Congress Should Butt Out
by Glenn Dickey
Mar 11, 2005

IT WOULD seem the U. S Congress has some serious issues to discuss: Iraq, the collapsed economy, Social Security, just for openers.

Nonetheless, the House Government Reform Committee, has issued subpoenas to baseball players to testify before them about steroids use, which is a colossal waste of time.

This is really an irrelevant issue for the Congress, but it is also something Congressmen can’t resist, a win-win issue that is almost as good as standing up for motherhood and apple pie. Congressmen can come out against steroids and take the high moral ground by telling the players that they should be role models for youngsters. Much more satisfying than those nasty little issues that split constituents.

This is neither a defense of baseball nor a defense of steroids users. Baseball owners and commissioner Bud Selig turned a blind eye to steroids use for too long, happy that the use of steroids (and a livelier baseball and smaller parks) had contributed to a power display that was helping fans to forget the labor dispute that canceled the 1994 World Series.

The Players Association was even worse. While their counterparts in the NFL and NBA were discussing serious penalties for drug use, including steroids, the PA leaders stonewalled, insisting that the players privacy rights superseded any need to regulate drug use.

Now, both sides have been embarrassed enough by the revelations of steroids use to move to a stronger policy to curtail drug use. It still isn’t close to the stringent NFL/NBA policies, but it’s a step in the right direction. I think they’ll strengthen this policy in the next few years and, if they don’t eliminate the problem, they’ll at least reduce it substantially.

Having politicians debate the issue won’t help. If anything, it will hurt because it will inevitably cloud the issue. Too many politicians, unfortunately, are primarily interested in favorable publicity, not problem solving.

There are really two separate issues with steroids. The first is what seems to upset fans most: that they affect performance. Some fans – and some writers – think that asterisks should be put after the names of those who have been found to be steroids users.

One of the problems with this is that it’s difficult to quantify the help steroids gives players. Former Dodger Steve Garvey told KRON's Vernon Glenn last Sunday that he thought he might have hit 50-80 more home runs if he’d been on steroids, but that is speculation of the wildest order. Maybe he should have been a sportswriter.

What we do know about steroids is that they enable an athlete to work out longer and develop more muscle. Does that automatically translate to more power? Probably – but hitters who take steroids are presumably hitting against pitchers who also take them. If a hitter taking steroids faces a pitcher taking them, who has the edge? Nobody really knows, though many have opinions.

The other factor in the performance discussion is that there are some obvious differences in the competition in different eras. Because owners were desperate to attract fans during the Depression, they souped up the baseball. The batting statistics throughout the ‘30s were astounding, especially in the first year. That was the last year a National Leaguer hit .400, Bill Terry at .401. Hack Wilson drove in 191 runs, still a major league record, and hit what was then a National League record 56 home runs. The Philadelphia Phillies hit .315 as a team – and finished dead last in the National League.

Throughout the decade, players put up great offensive numbers, and a high percentage of hitters in the baseball Hall of Fame come from the ‘30s. Should their stats all come with an asterisk?

Before 1947, there were no blacks in the major leagues. When the barrier was finally broken, many great black players poured through, including Hank Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth’s career home run record. Some time later, with the San Francisco Giants leading the way, Latinos started coming to the big leagues in big numbers, and it’s hard to imagine major league baseball without them now.

So, should all statistics before 1947 come with an asterisk?

The other big issue with steroids is their effect on the players’ health, and this is the one I think most important. I think it would be better to legalize them and regulate them, so their use could be studied, but I know that’s not realistic. Lawmakers instinctively react with a shudder to any suggestion of legalizing any drug, without admitting that one drug, alcohol, is already legal.

Steroids have actually been around longer than is generally recognized, because they have been prescribed to help heal injuries. Dave Maggard, who later became athletic director at the University of California, used them for that purpose when he was training for the shot put in the 1968 Olympics.

It wasn’t until the last 20 years that they’ve been more widely used by athletes, and their use in baseball has escalated in the last 10 years. Though there is some anecdotal evidence that athletes can be damaged by too many steroids, there aren’t any studies that have been done, so it’s hard to evaluate their effect.

The various programs in place now in professional sports, even the relatively weak one in baseball, will probably slow down the use enough to protect players from themselves.

But, whatever happens, having Congressmen debate the issue won’t speed the process.

NOTE TO READERS: I will be appearing on “The Last Honest Sports Show,” which will air at 6 and 10 p.m. on KHBK (44) Saturday night.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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