Much A-Rod about nothing

Alex Rodriguez’s positive steroid test is nothing more than a blip on baseball’s performance-enhancing radar.

Ever guzzle a pot of coffee before pulling an all-nighter on a final paper? Perhaps you enjoy a good protein shake after a workout. Or maybe your little sister is on Ritalin for her ADD. No biggie. But if a baseball player starts dabbling in some evil performance-enhancing drugs, we lose our minds. ItâÄôs a silly double standard, and itâÄôs about time we moved past it. So Alex Rodriguez used some drugs. Admittedly, that revelation was a bit surprising âÄî rumors about various players have been swirling for years, but A-RodâÄôs name never really popped up in any of the whispers. And he instantly became the biggest name in baseball to test positive (at least until someone digs up the Holy Grail of a positive Barry Bonds test). But instead of just lining up to crucify him, we should probably take the occasion of RodriguezâÄôs failed test to re-examine how we think about steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. Professional baseball has always had a bit of a sticky history with outside substances giving players advantages; think about pitchers rubbing spit or pine tar on a ball for extra spin, or players filling hollow bats with cork for some extra pop. All of those techniques have been banned, obviously, but players continue to search for every edge: carving bats with narrower handles and bulkier barrels, switching spikes if the turf is wet or even just wearing sunglasses on the field. One could argue, though, that changes in equipment and use of PEDs are entirely different categories. After all, the latter actually changes the playerâÄôs body. That does seem to be crossing some kind of line. But if we allow that thereâÄôs a difference between equipment and physiological advances, soon enough the question of medical technology arises and raises further questions. Much of the outcry regarding steroid use in baseball has to do with statistical milestones instead of simple wins and losses. YouâÄôd be hard-pressed to find someone willing to argue that the New York YankeesâÄô 1999 World Series championship should be invalidated because Roger Clemens was on some kind of drug. But itâÄôs not hard to find someone who thinks Hank AaronâÄôs career home run total (755) should still be considered the real record (since Barry Bonds was probably juicing). Most of the other major sports donâÄôt have such a storied statistical history, which probably explains a large part of why baseball specifically sees such a disproportionate amount of attention from PED critics. ItâÄôs not fair, the argument goes, to compare the stats of steroid users to the purer players of yesteryear. But what about, say, Tommy John surgery? In 1974, John, a pitcher, blew out his elbow. It should have ended his career. Instead, a doctor took a tendon out of his right forearm, replaced that with a ligament in his left pitching elbow, and John threw another 14 seasons. Today, itâÄôs a common procedure with a high success rate. Should we invalidate any accomplishments by a pitcher who has the surgery, on the grounds that those who played pre-1974 didnâÄôt have access to such help? That seems absurd. Or consider a playerâÄôs eyesight. It can be pretty tough to hit a 95 mile-per-hour fastball if you canâÄôt see it. Over the past century, who knows how many potential greats were cut down because of substandard sight? But today, lasik eye surgery is a common major league practice. It saved the career of the TwinsâÄô Denard Span, for example. Again, itâÄôs a practice that was unavailable until a few years ago and gives players a tremendous advantage over their historical predecessors. Sandy Koufax was, at his peak, perhaps the greatest pitcher of all time. He played only 12 seasons, though, and it wasnâÄôt because he lost his talent âÄî his final season, 1966, was probably his best yet. His arm just gave out, and he retired at the age of 30. Who knows what he could have done if heâÄôd had access to modern training and medical practices? If we put aside the historical and statistical issues raised by PED use, weâÄôre left to consider how the various drugs can give a player a leg-up over his contemporaries. If some players choose to juice, theyâÄôll be gaining advantages over their competition, leaving the non-users to make quite a tough choice: either hop on board with the drugs or fall behind. That, however, is a slightly different argument: whether PED use should be banned. ItâÄôs an issue to be decided by Major League Baseball and the PlayersâÄô Union in the collective bargaining process. But when deciding how to treat players who used the drugs before baseball laid down the ban, itâÄôs an irrelevant point. RodriguezâÄôs positive test came in 2003. At the time, baseball was conducting (supposedly) anonymous tests as part of an agreement with the players; if more than a certain percentage of players tested positive, baseball would put into place a testing and punishment system. As it happened, that threshold was met, and baseball began penalizing positive test results. And thatâÄôs fine âÄî again, a question to be hashed out by baseball and its players. But to pretend that players who used PEDs before they were banned (like Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada, Clemens, Bonds or anyone else) somehow tarnished the game or destroyed their reputations is simply absurd. Names will continue to trickle out, surely; more than 100 other players tested positive in those 2003 tests. But quite simply, it doesnâÄôt matter. They broke no rules. We need to give up our naïveté and enjoy the games âÄî pitchers and catchers reported yesterday! WeâÄôve got more important things to worry about, like who is playing third for the Twins. John Sharkey welcomes comments at [email protected]