Old rules of the game take a hit
"Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball," wrote the French-born American essayist Jacques Barzun in 1954. The sentiment is less silly than it sounds. Recently Sports Illustrated magazine published excerpts from a new book alleging that Barry Bonds -- the outfielder for the San Francisco Giants who in 2001 hit more home runs in a single season than anyone in history -- owed many of his achievements to steroids. On the internet, the article got more hits than the magazine's annual swimsuit issue. Major League Baseball may open an investigation. Bonds denies using steroids, but the scandal has turned into a national crisis, appearing on news, as well as sports, pages.
US law has imposed criminal penalties for illegal steroids since 1990. Balco, the laboratory linked to Bonds, specialised in "designer" steroids that could not be detected even by the most stringent testing regimes, according to Sports Illustrated, and marketed a zinc and magnesium supplement as a front for its real product. Bonds' personal trainer, who sold human growth hormone and testosterone procured from Aids patients, was jailed last summer. Several prominent baseball players have admitted to steroid use and Americans now understand the criminality that surrounds the world of steroids' blood-thickeners and hormonal treatments. Premature deaths of confessed steroid users have made the dangers plain, too. Team owners and players' unions have colluded to block any steroid-testing regime with teeth, and few fans have objected. So why has this case hit a nerve?
Bonds is only six homers away from displacing the legendary Babe Ruth in the record books. But the importance of his case does not stem from his status as a fallen hero. Pete Rose, who got more hits than any player in history, was banned from baseball for life for betting. Darryl Strawberry, the greatest natural hitter of his generation, was hounded from baseball for cocaine addiction. In like fashion, some observers label Bonds a "cheater". The Sports Illustrated excerpt depicts him as a thoroughly unlovable person: paranoid (attributing other players' successes to racism), licentious (drawn to strippers) and bullying. Bonds has what Americans call a "character issue".
But there is a difference. It is unlikely that Rose's gambling induced his young fans to gamble. The road that led Strawberry to detox is different from the road that led him to fame. Bonds' alleged misdeeds, by contrast, were not a lapse in his heroic persona but an extension of it. He is a focused, dedicated athlete who patiently multiplied his extraordinary gifts through arduous training regimes. He allegedly started using steroids only at age 35, when he was overshadowed by Mark McGwire, a far inferior athlete who later admitted his home-run-hitting had been fuelled by a regimen of steroids. Sports writers have been quick to accuse Bonds of "jealousy", but this is merely another name for pride, desire for excellence and a willingness to take risks and endure pain -- all of them attributes Americans prize.
That is the problem. Steroids go with, not against, the flow of American morality. There is no bedrock principle to dissuade people from using them. In his 2004 State of the Union address, President George W. Bush argued that steroid use "sends the wrong message that there are shortcuts to success". But really, that is nonsense in a society so quick to assimilate scientific advances. Children use calculators in school, adults have surgery as an alternative to dieting and the faith that medicine can painlessly fix problems that bedevilled our ancestors grows more ingrained every day. It does not seem coincidental that the most important ballplayer to have failed a steroid test is Rafael Palmeiro, best known to non-baseball fans as a pitch man for the erectile aid Viagta.
It is the tendency of technological innovations to drive out their "traditional" antecedents. The car makes the horse economically unviable. Similarly, if steroids are tolerated, they become almost mandatory. Estimates of the number of baseball players using steroids have ranged as high as 75 per cent. Steroids work. So, in an unregulated environment, the athlete is offered a choice between enhancement and failure.
Some moralisers think Bonds is worse than others because he did not "need" steroids -- he was the best player in baseball before he supposedly discovered them. But, since no athlete can know for certain how much of an edge he will require -- and since even the best player in baseball still wants to be as good as he can -- there is a tendency for all freelance users to push dosages towards an imagined asymptote of lethality. If the allegations against him are true, Bonds is as much a victim as a perpetrator -- he saw his own career declining because other people in a closed system were cheating and he acted to eliminate their advantage. But every time an athlete takes up steroids, he increases the incentives for others to do so. Jason Giambi, a famously bulked-up hitter, testified that Bonds' improvement inspired his own steroid use. These incentives trickle down. The US Centres for Disease Control estimate that as many as 850,000 18-year-olds -- about 7.0 per cent -- have used anabolic steroids.
Professional baseball has a choice. It can either accept the medicalisation of the sport as part of the dehumanised reality of the society we live in. Or it can try to recreate the game as it existed in the pre-steroid age. But that will require every disciplinary and regulatory tool at its disposal, and probably include banning several of its most beloved stars from the game for life. If the Bonds scandal has riveted Americans, it is because they sense uneasily that this conflict -- between dehumanising technology and draconian regulation -- is one that increasingly confronts us outside sports as well.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard