Ahh, performance enhancing drugs, the favorite finger-wagging topic of the Holy Writers Association Of America. Once the news of Sandy Alderson's hiring was leaked, it was only a matter of time until Mike Lupica or Jeff Pearlman produced a column questioning the role Alderson played in the rise of steroid use by evil pro baseball players. In a minor upset, Ian O'Connor of ESPN-NY beat everyone out, writing a column entitled "About Time To Say You're Sorry, Sandy". Seriously, that's the title. I would have ignored the column, given my regard for O'Connor's work. However, Joe Janish of Mets Today, a writer I respect far more than than O'Connor, posted yesterday that he agrees with O'Connor's silly column. My guess is this discussion will gain some steam in Mets land so a few words are in order. From the ESPN-NY column:
In a lot of ways, Sandy Alderson comes to the New York Mets out of central casting. A Marine, Vietnam vet, Harvard Law grad, architect of a winner, and a baseball ambassador charged to stamp out fraud and drug use in the game's Dominican Republic pipeline.
But when he steps to the microphone as Omar Minaya's replacement, Alderson should take the time of offer an apology. He should say he's sorry for being an enabler at a time when baseball desperately needed a whistle-blower and a leader.
He should say he's sorry for allowing the monstrous steroid culture to grow fangs on his watch.
Let's assume for a second that Alderson should apologize for pouring water on a cute, innocent Mogwai and turning it into a nefarious Gremlin. O'Connor points out in his opening paragraph that Alderson was charged with stamping out drug use in the Dominican Republic. Isn't that an awesome implicit apology -- making it one's full-time job to end steroid use by Dominican players? That's not good enough for a man like O'Connor. He needs to hear "I'm sorry", mostly so he can write another column stating that the apology was insincere.
But Alderson doesn't need to apologize. His job description as Oakland A's General Manager did not include "Eradicate performance enhancing drug use in MLB". His job was to manage an organization and attempt to field a winning team. And he was successful. Let MLB execs, the MLBPA and the players themselves police the league, since the steroid question is really a workplace safety issue. It was out of his jurisdiction.
Not only was the steroid issue above Alderson's pay grade -- it's also hard to establish that players even did anything wrong during that era. I understand this is likely a controversial take but it's what I believe. Players acted as individuals when deciding to use steroids. There was no punishment in MLB, pre-2005, for using performance enhancing drugs, hence there was no rule against it. The common rebuttal here is that the drugs were illegal in the U.S. and therefore it is implied that they are outlawed in MLB. The players were breaking the law and should therefore be condemned for their actions. And Alderson should be admonished for not doing anything to stop it. My response is that the U.S. law banning steroids was and is a stupid one, and the laws of the state do not govern morality. I don't have to list all of the silly laws and institutions from this fine country's history to explain that. Alderson need not apologize for the actions of others he had no control over, especially if those actions aren't immoral to begin with. What's next, someone castigating Mike Piazza for not becoming the Harvey Milk of his generation? Oh wait, that already happened.
Note: The rest of this post is an aside.
Years from now, the public will look back on the so-called "steroid era" far differently. The demonization of players will end. More and more people will adopt the following stance, written by Patriot of the blog Walk Like A Sabermetrician, while posting at The Book Blog -- it is my stance as well, put far more eloquently than I could have:
My "givens", so to speak:
* I personally do not care what substances other adults choose to put in their bodies, be it broccoli, beer, steroids, or heroin. I don’t consider it any of my business, and I don’t grant any moral authority to laws that purport to make it the state’s business.
* MLB and MLBPA certainly can, through collective bargaining, set a policy on steroid use. They didn’t, at least not until several years after McGwire retired.
Once they make a policy, I respect their right to hold players to that policy and penalize them in the manner the agreement calls for. That still doesn’t obligate me to bring down moral condemnation on those who violate it, or not express my belief that the penalties are too severe.
* I evaluate baseball players solely on the basis of their on-field contributions. Anything else is well above my pay grade. This isn’t the NCAA--there’s no rewriting of history after the fact to pretend as if games didn’t happen when thousands of people saw them.
* Baseball records mean next to nothing to me. Barry Bonds hit more home runs over the course of his career than anyone else has. That’s a fact, but I don’t heap any additional meaning upon it. It doesn’t necessarily make him a better home run hitter than Hank Aaron--in fact, I guess that Hank Aaron’s gross total of home runs contributed more wins to his teams than Bonds’ did. The emphasis on records in mainstream media and fandom is, I believe, based on a very naive premise that context can be ignored. Context is king.