|Steroids Ruin Human Aspect of Baseball|
Written by Bjoern Hartig (Contact & Archive) on September 02, 2009
Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz are the biggest names that have been associated with steroids this season. Because I do not live in the States, I was not able to closely follow the media coverage, but I dare say that while A-Rod's exposure provoked a lot of criticism, Manny and Big Papi seem to mostly get off rather lightly.
I always had a very strong emotional reaction to athletes taking performance enhancing drugs and I am regularly outraged when writers (who I often greatly respect and admire) justify taking PED with the "strong urge to win" and the "willingness to do everything it takes to win" of players like Bonds or A-Rod. I was never willing to accept such an excuse, not for a second.
But I never asked myself exactly what it was that made doping so intolerable to me. After pondering the question for a while, I think it has something to do with my view on how we treat our bodies in general. I am, for example, strictly against unnecessary plastic surgery. There are a plenty valid reasons to undergo such an operation, but getting two additional cup-sizes usually is not one of them. I find it sad that so many people today apparently draw such a large degree of self esteem from their appearance only that they feel such an invasive procedure is necessary. I am not religious and I do not think that the human body is sacred or taboo; it is just my opinion that learning to accept yourself as who you are is an important lesson in life. But I digress.
What does that have to do with sports? Before I try to answer that, I would like to ask you a hypothetical question: If one day there are robots who could play baseball -- and play better than humans are able to -- and they would form a league with 30 teams, play 162 games against each year and hold playoffs, would you go and watch it? Would you root for a robot team, admire their star players and revel in their accomplishments? I probably would not and I guess most of you would not either. Maybe at first, when it is new, but once the novelty has peeled off, interest would dwindle quickly. Why is that?
A big part of the enjoyment of sports is in how we relate to our favorite players. Sure, most of us are fans of teams first and today players often change teams quicker than Paris Hilton changes her boyfriend, but in the end, it is about the guys donning the uniforms -- even if they are just hired mercenaries -- because we need their faces to empathize with. The most universal and popular sports in the world are what you may call "human sports" like football (or soccer, for those on the other side of the pond), rugby, American football, basketball, baseball, tennis, golf, athletics, swimming and so on, i.e. sports in which the human element dominates over technical or non-human aspects (motor sports, horse riding, sailing come to mind as "non-human" sports -- though you probably can argue about the importance of the human element, I'm not an expert here). I go out on a limb and say that this is because we can better relate to those athletes. They are "close" to us.
Speaking scientifically, mirror neurons fire in our brain when we see another person perform a task, just like if we performed it ourselves. That's why watching your team win in person (at the stadium or on TV) is at least ten times more fun than reading about the win in the paper for following a live ticker on the web.
After this long-worded exposition, I'll try to get back to the steroids issue. When athletes take regular supplements, we usually do not mind much. Vitamins, proteins and so on are considered ok, because they are considered natural. Popping vitamins is a shortcut to eating fruits, but that is no problem. The line is blurrier when it comes to medical infusions to allow players to take the field with minor injuries or nagging pains, but it is definitely crossed by injecting steroids or human growth hormones. These are substances the body is supposed to produce on its own and within its own limitations, injecting them is "unnatural."
Accomplishments of athletes on steroids are tainted. They are not the result of the human body alone. Credit needs to go to the player and his pharmacist as well. In the long run, this will reduce the empathy towards the players and destroy parts of the enjoyment of watching sports. For example, a few years back, I regularly followed the Tour de France and was quite excited about it, but today -- under the impression that almost every rider is drugged -- I hardly check the results. I am not saying that this will necessarily happen to baseball, but effects may be slow and long-term. Today, fans in the stands seem not to care too much about steroids, but those who do care probably do not go to the park, do they? If the perceptions persists that most players do steroids and human growth hormones, it may alienate the fans over time. Cleaning up baseball should be high on Bud Selig's agenda if he wants to protect (or restore) baseball's image long term.