Friday, December 14, 2007

The Mitchell Report

The big news in the world of sports is, of course, The Mitchell Report, released yesterday. Riding the bus yesterday, I found myself defending the public's interest in performance-enhancing drugs in baseball.

Baseball is a game that puts vast importance on history. We love to compare eras and the major records are considered sacred. I can still tell you exactly what I was doing when Mark McGwire broke the single-season home run record, and I can tell you I watched a whole lot of Giants games to see Barry Bonds break the career record. For comparison's sake, football has many records (single season touchdown or yardage records are probably most important individual statistics), but none of them are as "sacred" as baseball's records.

One of the interesting results of the historical nature of the game is the way the public glazes over the changes in the game. At one point, the pitcher's mounds were not a standard height. The Los Angeles Dodgers, for example, were reputed to have the highest pitching mound in the majors for years. They were also known as a team that trotted out great pitchers year after year. Also, at one point, the spitball was legal. Players that couldn't throw fastballs could "doctor" the baseball. We have spitballers in the Hall of Fame, though. I feel like the public misses this important distinction in their constant complaints against steroids - people have done absolutely anything they can to gain a competitive edge in baseball. The Steroid Era is different, but it's not enough to justify the circus that has been made of the game.

I played baseball for a number of years as a child. I will happily attest to the fact that hitting a ball is hard in Little League, and it doesn't get any easier as you get older. Pitches begin to curve and sink, instead of simply coming straight in. The ability of today's players to hit a ball is phenomenal, and steroids don't enhance their vision or coordination. There will always be people complaining about how Barry Bonds took drugs, but how about his teammate Marvin Benard? Was it okay for Benard to take steroids because he wasn't as good, even with them?

Finally, I think the steroid controversy ought to serve as a reminder of how great the players outside the Mitchell Report really are. From Greg Maddux to Tony Gwynn, there have been plenty of "honest" players who didn't use performance enhancers and still managed to dominate the game. Maybe we ought to use the Mitchell Report to recognize the names that were unmentioned, as the true "Greats of the Game," who dominated an era even though they were chemically inferior to their competition.


Pete said...

Here's an interesting economic take on the role of the most prominent "steroid" in the game-HGH. The discussion is simplistic: Most studies show no beneficial athletic results from the substance, while the side effects are harmful. It also suggests that the only reason players are driven toward the substance is the assumption that if it is banned, it must provide a competitive edge.

This is an interesting exploration of signaling in the sport, as essentially the banning of the substance serves as the greatest evidence of its effectiveness. Also, when considering the Mitchell Report, there is such a large discrepancy between the Bonds's/Sosa's and the Greg Zaun's that such a report would testify to talent being the definitive characteristic, not steroid use (obviously fat-based steroids played in a role in some players, and in those cases there would be a correlation between use and performance).

Also, the article champions libertarianism, as regulations do not merely obscure price signaling (supply in most cases) but also influence demand, creating an artificial, inefficient market. Any other manifestations of this principle?

Josh Knox said...

Thomas Sowell had some interesting thoughts on the issue. Even though it is tough to convict players of steroid charges in a court of law, as a private organization the commissioner of baseball is free to ban any player he wants. No member of the 1919 White Sox was convicted of throwing the World Series, but every member was banned from baseball for the rest of his life – and longer as none have been elected to the hall of fame. If keeping performance enhancers out is really in “the best interest of baseball” then would banning a few suspect players go a long way to stopping the use of steroids the way banning the White Sox stopped inside betting? Or are contracts so intricate today that it would just result in excessive litigation from the Players’ Union?

Billy said...

Most ballplayers today are taking homeopathic growth hormone oral spray because it's safe, undetectable, and legal for over the counter sales. As time goes on it seems it might be considered as benign a performance enhancer as coffee, aspirin, red bull, chewing tobacco, and bubble gum.

Compared with the totality of knowledge which is continually utilized in the evolution of a dynamic civilization, the difference between the knowledge that the wisest and that which the most ignorant individual can deliberately employ is comparatively insignificant. ~Fredrich Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty