Monday, April 30, 2012

The Baseball Hall of Fame Should Not Honor the Tainted Career of Ivan Rodriguez

Ivan Rodriguez recently retired after a 21 year career during which he set three significant records for catchers: most hits (he belted 2749 of his 2844 career hits while playing catcher), most games played (2377 of his 2543 total games) and most Gold Gloves (13). Those are certainly Hall of Fame caliber numbers--but Rodriguez' body went from chubby to sculpted during the height of MLB's so-called Steroids Era and Jose Canseco declared that he personally injected Rodriguez with steroids when they both played for the Texas Rangers. Canseco is an admitted performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) cheater, so one might be tempted to say that a cheater should not be believed because he also may be a liar--but everything that Canseco has asserted about PED usage in MLB that can be verified has proven to be true, even accusations that initially seemed outrageous. Rodriguez never failed a drug test and he was not mentioned in the Mitchell Report but that does not prove his innocence; MLB hardly did all that it could to investigate the extent of PED usage in the sport during Rodriguez' career. We know that even some of the people who later tested positive for PED usage--including, perhaps most infamously, Rodriguez' fellow Texas Ranger Rafael Palmeiro--vigorously denied that they ever cheated. Here is what Rodriguez said said when he was first informed of Canseco's quite specific and graphic accusation: "Only God knows." Think about that: a confirmed PED cheater says that he personally injected Rodriguez with steroids and Rodriguez' response was not an unequivocal, indignant denial (which could still be false--like Palmeiro's was--but would certainly be the natural response from someone who is innocent) but rather a vague platitude. That is as close as Rodriguez could have come to admitting his guilt without directly saying that he cheated the sport and the ticket buying public. The Baseball Hall of Fame voters must do the right thing and make sure that Rodriguez is not given the sport's highest honor.

It is fascinating and instructive that some of the people who write the most blatant nonsense about sports also are on the wrong side of the PED issue. As a basketball fan who also appreciates great writing and logical reasoning, I am disturbed that so much credence is currently being given to "advanced basketball statistics" that are not in fact particularly advanced; while it is certainly a noble quest to attempt to accurately quantify the individual and collective productivity of basketball players, it is hardly noble or honest to suggest that "stat gurus" have successfully completed a mission that they are in fact just beginning to undertake: baseball is a much easier sport to quantify because that sport consists of discrete actions that can be separated and measured, while basketball is a sport that consists of dynamic, interrelated actions that are far more difficult to accurately separate and measure (for instance, it is not so easy to quantify how much credit each player should receive for a successful screen/roll action that involves multiple players from both teams).

However, the follies of basketball's "stat gurus" pale in comparison to the pernicious bleatings of "stat gurus" who attempt to minimize the effectiveness and/or potential lethality of PEDs. Believe it or not, some "stat gurus" earnestly insist that PEDs do not work and that Barry Bonds' physique never changed (I think that it will not be too long before a "stat guru" insists that the moon landings never took place). The well documented reality is that PEDs do work--they enable athletes to train longer and harder and thus increase their muscle mass, explosiveness and power--and that PEDs can cause serious long term health problems. It will be interesting to see what kind of medical issues Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez and the other recent MLB drug cheaters develop in the coming decades but, if the experiences of many East German athletes from the 1970s are any indication, many of baseball's sluggers and power pitchers may not age very gracefully.

The PED issue in MLB and other sports goes far beyond tainting the record book and affecting who wins championships. PED usage is deplorable not just for legal and ethical reasons; it is a public health concern because young amateur athletes in college and high school inevitably are influenced by the choices made by their professional heroes, choices that could result in many broken lives and shattered dreams. It is silly when a "stat guru" like Dave Berri declares that Dennis Rodman was more productive than Michael Jordan but it is dangerous when "stat gurus" spread misinformation about PEDs.

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