I wanted it to be as accessible as possible. I even tried to throw in some interesting tidbits in the introduction for the more knowledgeable, like in reading about McGwire’s home run, he said, he didn’t even know it went over the fence until he saw Dave McKay, the first base coach, celebrating.

Dustin Parkes
Guest
Apologies for not engaging with some of these points earlier. I’m just coming back to this article, and seeing all of the responses. I’ll try to answer some of the things people are bringing up. Let me answer two of the repeated questions of the piece: 1) I have zero problems with people making more money than me. This piece wasn’t intended to promote a Marxist ideology (the accusation of which made me kind of chuckle), and its intent wasn’t to crusade against earning dollars. I think pro sports leagues are brilliant from a business plan point of view, and… Read more »
Jason
Guest
Jason
I love the game and it would take a lot more than what’s happened in the last couple decades for me to abandon it. However, it’s clear that the rules are muddled and a bit of a farce. It’s basically impossible to keep up with the myriad of biomedical technological advances (whether white hat or black hat, so to speak) and maintain a bright line between cheating and not cheating. In my view, it’s part of becoming a grown-up baseball fan to realize that the game’s “integrity” has never been pristine, ever. (I just visited the Hall of Fame for… Read more »
Bertie
Guest
Bertie
Let’s look at the sport which was very nearly destroyed by PED use – cycling. There is no dispute that drug abuse had a performance impact on that sport. Race speeds measurably accelerated, despite the setting of ever more difficult courses. Since that era, race times have returned to the historic norms, and race organisers have had to set shorter courses as ‘clean’ athletes are unable to handle the intensive courses of the PED era. As a non-scientist I have no idea of the effect of specific drugs, but there can be no doubt from the data that the right… Read more »
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