Like many of you, I grew up with Lance Armstrong as one of my select few heroes. Every June, for seven straight years (1999-2005), I would watch Lance throttle his Tour de France competition into submission. He was a cancer survivor, philanthropist, PED-less cyclist, and an American dominating a historically European dominated event. In 85 Tours, America had only won 3 Yellow Jerseys.
Lance was early 20th century Americanism reborn through cycling in the late 20th Century. And Armstrong did not just win, he laid wasted to his competition: 1 minute 1 second was his “slimmest” margin of victory. Usually, Armstrong won comfortably by more than 5 minutes. And he won clean… So we thought. Instead Lance Armstrong’s cycling career turned out to be a lie and his fans, myself included, felt betrayed.
When Curt Schilling told ESPN Radio on Wednesday that former Boston Red Sox officials publicly conversed with him about using performance-enhancing drugs to help him regain his health and extend his career, I began to think when would enough be enough? Today’s performance enhancing drug heavy society begs many questions. First off: why? When did professional athletes lose their moral integrity? Did they ever have any? When did the sheer joy of playing a child’s game end? Will the cheating ever end? Most importantly, what if they had never taken PEDs?
15 years ago, American sports fans lived in an idealistic world in which athletes did not cheat. Sure, there were whispers of performance-enhancing drugs, but come on no one was truly cheating. Americans? Cheaters? Not a chance, you must be thinking about those radical East Germans from the 1970’s and 80’s. The truth is we simply scoffed at the notion that American professional athletes could be so nefarious. We could not have been more wrong; Americanism at its finest.
The truth is we live in a world where everyone is looking for that next edge to get ahead of the competition. It is survival of the fittest. Business (Apple vs. Samsung), education (administrative spearheaded cheating scandals), collegiate recruiting (too many to mention), military (Germans in World War 2 were believed to have taken testosterone), and the list goes on. Could we really have expected athletes to be any different? Well, in our minds yes because they were our idols and we yearned for them to be different. That is why for so long we turned a blind eye towards PEDs.
Thus, at the end of every single drug scandal we as fans are left with the ever-enigmatic question of why? I have tried to answer that question by developing 5 reasons/stages. No, I do not know personally how or why athletes take the immoral avenue, but as a fan and a member of the blogosphere, it is my job to try to figure it out and get some semblance of closure.
Stage 1: Survival
It begins in the Minor Leagues. The biggest fear of any MiLB player is to get released and never play the game of baseball again. Thus, many turn to some form of performance-enhancers to try and elongate their baseball career.
The most notable example of a Minor Leaguer trying to survive for another year is former pitcher Dan Naulty. Tom Verducci wrote an fantastic story on four friends, all with average pitching ability, who played 1994 single A ball for the Fort Myers Miracle. Only one of the four made it to the Major Leagues: the one who decided to cheat: Dan Naulty. Naulty said that he “gained 68 pounds and added 10 miles per hour to his fastball because of steroids.” Naulty not only went on to pitch in the big leagues with his pristine 96 MPH heater, but won a Championship with the New York Yankees.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. In 2011-2012, 85 of the 125 MLB and MiLB players suspended for steroids were Latin American ballplayers. Why is this important? Many of these young men come from an impoverished background in which their only way out of many third world countries was through their baseball ability. Thus, they are willing to risk the consequences of cheating if it means they can get that next paycheck, and, just maybe, that Major League paycheck.
Stage 2: Sustained Success
Like Lance, many professional baseball players lost their moral compass with their first real paycheck. With the first taste of professional success comes the need for more. Just ask former San Diego Padre Ken Caminiti. Caminiti came clean about his steroid abuse to Verducci back in 2002, which produced an epic 7 page article that blew the doors off steroid use in Major League Baseball: it was not sporadic it was an epidemic.
In his 10th season, Caminiti won the 1996 MVP at the age of 33 with numbers that dwarfed any he had produced before. How? He credits the steroids.
Also in Verducci’s 2002 article was a powerful quote from former Rangers and Tigers pitcher Kenny Rogers: “Basically, steroids can jump you a level or two. The average player can become a star, and the star player can become a superstar, and the superstar? Forget it. He can do things we’ve never seen before.” Simply, that is all you need to know about why professional athletes continue to use PEDs: sustained and newfound success.
Stage 3: Money
On August 14,2012, Latin American born Melky Cabrera was playing in his 113th game as a San Francisco Giant. He was a free agent to be and was enjoying a career year. He was leading the National League in hitting with a .346 batting average, which was 62 points above his career average, to go along with 159 hits, 11 home runs, and 60 RBI. Did I mention that he had done this in only 113 games?
As a rookie, Cabrera was a much-hyped player for the New York Yankees. However, he never panned out in New York and after a failed 2010 campaign in Atlanta, Melky was at risk of becoming at best a role player in the Major Leagues. In 2011, his next contract went for just over $1 million with the Kansas City Royals. Fortunately for Cabrera he had a career year and was then traded to the San Francisco Giants that November. Then came August 15th, 2012.
Unfortunately for Melky, on that August morning it was unveiled that Cabrera had tested positive for steroids, which carried with it a 50-game suspension. Melky’s regular season was over. However, in those 113 games he had accomplished the goal of every professional athlete in a contract year: the next big payday. Cabrera was simply following the guidelines that Caminiti had laid out to Verducci back in 2002: “If a young player were to ask me what to do… I’m not going to tell him it’s bad. Look at all the money in the game: You have a chance to set your family up, to get your daughter into a better school…. So I can’t say, ‘Don’t do it,’ not when the guy next to you is as big as a house and he’s going to take your job and make the money.”
Melky Cabrera without a doubt had placed himself before his team. He did not care if he was suspended for 50 games so long as he had performed well enough to make that extra few million dollars on the next contract.
Stage 4: Survival
Now, it comes full circle. Disgraced New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez knows full well what this means. It means that your, essentially artificial, body is breaking down at such a rapid pace that you have no choice but to continue using. Rodriguez, at the age of 36, has not played more than 138 games since 2008. In short, he has not been fully healthy since 2007; his body has been breaking down since he was only 31-years old.
Since then he has been fighting to survive the inevitable Major League decline that came far too early for the 3-time MVP. This all came to a head this offseason when news broke that Rodriguez would miss most of the 2013 season with a serious hip injury that required surgery. Shortly after we also found out that A-Rod had been, once again, linked to a steroid distributor. Why? He is trying to survive.
The former skinny Seattle kid, who was regarded as baseball’s greatest talent, has now tumbled into an endless abyss of injury and disgrace. Will he ever play baseball again? That remains to be seen (hopefully not), but one thing is certain: he is forever tainted as a fraud and a cheat, which is truly a shame for someone once blessed with so much pure talent and unknowing promise.
So here we are: February 9, 2013. Another baseball season is fast approaching with fans full of hope, teams full of promise, and players full of who knows what. We can only hope that one-day virtue will overcome greed, and baseball will be played on a level playing field once again.