Monday, September 17, 2007

Steroids, part III

Perhaps one person in fifty or a hundred is endowed with the abilities, both physical and mental, necessary to play baseball or any other sport on a professional level. For the vast majority of people, to watch any professional sport is to watch (and evaluate, criticize, demean, condemn or approve) people doing things, throwing a ball at ninety miles an hour for a strike, throwing an ephus pitch, hitting a ninety-mile an hour ball out of the park, beating the catcher’s throw to second, leaping in the air or flinging one’s self precisely at the ground to catch a fly ball, that they are almost existentially incapable of doing. An enormous part of the appeal of professional sports in a capitalist society is the affirmation that they provide, for the fan, of a hierarchy that is perceived to exist amongst human beings. The fan is on the outside, looking in, watching the few, the privileged and the gifted compete at their games. By enjoying a baseball game, a fan makes a statement that they are ok with both the existence of the hierarchy and also with their place at the bottom of it. By deriving pleasure from the experience of being a ‘have-not’ when it comes to pitching, speed on the base paths, or slugging ability, they are tutoring themselves in how to enjoy being a have-not in regards to other things: money, land, and political power.

A seemingly erroneous perception about steroids is that they threaten the existence of this hierarchy and that ‘just anyone’ who takes steroids will become able to play professional sports. This is quite provably false: firstly, steroids have little effect at all unless they are combined with a rigorous work-out regimen. Furthermore, a close follower of the game will have observed that a player’s innate ability still seems to account for more of their successes or failures than their chemical intake: Guillermo Mota was on steroids at the time, but he still made a crappy pitch in game two that cost the Mets the 2006 NLCS; lots of players have taken steroids, but only Barry Bonds has hit more home runs than anyone else.

Still, the perception exists that steroids have the potential to serve as an equalizer and confer the coveted athletic abilities on ‘just anyone’ and the idea that they have the power to threaten or destroy the hierarchy of natural gifts must be responsible for much of the negative reaction against them, since the affirmation of this hierarchy is much of what draws fans to the game in the first place. The tragedy, of course, is when aspiring players buy into the fallacy-- when ‘just anyone’ actually goes and takes steroids in the vain hope that they will make it will make them a ball player, and finds themselves, at the end of the day, still not a ball player, but beset, nonetheless, with the medical problems that come from using steroids; indeed, it is mainly on behalf of this ‘just anyone’ that MLB is obliged to take drastic action to eliminate steroid use.

It is interesting, in the context of the above observations, to point out that some of the earliest and most widespread use of steroids occurred, with the blessing of the State, on Soviet Olympic teams.

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