Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Spitball Versus Deca Durabolin

There is a very simple difference between loading up a baseball and shooting up with PEDs. One gets an amused chuckle, a suggestion that it's a part of the game and its long, glorious history of spitballers, emery boards and Hall of Fame pitchers named Gaylord. The other is high treason equivalent to strangling kittens whilst doing unspeakable things under the influence of My Little Pony slashfic

Both, of course, are against the rules of baseball; both are considered cheating. But the same guardians of the temple who will rail against the very gods lest Cooperstown be tainted with the admission of a steroid-stained cheater will just smile ruefully at the notion that Clay Buchholz had a sleeve full of something naughty that he's been using to load up the ball, and maybe reminisce a little about Burleigh Grimes, Whitey Ford, and the time Kevin Gross tried to hide the evidence of his cheating on the infield.
Part of the difference in reaction is of course tradition. Whitey Ford, the man who bought sandwiches and chianti for his bullpen on the days he pitched, is one of the game's great characters, enshrined in Cooperstown and an intrinsic part of the powerhouse Yankee teams of the mid-century. To suddenly and retroactively equate his artistry with the emery board (or his catcher Elston Howard's ability to scuff a ball on his shin guards in full view of the unsuspecting umpire) with the crimes of the infamous Dan Naulty would be to cast aspersions on the Hall, and on that Yankee dynasty, and thus on much of baseball's tradition. It's simply not worth it.
But I think the real reason the two are regarded as indisputably different is this: scuffing a baseball is what you do, shooting up with PEDs changes what you are. Scuffing a baseball is what the pitcher does. He can be detected at any time, whether it be by the ump or a batter who complains that something had too much movement or a sharp-eyed coach who knows that what he's seeing live far exceeds what he saw on video. The evidence is out there; the other team has every chance to spot it, identify the cheater, and get him thrown out. It's a battle of wits. Either side can win, and the means of spotting the cheating are not so esoteric nor expensive they require a chemical analysis lab. 
Steroids, on the other hand, are what you are. They change your very body, and the are in effect undetectable on the field. Murray Chass' fascination with Mike Piazza's back acne aside, it is impossible to point out someone as a steroid user without a battery of sophisticated tests to back one up. So unless you're going to put a urinalysis lab in the 3rd base coach's box, it's impossible to catch someone who's used PEDs. It's impossible to point to evidence on the field, and because bodies have physically changed, it's impossible to make them stop doing their steroid-enhanced thing. You can take the glove with the thumbtack away from Rick Honeycutt before you send him back out to the mound; you can't take extra muscle mass off Jason Giambi's tree-trunk forearms without a flensing knife.
That's the difference, I think. Is versus does, a game versus a result. There's no equivalency and never will be, and saying "but cheating is cheating" misses this key distinction. If they can catch you on the field, it's one thing. If they can only catch you off the field, if it becomes the job of the scientists and the analysts and the lawyers instead of the men between the white lines, that's different.
And that's unforgivable.
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