Wednesday, June 07, 2006

If It Ain't Cheatin' If You Don't Get Caught, What Is It when It Doesn't Work?

Jason Grimsley has pitched for over a decade in the major leagues without too many people noticing. Now he's famous, and all it took was getting busted for possession of performance-enhancing drugs, including human growth hormone.

Grimsley was unconditionally released by the Arizona Diamondbacks today, and is, as they say, "co-operating with authorities." He's evidently been deep in the performance-enhancing drug subculture for some time. This sheds new light on the whole question of drugs in baseball, because using them sure didn't seem to enhance Grimsley's performance by any noticable measure.

Grimsley's predicament has struck a blow for knowledge all the billions of heated words on the subject, no one has really set out to examine how much PE drugs help players perform, or even if they do. Scientifically speaking, for all we know, BALCO could've handed out placebos to Barry Bonds and company and achieved the same home run totals.

Many people inside baseball have long maintained that many more humdrum players of Grimsley's ilk have abused steroids and such than have big stars. This makes economic sense. The biggest earning step in the game is the leap from Triple AAA to the Show and those who live on the cusp of those worlds could be expected to do ANYTHING to remain on a major league roster.

The public impression, of course, is just the reverse. The outside world thinks that all suspected or confessed PE drug users come from the game's superstars. That fallacy is the celebrity culture at work. Reporters don't get the front page with stories linking the Grimsley of this world to steroids, and congressmen do not get national TV time to rake .230 hitters over the coals on the topic.

But the public isn't all wrong. It focuses on the big names who've been linked to PE drug use because theirs are the performances (not to mention hat sizes) that have changed the most dramatically.

Whatever edge Grimsley got from taking PE drugs is not apparent to the naked eye. He was mediocre with or without 'em. His case suggests that giving steroids to a stiff results only in a muscle-bound stiff with back acne.

Barry Bonds was the best player in baseball before he was ever suspected of PE drug use, to which he was apparently a relative latecomer. If the account of Bonds' use in "Game of Shadows" is accurate, then their use had an ENORMOUS effect on his performance. Bonds hit dozens of more homers a season. His slugging percentage soared by several hundred points. He went from the top talent of his time to the most feared and productive batter ever.

A similiar effect can be seen in two other confessed steroid users, the brothers Jason and Jeremy Giambi. Jason, a good hitter, became a much better one. Jeremy, a poor hitter, couldn't alter that reality through biochemical means.

These cases suggest that the benefits of PE drug use in baseball depend on the talents of the individuals who use 'em. Their value-added effect varies in direct proportion to the player's original unaided value. A drug-created tide does NOT lift all boats.

If that's true, then PE drug use is damaging to baseball in a far more profound way than what it's usually denounced for. There is as yet no proof big leaguers have suffered any permanent ill effects from PE drug use. It's just too early to tell. I've never understood why steroids have been blasted for helping players heal more quickly. Isn't that what all medicine is for?

And of course, if a majority of players were using PE drugs, and those drugs DID lift all players proportionally, then the "cheaters" would cancel each other out.

If, however, PE drug use helps turn the talent-rich into the talent-obscenely wealthy, then it
s dealing baseball's competitive balance a near fatal blow. The game's percentages are ground so fine, they can't take that sort of disruption. For example, shortstops have been throwing runners out at first by the same half-step for well over a century, whether the runner was fast or merely average. If, all of a sudden, fast runners CAN beat the throw from the shortstop on a regular basis, baseball is shaken to its core. Also, all games would last six hours at a minimum.

Somebody hitting 73 homers doesn't necessarily affect baseball's competitive integrity. It's just a number, and teams can always move the fences back or raise the mound again. But widespread use of artificial means that allow its top dogs to ascend faster than lesser players can keep up does.

PE drugs would seem to be the horsehide equivalent of repealing the estate tax.


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