Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Learning To Wait For Change

I was away for the weekend doing 30th-birthday related things, and therefore mercifully oblivious to most of the media fallout precipitated by the Ryan Braun steroid trial/acquittal/whatever the hell that was. However, it is now into the following week and we're still talking about it. Partly because I was curious as to what the sundry reactions had been and partly because I am a masochist, I went back and read/listened to a heaping passel of the coverage and op-eds that came out since the news of Braun's acquittal. After wasting most of this morning and early afternoon catching up, I feel confidently well-versed in how various parties of dubious import feel about the whole thing. Needless to say, the commentary ran the full gamut of yappy-dog sentiments and arguments. It was an exercise in opined saturation and frankly, the sanctimony and condescension from both (all?) sides was equally galling.

There was, of course, the tiresome and predictable barrage of the baseball's self-appointed keepers, fretting over a variety of matters. After all, the steroid era was supposed to be over, right? After the Mitchell Report, the waste of Congress' time, and all the subsequent harrumphing and hoopla, we were going to be past all of this, right? I truly wish it were that easy, and that there wasn't the need to revisit this ground again. I wish nobody took PEDs. They un-level the playing field and they're dangerous, ugly substances besides.

The trouble is: there is no "past this." If you're pretending otherwise, I'd love to sell you some game-worn Bill James Cannery Security Guard jerseys for $2,000 a pop. The only way the steroids "problem" in baseball goes away permanently is if a. we convince the players not to use PEDs (not happening), b. we stop caring if anyone is using PEDs (not happening anytime soon if ever), c. we find the science to test for all banned substances past, present, and future and convince the players to agree to far more rigorous and frequent tests (not happening because the testing can't possibly keep up with the drugs and the players will never agree to this anyway), or d. we make the penalty for a first-time offense a Pete Rose lifetime ban (presumably harsh and intimidating enough to prevent any future violations. Not happening because no one in the league office is stupid enough to push for so totalitarian a measure ... we hope.) So yeah, the people wringing their hands because the steroid era was supposed to be over and never be an issue for anyone ever again are understandably upset. However, they should also probably adjust their expectations of reality a little bit.

Then there are the people who are outraged that Braun "got off on a technicality." Look, I know this wasn't a criminal trial, but a man's livelihood and professional reputation were still on the line. Isn't there something to be said for preserving the chain of evidence in these matters? I've no idea of the chemical repercussions of leaving a small jar of urine in a fridge for 48 hours vis a vis testing that sample for a certain substance, if in fact there are any. (That last point depends on who you ask.) The system in place is a product of collective bargaining, and that system was not correctly adhered to in this case (again, depending on who you talk to.) MLB can and should work to fix the system not only to prevent a similar scenario from recurring, but to institute planned contingencies for other potential issues as well. When I talk about preventing this from happening again, I don't mean to imply that I am of a mind with those grousing because Braun escaped punishment on a "technicality." What I mean is that we need to amend the system to minimize the extent to which future results will be the subject of said grousing. In fact, the only part of this whole media crossfire extravaganza is the necessary discussion over how best to improve this process. That said, any changes would obviously need to be subjected to voting and ratification by both the players and the league, this may not happen until the next collective bargaining negotiations, if then. Discourse is encouraged, but complaining about it in the meanwhile will not change the situation.

And now I come to the most interesting end of the spectrum (or corner rather, since this isn't a linear scale): the folks who seem to think their intellectually detached pulpits are set a little higher and mightier than everyone else's. They look at the (admittedly irritating) baseball traditionalist crowd and they shake their heads. They fume. And then they want to give that crowd what for, and so they furiously start typing. Grow up, they say. Stop living in a world of black and white. Hang those petty nostalgias and ideals up like an old pair of cleats. This is the real world. No place for uncomplicated notions of truth here ... unless they're our uncomplicated notions of truth. And this is where I start becoming genuinely baffled.

The people who espouse such views aren't wrong, mind you. I agree with their ideas. Like them, I do think much of baseball's pervading ethos needs an overhaul, and that there are few things more idiotic and dangerous than tradition for its own sake. What I can't comprehend is why there is so much pejorative vehemence in the way the non-trad media write about these things; why they can't seem to understand the other side and be willing to cut them a little slack. The old guard comes at this from a place of deep love and a perceived duty of preservation of the game, misguided though their sentiments and methods may be. The "steroids happen, deal with it, and who gives a %$&*$ anyway?" folks strike me as out to prove their own stoic superiority while willfully ignoring the crux of the matter. Criticizing all the handwringing is fine if you understand it, but they are failing to understand, and they don't want to. They also don't want to hear counterpoints because hey, they're right, right? Maybe so. Probably, in fact, but they're still walking through a sanctimonious forest and missing the big-ass tree at the heart of this.

Here's the thing: in five years and maybe less time than that, no one is going to have more than a vague recall of this mess Ryan Braun just went through. We'll remember him as one of the key cogs on 2011's most entertaining team, or the guy who looks a bit like Adrian Brody. We'll remember him as the guy who hosed Matt Kemp in the NL MVP race. Honestly, we'll probably mostly remember him as the guy who face planted trying to score on an in-the-park homerun. But we won't remember a long-overturned steroids accusation. Unless Ryan Braun starts getting close to some MLB record or another.

The hue and cry over steroids in baseball has nothing whatsoever to do with competitive fairness. Not in the sense of which team can put together the most W's over 162 games or even who wins the World Series, anyway. As I have written before, baseball is the only "team" sport in which individual numbers are the most sacrosanct piece of the puzzle. We're going to destroy LeBron until he wins a title. We'll kill Peyton Manning for having fewer rings than his little brother. Both of them are surefire hall of famers. In baseball, no one really cares how many times you've gleefully sprayed champagne all over a locker room in victory. The truly, perhaps the only, important question is: how was your career stat line (or you single-season peak)? And this is where all the lectures from the non-traditionalists to the baseball establishment about not seeing things in black and white fall apart. Because numbers are black and white, and baseball is a game of simple math. If your career numbers include things like x > 3,000 hits, x > 400 career wins, x > 500 homers, you're good. If x > everyone else's x ever, your name will be known to baseball fans six generations from now. This is why people get so keyed up over PEDs in baseball. What's on the line isn't anything as trivial as a win column or a trophy; it's immortality. Given the stakes, maybe we could cut the handwringers a little slack, huh?

So by all means, intellectual writer types, take your shots. Make your arguments. You're probably correct, and my guess is that in another generation or three, baseball will "grow up" and steroids won't be banned or even frowned upon. If players want to use the damned things, then they will, and it's only a matter of time before MLB realizes the futility of fighting it and lets go. Just do me a favor in the meantime: have a little more empathy for the folks on the other side of the argument, and given them time to accept the paradigm shift. Oh, and maybe cut back a little on the sanctimony if it's not too much trouble.


  1. I agree. Numbers are sacred in baseball more than any other sport. They are sacred to the point where they have jeopardy type recognition...755 (I know), 4,256, 56, .406. etc. Even die hard sports fans need a second to recall the records for rushing yards, career receptions, hockey goals, and the like. This is indeed why PED's do, and should, absolutely infuriate anyone who calls himself or herself a baseball fan. Kevin

  2. Truth. The alterations that distort the holy numbers of the game decidedly warrant discussion/possible sanctions. At the same time, there is a disconnect between our acceptance of the realities of the game and our desire to preserve its purity. I'm not sure steroids are necessarily more of an advantage than, say, the height of the mound or dead versus live ball. Where is the line between advantages granted by modern rules and equipment/training regimens/bat tampering and banned substances? Everyone thinks the pine tar game was a cute aberration. How are steroids different?