If you watch professional baseball as much as I do, you get wrapped up in the politics and the inner workings of the game. It’s hard not to get sucked into the culture and become so entranced by all of the news stories that surround the game and the players.
Without a doubt, one of the biggest scandals to hit baseball is the use of performance enhancing drugs. Steroids seemed like an epidemic in the sport, and no one could tell how widespread it was or what players were affected. I know I was on the edge of my seat and reading every bit of information that came out.
All of this starts to beg the question, why do baseball players use steroids? Why does this problem seem more prevalent in this sport than any other?
Why do baseball players use steroids?
After the scandal had blown wide open, major league baseball came down hard on players and the clubs alike. They handed out ban after ban for the use of steroids. 13 players in total were targeted by the suspensions. The player hit hardest by this was Alex Rodriguez.
Not the only ones
Reports have been made that imply that players many other sports have been using performance enhancing drugs. Organizations from the NBA to the NCAA have all been implicated. But there has not been nearly the reaction to the use of steroids in these organizations as there has been in major league baseball. In fact, none of these other sports organizations have taken action to find out who is using or to use discipline to discourage the utilization of these drugs.
The reason that players take these drugs is pretty obvious. They want to push the boundaries of what the human can do They all strive to be the best in their sport, and they have to be as competitive and as athletic as possible. With steroids and other enhancing drugs, player can push themselves even further and maybe even break records. There are significant benefits to breaking records. It is a way of carving yourself out a piece of history and putting yourself in the books forever. It can be quite tempting to get your name in the history.
It is also a matter of competitive creep. If a few players start using drugs to enhance their game, others will start, just to keep up. Eventually, you will fall behind if you are the only player not using steroids. Given that you are judged by winning, the pressure to do whatever you can do to be competitive.
There is also pressure from all around the players to continue to increase performance. Some of those in charge don’t think that viewers will continue to be interested in the sport if the players are not regularly outperforming themselves. In the minds of some, more home runs, more amazing feats, more views, and more fans. And that is a money based worry. They want to keep the money coming into the sport and then pressure the players to keep pushing those boundaries.
So if other sports have an enhancement problem as well, why is it that we more often hear about it in the sport of baseball? Why is it so much of a bigger issue in this sport than all of the others? I think this is the most pressing question.
Why is steroid use a bigger deal in baseball?
The first reason that baseball tends to react to the steroid issue more than other sports is that it hurts baseball more than other sports. Athletes in other sports can hide the use of performance enhancing drugs better. Thier game may improve, but to the casual observer, it is not immediately apparent that the players have been juicing. A football player can play for a bit longer and may hit a bit harder, a basketball player will be a bit faster, a tennis player can return a few more volleys.
In baseball though it is immediately evident. Everything a player does in baseball is measured and compared to the other players. It is harder to pass off the increase in abilities as simply playing the game at a higher level when there is a statistical bloat in the number of home runs batted or strikeouts thrown. The numbers are easy to see and consistently being counted and analyzed.
In baseball these statistics are sacred. Players are always playing the numbers that have been taken, not only of their past performance but that of all players throughout history. The statistics in baseball are important to the mystique of the game more than any other professional sport. This is not only one of the reasons players are tempted to enhance with drugs, but also why it hurts the perception of the sport.
With players artificially enhancing their numbers, it skews the understanding of the game in a historical context and can affect the way people look back at those figures. And can those new numbers be fairly compared to those historical figures when those players accomplished their feats on their own accord?
Baseball is not a game that is played in the moment. It is a game that is being played in a historical context. Very few people tune into an NFL game to compare and contrast to the players that were running on the same gridiron in the 1970’s. Football is very much a game of right now. What teams are playing, and what strategy they are using to move the ball down the field.
The players in a game of baseball cannot separate their performance from the rich history, so the use of these drugs to distort these numbers hurts the game in the context of this history.
It’s about pressure and history
Players are pressured to use enhancements because they are playing a game of numbers. They are always trying to outdo themselves as well as all of the players from history. Baseball is a game about making history. Breaking those statistical records and getting your name into the books for all time.
When you play baseball, you are trying to get your stats as noticeable as possible, and the steroids are a shortcut to making that happen. This is why steroids in baseball is a big deal. These numbers stretch back to the beginning of the game, and the statistics are relevant.