The long-awaited Mitchell report on steroid use among Major League baseball players will focus a tremendous amount of public attention on the "did he" or "didn't he" issue, which strikes me as exactly the wrong framework for understanding performance-enhancing drugs (let's call them PEDs) in baseball. There is so much to say about this issue that I'll spread it out over several posts, but let's at least get started here. Given baseball's reward structure, the real question is how so many players didn't use PEDs, or at least the ones that Major League Baseball now bans.
Since what fans seem to care most about--fanned by TV, sports pages, ESPN, and MLB itself--is home runs, and since most of the biggest contracts go to the players who hit the most home runs, and since even so-so offensive players are expected to hit 15-20 dingers a year these days, how on earth can we expect hitters not to do everything possible to boost their strength--and home run totals--including taking PEDs?
Look, when you flip on SportsCenter or Baseball Tonight during the season, something I do as often as possible, do you see clips highlighting smart defensive positioning, players working the count for a walk, or savvy baserunning? Ok, every now then, and the defensive webgems at the end are terrific--but most of what you see is hitters going downtown, going yard, playing longball, hitting home run after home run after home run.
For lots of fans, that's the game, right there. And since we fans make up the audiences that the TV networks and stations sell to advertisers, which then provide Major League teams with the cash to offer unimaginably large contracts to home run hitters--well, until we unhook ourselves from our romance with home runs, players (and their chemists) will always be a step ahead of enforcement. We can't both love homeruns as much as we do and expect PEDs to go away.
If we're really disturbed about the influence of PEDs on baseball, I propose the following reforms: eliminate the "home-run derby" before the All-Star Game, raise the pitching mounds a couple of inches, enlarge the strike zone a couple of inches, move all outfield fences back 10-20 feet, and increase the amount of foul territory outside of first and third in all major league parks. That these ideas are all dead on arrival--due to opposition from TV networks, individual teams, fans, the players' union, and MLB itself--shows us that our real addiction is to a kind of baseball that makes PED use inevitable.
Read more news and blog posts on the Mitchell report on steroids in baseball here.