I’m so sick and tired of PEDs, Alex Rodriguez, national baseball columnists and Twitter snark, I’m ready to kill a cat, stuff it in a box and nail the damn thing shut. Or stab my eyes out.
The metaphor isn’t an accident, of course, and I apologize for the cliché. Seems like everyone and their brother is using Schrödinger’s Cat for something lately. Hate to jump on the bandwagon. Maybe Pandora’s Box is less trendy, but it’s just as tired, and fits less neatly the central dilemma of the steroid era.
See, we had the box. Or not so much we, way back in the 1990s, but the national sports media. They had the box. And the truth is, they had a pretty good idea that something was going on. I don’t know how many beat writers and columnists from back then knew specific players who used performance-enhancing drugs, or how many players most guys imagined used, or with what certainty they believed there was something amiss there. But they were around all the time, and the drug culture in clubhouses was a pretty loosely-held secret, so they had some sort of inkling what would happen if they opened the box. That cat was dead, or at least, they were 64 percent sure it was dead, or it was 37 percent dead, if and when they chose to open the lid.
This is one thing people tend not to discuss when they talk about Schrödinger. They say, as he did, that until you open that box, the cat is either dead or alive, and in a sense, it is therefore both dead and alive.
So it’s 50/50. Even if you’re 80 percent sure, even if you’re 99 percent sure, one way or the other, it’s 50/50. You’re not committed to any truth, or any eventuality, until the lid comes off.
I will propose a less hipsterish analogy, and maybe one more apropos. Consider Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles. By the time the chorus finishes chanting you into the first scene, you know that Oedipus, without realizing it, killed his father and usurped him by claiming his throne and bedding his wife (Oedipus’s mother). But Oedipus doesn’t know. All he knows is that the kingdom is afflicted by a horrible famine (plague? It’s been a while. Not easy to read lightly, the Ancient Greek tragedies. But you get the gist.) and that, as a benevolent king, gee, he really wants to unburden his people.
So he seeks out Teiresias, the blind seer. He demands, all but tortures the truth out of the guy. But the truth, of course, is horrible. It’s Oedipus’s fault his people are suffering. Oedipus has slept with his mother; she has borne him children. (The English royal family says, “So… ?”) The plague is the gods’ punishment.
Oedipus can’t take it. Who could take it, honestly? He stabs his eyes out with broaches. Can’t remember if he dies. Doesn’t matter. There’s no happy ending there.
The media, that boys’ club that grew up in the 1970s and got beat jobs in the late 1980s and now have national columnist positions in the 2000s, is like Oedipus. They unwittingly created the plague of PED use, by so effusively praising big home run hitters, lionizing them. (The league had a hand in that, too, but don’t kid yourself. MLB.com was a one-page back then. They didn’t have all the platforms and the reach they have now. The independent media steered public opinion much more forcibly than the league.) They presided in peace over a thrilling era, post-strike, and while they had every chance to make those years about Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez, they always chose the muscle-bound sluggers.
Then the dam broke, and when it did, these guys – who had to have known about this on some level years and years prior – suddenly lunged after anyone who couldn’t run fast enough and held them by their lapels, shouting for answers. Jose Canseco somehow got cast as Teiresias.
Now that the big secret is out, though, the writers lack the proper Oedipal remorse. They still want to blame the players (those cheating bastards), and they still want to share in whatever public indignation remains (is it not all gone yet? Am I the only one numb?). They want us to join them in feeling lied-to and betrayed. Jeff Passan seems not to even care too much about us; he just feels lied-to and betrayed, and wants us all to know.
It doesn’t work that way. Woodward and Bernstein didn’t feel personally wounded that Nixon officials lied to them; they felt a very righteous fury at the lies Nixon officials told the public. Somewhere along the way, sports journalists decided not to care if they seemed hypocritical, or even petty, and many of them abdicated their responsibility to report the news fairly, with measured gravitas and intellect.
Anyway, back to Oedipus and Schrödinger. It’s not about the reaction once the truth is known. It’s about whether the truth is a desirable thing to have in the first place. Sometimes, it really is better not to open the box. It really is better not to know.
Obviously, there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed. Cheating is one thing; cheating is inevitable and virtually impossible to even curb in sports. Cheating becomes something we should hear about and deal with on an ongoing basis only when it threatens the health or safety of those cheating or being cheated. Yes, players should be discouraged from using these substances. They can be destructive, especially in the long term. Sometimes (more in football than baseball, but still) they create an unsafe field of play. These are serious, grave issues. They should be dealt with directly and firmly. That was what drew Ken Caminiti out and blew the lid off the situation 11 years ago.
I’m not sure the leagues should be part of that, though. Making these substances against the rules is fine, but making preventing their use a priority on a league level not only leads to players being occasionally slandered and constantly hectored, but also implies that the rules are there for competitive, rather than safety reasons. That shouldn’t be the case.
Players’ unions could do all this more effectively. A well-run union should always have an active role in maintaining a safe work environment and ensuring that membership in that union provides near- and long-term value. The union is on the player’s side, and can more effectively convince him that they’re discouraging use of PEDs in his best interest, not someone else’s. The union can be trusted, at least as much as the league can be trusted. We need to remove the stigma from steroid use, because it clearly is not a deterrent, and because the threat it poses to competitive integrity in baseball is probably none, and is definitely dwarfed by the threat it poses to players’ health.
I am tired. It’s sucking the fun out of baseball to have to talk about this once a fortnight, for two days straight. It has to stop. National writers aren’t going to change that conversation, because they really like having something so easy about which to write, and maybe even moralize. But the rest of us should just agree to move on, and talk about this stuff only in more human terms. It’s a nice alternative to self-mutilation or felinicide. Please?Next post: Hitting the Corners: Michael Bourn, Other Stuff
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